I am always looking for something to add interest to the pan juices from the Sunday roast. Something to introduce richness to a simple gravy or a knife-edge to juices that are too fatty or cloying. Other times I want to tease out the sweetness of the meat, to make it all the more sumptuous.
There's wine, of course, and the lighter vermouths – perfect for dissolving the crusty pan stickings from roast chicken or lamb. Cider is a refreshing addition to a pork gravy – it cuts neatly through the fat – and Marsala will introduce not just depth but a sense of occasion. (It helps that the mellow fortified wine smells of Christmas.) But fruit jellies such as apple or redcurrant work, too, adding gloss and a sweet-sharp edge.
Redcurrant jelly, stirred into the pan juices from roast lamb, brings out the sweetness of the rose-pink meat. Bramble and blackcurrant give a fruity depth to gravy to accompany a game bird – blackberry is a winner with pigeon. Apple jelly is difficult to buy without some addition (mint, thyme, etc), but is worth melting into your next pork gravy. I keep a jar or two open in the fridge solely for giving a lift to meat gravies.
My favourite fruit jelly is medlar. I make my own at home because I have a small medlar tree, but you see it in the shops, too. Considering this fruit is so rare, I am amazed at the number of readers who ask how to make medlar jelly or how to stretch a small crop to go a long way. The medlar is a small, user-friendly tree, great for the domestic garden. I have had a bumper crop this year, with the fruits larger and more prolific than ever. Jelly is bubbling on the hob as I write, but yesterday I baked some around a pheasant. There is something fig-like about them when they are baked, sweet and rich.
Whenever there is talk of this fruit it is not long before the word "bletting" comes into the conversation. It is the name for the process of leaving the picked fruit to ripen to the point where they can be made into jelly. I put mine on large dishes in a single layer in the kitchen. (They rot if you pile them up.) Over the next 10 days or so they darken and become soft. This is when they are ready to make jelly from. If the jelly is to set you will need a few hard, unripe medlars to provide the necessary pectin.
You can also bake medlars for dessert, leaving them to soften in a hot oven until they are tender and fruitily fragrant, then picking at them with a small spoon. The downside is they are fiddly to eat, but they are especially good with cream.
A quantity of hard, unbletted medlars is essential for the jelly to set. Small, sharp apples, or even crab apples, will help, too. The jelly should be glossy and very soft. Keep its beautiful clarity by not stirring the fruit too much as they cook.
Makes about 4 jam jars
bletted medlars 1.6kg (see below)
firm medlars 400g
apples 2 small, as sharp possible
water 2 litres
sugar about 800g
Remove any leaves from the medlars and check them well for any rotting patches. They should be dark and soft.
Slice the fruits in half and put them in a very large, deep saucepan. Halve the lemons and apples and put them in with the medlars. Pour over the water. Bring the water to the boil then lower the temperature and partially cover with a lid. Leave to cook for an hour.
Take care that the water doesn't evaporate, and give the fruit an occasional squash with a wooden spoon. Try not to stir or mash the fruit too much as this will send the jelly cloudy.
Pour the fruit and its liquid into a jelly bag suspended over a large jug or bowl. (I hang mine from the taps over the sink.) Let the juice drip into the jug, giving it the occasional squeeze until all the juice has dribbled through. You should be left with a dry lump of fudge-like medlar debris and a jug full of clear, amber-red juice.
Pour the juice back into the cleaned saucepan and boil hard for 6 minutes, then add an equal amount of sugar (about 800g or 4 cups). When the sugar has dissolved, boil for a further 2 minutes then ladle into clean, warm jars and seal. Leave to cool.
If your medlar jelly is still liquid by morning, pour into a large pan and boil for 4-8 minutes then return to the jars.
To blet medlars
Medlars are usually bought rock hard and have to be softened. Pull them off their leaves and place the whole fruits on a shallow plate. Don't pile them up. Leave them at a cool room temperature for a week or two until they turn deep brown and are soft, almost squashy, to the touch. They are then ready to cook.
ROAST PHEASANT WITH APPLES AND FRUIT JELLY
A good way to use up any medlars if there aren't enough to make jelly is to tuck them around the roast; you could use small apples instead. Use medlar jelly if you have it, but apple or redcurrant jelly is also suitable.
thyme a couple of sprigs
young, plump pheasants 2
apples 4 small ones
medlar or other fruit jelly 4 heaped tbsp
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Pull the leaves from the thyme and mash with the butter, a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Rub all over the pheasants, particularly their breasts. Place the birds in a roasting tin, not quite touching one another.
Tuck the apples and medlars around the birds. Squeeze over the lemon juice. Roast for 35-45 minutes, occasionally spooning the cooking juices over the birds. Check they are done by piercing them at their thickest point with a metal skewer.
Lift out the birds, apples and medlars and put in a warm place to rest. Place the roasting pan on the hob over a moderately high heat and stir in the fruit jelly. Let it bubble briefly, then taste the juices for seasoning. They should be sharp, sweet and buttery. Carve the pheasants (I just cut them in half) and serve with the apples, medlars and the hot juices from the pan.