Quinces

07 October 2017

Quinces

A couple of years ago, I bought a quince tree for my garden. That should give you a few clues about how much I love this unfashionable but aromatic and delectable fruit.

The tree hasn’t delivered yet. It endured a tough first year in a pot being barely kept alive as I dealt with an absorbing workload and even though it was put into the ground last year, it hasn’t quite forgiven me. Lots of promising blossom in the spring fell to the ground fruitless. But it’s had a good year, so hopefully next time.

In the mean time I’ve been keeping my eye out for quinces, which you generally won’t see in any supermarkets. The Thornham walled garden, which is near to me, has a couple of trees and sometimes their quinces make it into local stores. Not yet, though. I finally found some when far away, wandering around the streets of Brighton on a flying visit. I gave them the test, which involves sniffing them to check they have the subtle but lovely aroma I’ve come to expect. And then I snapped them up like they were gold.

In ancient Greece it was considered to be the fruit of love

You have to cook quinces for them to be edible - take a bite out of a raw one and you’ll wonder how it ever occurred to people that they should actually eat such a thing. But cooked with a little sugar, they turn into the most delightfully flavoured fruit.

Several years, I’ve made quince liqueur. It’s one of the best tasting drinks I know, and it’s definitely on the agenda for these quinces. The best bit is that all it takes is the skin. Peel the quinces and immerse the skin in tequila for six weeks or so. Strain, add sugar and you have the most fabulous drink to serve to your guests, or to keep greedily to yourself. And that, of course, then leaves you with the flesh for another purpose entirely.

The traditional thing is to cook them to a purée and have them with game. That is a perfectly great thing to do, but even though I try to eat plenty of locally caught low-environmental-impact wild game during its season, it’s still not enough to get through a big pot of quince purée.

One of my favourites is to add them to a crumble. A half-and-half quince and apple crumble will have a fantastic fragrance that you don’t expect from a simple apple crumble. Or you can go the whole hog and have a quince crumble. I’ve seen one recipe by the Honey & Co restaurant that pairs quince in a crumble with vanilla and lemon, and I’m inclined to give that one a try. Any restaurant that includes pictures of quince on its restaurant home page is clearly one to pay attention to.

I’ve also added it to other autumn fruit recipes, most recently caramelised autumn fruits, with apple, quince and plum. I’m hoping that I’ll find more this year because I’m seriously inclined to experiment with some new dishes.

History of quince

Although it’s not so high profile these days, quinces have a long and honourable history. It grows wild in the Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Iran, and in ancient Greece it was considered to be the fruit of love. It arrived in England in the 13th century, and became a standard ingredient of jams and jellies, mostly because it has high levels of pectin that make it naturally suited for such uses. It has always been associated with game meats, although it is also often seen with other meats, such as pork.

Quince pastes were sometimes produced in different colours and set into moulds that gave them medallion-like designs. Not something you see much today!

Buying

The quinces I see rarely have unblemished skins. They often have spots and odd lumps. It doesn’t matter so long as the fruit generally is golden yellow and fragrant. In spite of my excitement, I will pass over fruit that has no fragrance. You may find them at farmers markets, or specialist foodie shops. I haven’t yet seen one in a supermarket. Those that are imported mostly come from Turkey, but try to buy local if you can.

Quinces keep for several months if kept cool and dry, so even if you don’t have an immediate use for them, if you see some just pounce and work out what to do with them later. You’ll be glad you did.

Fruit that is straight from the tree may still have a grey-white fuzz on it. This should be rubbed off before using.

Preparing

The quince doesn’t give itself up easily. It’s tough to cut, and tricky to peel. It’s one of those fruit that discolours quickly when exposed to air, so you’ll want to put it in some acidulated water or squeeze a little lemon juice over them.

What it goes with

Quince can go with either sweet or savoury dishes.

Traditionally, quince is used as an accompaniment for game meats, but is also used with any meat that will take a fruity element, such as pork or lamb. It can be paired with cooking apples in any dish you would use those for and will add another element. The most traditional use is in the form of quince jelly, also known as Spanish membrillo, which goes well with cheese and cold meats.

Sustainability

There’s nothing not to love about quince.