By Ellen Kelly
Quinces, like so many of the fruits and vegetables we’re familiar with today, have quite an intriguing, if slightly convoluted, history. Originating in central Asia over 4000 years ago, they soon found wide acceptance in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East, ultimately wending their way to Europe.
Quinces are pommes, closely related to apples and pears, and thought by many worthy researchers to be the original golden orbs of the Hesprides, perhaps even the source of Eve’s fateful downfall in the Garden of Eden. The quince has long been associated with Aphrodite, the emblematic fruit of love, marriage and fertility. Despite being the apple of love, quinces are not especially easy to find. In season from September to December, follow your nose at markets; the intriguingly tropical scent of ripening quinces is irresistible. Sometimes I buy a few to display in a pretty bowl just to perfume a room.
Unlike their cousins, quinces are extremely hard and taste tart and astringent, making them practically impossible to eat out of hand. Apparently, there are varieties that can be eaten like an apple, but I haven’t come across any such in our markets to date. Don’t let this deter you too much though. The addition of a quince in an apple pie will take it to another level and added to a lamb dish, traditional or Moroccan-style, is quite sublime.
Probably the most recognizable preparation is a paste or cheese – called membrillo in Spanish or cotignac in French – a sauce long-cooked until very thick and firm. Easily sliced, this typically accompanies salty cheeses like Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano and is welcome on any cheese board. It’s easy to make your own and that leaves you the luxury of adding whatever spices (or none at all) that you choose.
If you have a food mill, begin with about 1 kg (about 2 pounds). Wash off the fine grey-ish fuzz and quarter the fruit. Put the quinces and 250 ml (1 cup) water in a saucepan and simmer covered over low heat until tender, about 25-30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes. Quinces begin to turn pink, and then quite red the longer they are cooked. If a darker colour is desired, allow to stand at room temperature for up to 12 hours. Scoop out and discard the seeds. Put the rest of the fruit and any remaining liquid through the medium screen of the mill. (Alternately, peel and core the raw fruit and cook until it is soft enough, then puree to an applesauce consistency.) Put the puree, 500 ml (2 cups) of sugar, 15 ml (1 Tbsp) unslated butter and 5 ml (1 tsp) lemon zest in the same pot and add 1-2 ml (about ¼ tsp) ground cardamom. A touch of cinnamon or allspice instead works too, or no spice at all, if that’s your preference. Over medium heat, stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves, then simmer, stirring frequently, for 45 minutes or more until your spoon leaves a distinct line in the puree when drawn across the bottom of the pan. Very lightly oil a few small straight-sided jars and spoon the thickened puree into them. Let the jars cool and refrigerate. To use, run a thin knife around the sides of the jar and slide out the “cheese” onto a board. You can now slice the paste to serve, or if you prefer, set the jar out on the cheese board with a small cheese knife.
When you do find quinces, you will likely not have much of a choice of variety. Choose hard, unblemished fruit that is golden yellow with little or no hint of green. Don’t be concerned by the dull-coloured velvety fuzz on the skin, it varies from variety to variety and rubs off easily with a thumb. Quinces will keep well in a cool-ish room for up to two weeks or more and longer when refrigerated.
A warm gingery compote made with quinces and firm apples or pears is a lovely fall and winter dessert; serve topped with custard or whipped cream. Peel, core and dice 2 large quinces and 2 large tart, firm apples (or pears, or one of each). Melt 30 ml (2 Tbsp) unsalted butter over low heat, then sprinkle 30 ml (2 Tbsp) sugar over the butter. Raise the heat and continue to cook, occasionally swirling the pan, for 3-5 minutes or until the sugar begins to caramelize. Add the diced fruit and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the fruit is slightly golden. The apples and/or pears will have softened considerably while the quince will have retained its shape. Add 125 ml (½ cup) apple or pear cider, 5 ml (1 tsp) fresh lemon juice, 2-3 ml (½ tsp) ground ginger, and cook another 2-3 minutes until somewhat reduced, but not evaporated. Serve warm, sprinkled with just a little Maldon salt or good fleur de sel and some cream or custard on the side.
Quinces have loads of pectin. They make lovely chutneys, jellies and jams – in fact, marmalade comes the Portuguese word for quince. Quince chutney is delicious and is as at home on a charcuterie/cheese board as it is served along-side pork, beef or lamb.
In a large stainless steel pan, saute 1-2 shallots and a large minced clove of garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent. Add 3 large quinces (peeled, cored and coarsely grated), 125 ml (½ cup) chopped dried sour cherries, 375 ml (1½ cups) lightly packed brown sugar, 75 ml (¾ cup) apple cider vinegar, 5 ml (1 tsp) grated fresh ginger, 3-4 cardamom pods, 5-6 black peppercorns and 1 small cinnamon stick (put the dry spices in a spice ball or a small cheesecloth bag). Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, stirring often, for an hour or until the mixture is thickened. It will thicken more as it cools. Add a little apple juice if the chutney starts to stick. This will make about 750 ml (3 cups).