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The tree of English lexis produces many and varied fruit, and some are quite unexpected. Some are old and overripe to the point of… not rotting, but developing a dense, aged form that has made a mush of the original: a timeless tradition with the richness of antiquity. Others are strange blends and borrowings: they seem like gifts of the ancient but they are more grifts and grafts of the moderns. You may eat all day for many years of the many different fruits this tree bears and still, on some bright day, taste not one but two that you do not recall knowing before.
And so it was yesterday for me. I was wandering through the buzzing hay-meadow of Twitter and I saw a short sequence of tweets by an Italian friend, Costanza:
Una volta, in college, al corso di narrativa, dovevamo scrivere il primo capitolo di un romanzo. Ho pensato a una storia di segreti familiari nella provincia italiana di una volta, dove la protagonista faceva il sugo con le nespole. Il primo capitolo era la preparazione del sugo.
Scrissi che il sugo era un’antica ricetta italiana. Ovviamente ci credettero tutti. Il prof era estasiato dal racconto dell’antico sugo con le nespole e mi mise A+. Disse che se mi fossi fatta mandare le nespole l’avrebbe provato a casa. Mia nonna non mi parlò per un mese 😆
La pasta al sugo rosso con le nespole ☺️ Non glielo dissi mai che non era vero.
I’ll translate that for you in a moment. I should just say that I understood it well enough except for one word: nespole. So I had to look that up. And the answer I got didn’t help me at all. Here is what Costanza was saying:
One time, in college, in a fiction course, we had to write the first chapter of a novel. I thought of a story of family secrets in the Italian countryside of times past, where the female protagonist made sauce with medlars. The first chapter was the making of the sauce.
I wrote that the sauce was an ancient Italian recipe. Obviously they all believed me. [The university was not in Italy.] The prof was entranced with the story of the ancient sauce and gave me an A+. He said if I had had the medlars sent he would have tried the sauce at home. My grandma didn’t talk to me for a month 😆
Pasta with red sauce with medlars ☺️ I never told him it wasn’t true.
Do you know what those are? I did not know what those are. They are, as it turns out, a kind of fruit. Chaucer knew about them (mind you, Chaucer also knew about galingale), but he called them by the older English name, open-arse (if you thought medlar was an awkward name…). If you find a picture of one, you’ll guess why they got that name.
Pasta sauce with fruit? I’d totally try it. I’ve been doing that kind of thing for years. Two nights earlier this week I made sauce (two different kinds) with dried apricots in it along with salami and assorted other ingredients suitable for pasta. But medlars?
No, seriously, what are they? I looked them up.
The first thing I found out from Wikipedia was that the medlar, Mespilus germanica, “is unusual in being available in winter, and in being eaten when bletted.”
Being eaten when what.
This was turning out to be quite the day.
If you already knew what bletting is, you were ahead of me. I will tell you now what it is: It’s what fruit does when it goes past ripe and gets… not rotten, but altogether brown and mushy inside. Seriously overripe. Some fruits are quite hard and astringent when ripe, but when bletted are quite edible – sweet, applesaucy or figgy perhaps. Persimmons and quince are also eaten when bletted.
Hm. Never mind Iggy Pop’s “like hypnotizing chickens”; I think “like bletting medlars” is a phrase that deserves to be used.
But where did these names come from?
Medlar, it turns out, comes from the Latin mespilum, which in turn comes from the Greek μέσπιλον (mespilon). Somehow in the overripening of time Old French took mespile and broke it down to mele and then decided that a d would do well in there and made it medle and then it got meddled with further and ended up in English as medlar. Meanwhile, mespilum also ripened into nespirum in Vulgar Latin (that just means late common Latin, not sweary), and that became Italian nespola, plural nespole.
I mean, obviously. I should have just looked at nespole and thought, “Ah, medlars.” If I had just known the secret sauce, etymologically.
But what about blet and bletted and bletting? Another grand old word? Hmm… more someone’s fanciful confection. That someone was John Lindley, who in his 1835 Introduction to Botany wrote “After the period of ripeness, most fleshy fruits undergo a new kind of alteration; their flesh either rots or blets. …May I be forgiven for coining a word to express that peculiar bruised appearance in some fruits, called blessi [apparently a printing error for blette] by the French, for which we have no equivalent English expression?”
So what old blotting page does this French blette come from? It’s a word meaning overripe – apparently overripe was not good enough for Lindley; I’m sure he would have preferred pörkölt to singed too – and it traces back to the same root as French blesser, which means not ‘bless’ but ‘injure, wound, bruise’.
So it’s a word with old history and flavours. They just aren’t that old in English. It’s like plain old making up a recipe for a sauce that uses things that don’t – in any historical sense – belong in it.
Pity it’s not a more flavourful word.
I mean, really. Medlar as a word is nothing special, middling, a mere meddler, though much better than Chaucer’s name for it, but blet is just blech. I’ll take nespola and… hmm… I can’t find an exact Italian translation for blet. (They probably just say pronta: ‘ready’.)
But I must admit, when you put them together, blet medlar, everything comes up roses: