We were in a village in the Colli Euganei, odd volcanic hills near Padua. Our host walked us up to the top of his back yard and plucked nespole from the laden tree. They were pale brown-purple, stiff shard-like teeth lining the gaping basin on one end, halfway between apple and rosehip. I recognized them, but it was several moments before my mother remembered that in English, they are called medlars.

The medlar was used in ancient Greek and Roman cooking. Chaucer mentioned them on a number of occasions, including in the Romance of the Rose, where they are included in a list of fruits. They were common in the English diet at least until the Victorian era, where recipes for them appear regularly. Although they can ripen on trees, they are more usually collected for maturing, or “bletting“. They are ripe when half-rotten.

This month’s Restaurant magazine has a special on them which, while trying to raise awareness of the fruit, emphasizes the degree to which they are still largely out-of-style. When the journalist was searching for suppliers to recommend, two of the could-have-been suppliers so dislike the fruit that they called it “one of the most disgusting things they’d ever tasted”. (Nov. 2009, p. 59) Presumably neither stocked them.

“Medlar” is an interesting word, but this is about the “nespola”, which, despite being Italian for the same fruit, appears in its own right in the OED. It does not appear in Merriam-Webster online, nor any of the other English dictionaries I casually checked; yet the OED thinks it occurs frequently enough in English, as an English word, to warrant an entry. Both “medlar” and “nespola” ultimately derive from the same root, the Latin mespilum.

Nespola entered as an English tourist, a direct import from the Italian. The oldest attested use of it in English, in a story called “Gianetto”, is translated: “Helen putting the finishing touches to a drawing she had been making of a great bunch of nespoli, or medlars; I myself lazily smoking, and reading a very stupid Italian novel”. The author of the 1875 article in the New York-based Littell’s Living Age (29 May 550) offers it as a foreign word, as ambiance.

The next several instances are unglossed by their sources. Their authors might be after ambiance, might assume the audience’s knowledge, or, possibly, medlars were already going out of fashion and the authors simply didn’t know if a translation was available in English. On the 29th of April, 1883, Lady Monkswell, in her Diary, notes “lemon trees in pots, trees of magnolia (not in flower) & nespola”. In 1910, Maude Howe, in Sicily in Shadow & in Sun (ix. 275), wrote of “the gorgeous dark green foliage of the nespoli, whose fruit ripens much later”. (“Nespoli” are medlar trees.) In 1928, Rose Macaulay, in Keeping up Appearances (iii.23), wrote, “She bought nespoli and cherries”, using the word for the tree interchangeably with that for the fruit.

An 1893 US Bureau of Manufactures report comments on an insect which lays its larvae into fruit: “the nespola, nectarine, and apricot suffer equally”. (Vol. 41, issue 148-151, p. 262). A University of California publication called My Garden (1999, p. 220) also uses it untranslated: “The nespola looks like an apricot, tastes something like a pomegranate, and contains three stones.”

The OED‘s most recent instance of “nespola”, from a review in The Indepedent (2000, 9 Dec.) of The River Café Cook Book Green, translates nespole (plural) as “Japanese medlars”, or loquats. Loquats used to be thought more closely related to medlars than they are known to be today. I wonder what the cookbook actually says.

The use of “nespola” in English is not, I suspect, an act of linguistic superiority so much as it is ignorance, as medlars have fallen gradually out of fashion and out of consciousness over the course of the past century. Without knowing the fruit and its traditional uses, the “nespola” is read in English as wholly exotic, its name untranslatable.


When looking for citations of “mango” the other week, I ran across this intriguing line in Peter King’s Life of John Locke:

Railes and heath-polts, ruffs, and reeves, are excellent meat wherever they can be met with.

The line intrigued me because I didn’t recognize a single one of these creatures.

Clearly, I am no birder. The ruff is still generally known, a bird of the sandpiper family, the female of which is called a reeve. In mating season, the ruff develops a ruff, that is, a ruffle of feathers around its neck. Clearly, the whole set must be varieties of birds. The rail can be any bird of the Rallidae family, still used for landrails and water-rails; the only kind of rail family-member I’d previous heard of was the corncrake. (See “The Echo mocks the Corncrake”, especially the Andy Stewart version – mp3 sample available here.) The heath-polt, or heath-poult, can be any kind of heath-dwelling bird, but was usually used to refer to the black grouse.

That would have been the end of it, except that, in reading through OED entries, I found the entry for ruff [1]. English, ever-versatile, named a particular small freshwater perch the ruff too. (1496, in the first book on fishing printed in England, from the press of Wynkyn de Worde, A treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle: “The ruf is ryght an holsome fysshe”.) Further, it’s an obsolete word for any kind of sea-bream, with examples of its use from c. 1440 to 1668. Finally, it was, for several centuries, a word for sea urchin, attested to in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, named for its spiky texture. (1591, in Percivall’s Spanish Dictionarie: “an hedgehog,..also a fish called a Ruffe”.)

So, the ruff has been both fish and fowl (and echinoderm), but has never been, as far as I know, a good red herring.

algae stew

There’s nothing like algae stew for evoking “desperate-but-cozy”. Philip Reeve uses it in Predator’s Gold, part of the Hungry Cities quartet of post-apocalyptic young adult steampunk.

She sat out the storm in his kitchen, while the Aakiuqs fed her algae stew and told her about other storms, far worse than this, which dear old Anchorage had come through quite unscathed. (p. 115)

The mobile cities of this world have limited opportunities for crop growth; to survive, they must bring their sustenance-production with them in the form of algae farms, in at least one case. (p. 108)

Metaphorically, “algae stew” is a phrase often used to describe a dense morass of algae suspended in water, i.e. eutrophic waters. As a result, it is a favorite dish for at least a couple of anthropomorphic sea creatures. (See Stella the Starfish and Pagoo, the story of a hermit crab by H.C. Holling.)

Algae generally is a favorite ingredient of grim visions of the future of the world and space travel. (This is a whole topic in its own right.) Stew is a favorite of all sorts of genres. Between them, I’m surprised there aren’t more algae stews out there. Perhaps they’re hidden in all those space travel visions of ambiguously “synthesized” food. The only other specific instance of science fictional algae stew I’ve wandered across, other than the Hungry Cities one, may be in the Star Wars universe: according to at least one source, it’s a specialty of Yoda, a watery dish from a swampy planet.

See also “plankton chowder” in Blish and Knight’s A Torrent of Face. (Encountered via Westfahl’s “For Tomorrow We Dine” in Foods of the Gods.)

liquorice water

Thomas More, in his Utopia, Book II, writes of the Utopian people,

They drink wine made of grapes, apple or pear cider, or simple water, which they sometimes mix with honey or liquorice, of which they have plenty. (From Logan and Adam’s 1989 Cambridge Texts series.)

In the original Latin: “Nam aut uuarum uinum bibunt, aut pomorum, pirorumue, aut denique aquam nonnunquam meram, saepe etiam, qua mel, aut glycyrizam incoxerint, cuius haud exiguam habent copiam.” Glycyrrhiza is still the genus name for the liquorice plant. It has the same Greek root as “glycerine”, meaning “sweet”.

This passage from Utopia is, as far as I know, is the first time I’ve heard of liquorice water.

It was a popular made-at-home drink in Scotland in the early twentieth century known as “sugarelly”. Liquorice root (not the modern candy) was infused into water. William, in the Just William books, apparently drinks it regularly. (A letter written by the books’ author, Richmal Crompton, gives a recipe.) The Egyptian drink Erk-soos is another variation on it.

The plant, more generally, is native to southeast Europe and the Middle East, and has been grown in Britain since at least the thirteenth century, when Henvry II taxed it. Several of Chaucer’s characters chew the root. See also, “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”.) Liquorice seems to have been a ubiquitous sweetener and medicine in ancient Egypt and Greece and medieval England, at very least. It’s 50-150 times sweet than table sugar, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. (2004, p. 418)

As for liquorice water more specifically, however: given the lack of detail of food which Henry VIII’s erstwhile lord chancellor otherwise provides, it seems certain that he knew it as a common, healthful drink. Other than Utopia and the Just William books (a rare pairing!), I wonder if the drink shows up in any other works of literature?


In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, a post about turkey. (It’s also London Restaurant Week. Less relevantly, Chocolate Week in the UK begins today.)

Turkey, the bird, is the most haphazardly named creature I know of. The bird is native to the Americas, to North America or the Yucatán, depending on the species. Thus, they were only introduced to the rest of the world in the fifteenth century at the earliest. In no way is the bird from Turkey, even in a period when the term could be used by Western Europeans to describe Muslims generally.

Neither are turkeys related to guinea fowls, which are natives of Africa, although Linneaus classified the North American one as such with the Latin name Meleagris gallopavo, the “guinea fowl chicken-peacock”.

English was not the only language to become geographically disoriented when faced with these birds. In French, the word for them is “dinde”, from “d’Inde”, meaning “of India”. Relatedly, the Dutch word for them, “kalkoen”, which, like the Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Estonian words for the animal, is from the Indian city Calicut. The birds are not Indian any more than they are Turkish, although in Turkish they’re called “hindi”. These languages do have the excuse, at least, that the bird comes from what was originally thought to be India, later the West Indies. They were never from Calicut in any way, though.

In Greek, the word is “gallopoula”, meaning a “French chicken”, while in Egyptian Arabic, it’s a Greek chicken. In Arabic more generically, it’s a Roman chicken. (That sounds more inconsistent than it is; it refers to the Eastern half of the Roman empire, which was based at Constantinople.) The Greek might well derive from a confusion between Gallus and gallus, the Latin words for “Gaul/France” and “a chicken”.

One of the vaguely more accurate names – placing the bird on the right landmass at least – is one of my favorites because it pairs so well with the country/bird confusion which English has in Turkey/turkey; which the bird (of the Galliformes, or chicken-shaped, order of animals), inherited from the Latin Gallus/gallus pair; and which is shown in all the variations on India after which it is named. In Portuguese, and in Hindi thanks to past Portuguese influence, the animal is called “peru”, confusing the bird with yet another country. Turkeys were not introduced to Peru until the sixteenth century; they were, you will recall, from further north in the Americas.

Surely there is no animal named after more countries than this one is!

*© S. Worthen 2009