Autumn’s beauty: the quince - from our regular food blogger Helen Parkin of A Forkful of Spaghetti
Ah, Autumn! Perhaps the season most associated with England, it’s also the time of year which induces usually sane, serious types to drift off into daydreams of Keatsian ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’, and with good reason.
Autumn is, of course, the time associated with bountiful harvest, and with orchard trees laden with apples and pears. But it’s also the season for the lesser-known and sadly less available fruits associated with old England, quinces.
Picture right: Quinces from Public Domain Photos
Although grown and eaten in the UK since around the thirteenth century, the quince has been almost completely forgotten and neglected in the past few decades. Happily, it is now enjoying something of a revival, thanks to renewed interest in locally produced foods and hitherto forgotten or neglected recipes.
The redoubtable Jane Grigson
, who knew a thing or two about food, called the quince ‘the best of all fruits’, and current influential food writers, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nigel Slater, have championed the quince’s cause in recent years.
River Cottage’s principal gardener, Mark Diacono, seems set to continue the trend with his already acclaimed new book, A Taste of the Unexpected
, in which he, too, celebrates the joys of both growing and eating quince.
So just what is it about the quince that inspires such adoration?
It all starts with the quince’s fragrance: as Diacono says, it seduces with its ‘sweet, spicy perfume... If they were inedible, I’d grow them for this alone’. But the fruit’s main secret is surely the hedonistic pleasures it releases on cooking, wherein lie magical transformations.
First, the flesh turns from off-white to vivid pink or even ruby. Then there’s the texture, which changes from a rock-like hardness to something akin to a very ripe pear. It is easy to eat, readily falling apart on the first bite, with a succulence all its own. And finally, the all-important taste? That, too, changes – from inedibly bitter to something between an apple and a pear, but more intense and honeyed, and more heavenly, than either.
In short, if you’ve never tried quince, you’ve been missing out. In fact, this hallowed fruit should be on every food lover’s list of 100 things to try before they die – not least because once you’ve tasted quince, I guarantee you that you’ll want to eat it again. And again. And again.
If you are lucky enough to come across quinces, you’ll find a plethora of culinary uses for them: from jams and jellies, through savoury dishes (braised with pork belly, for example), to puddings and cakes.
Think of quince jellies and jams, and quince paste might come to mind, often seen in the shops as Spanish membrillo.
Picture right: Membrillo with walnuts by jlastras
Actually, quince paste, or ‘marmalade’, has been made in England since at least the eighteenth century, by which time it was already a standard household recipe. Florence White’s seminal book, Good Things in England, carries one such version, dating from the early part of that period, from an unnamed Worcester cook.
Is it too much to hope that, in these days of demand for local produce, we might see a return of English-made quince paste? It would be cheering to think so. And a great match for quince paste, while we’re on the subject of provenance, is another English product, not unlike Spanish manchego – the nutty Sussex-made ewe’s milk cheese, Lord of the Hundreds. Eat the two together for a tapas-like snack.
In cakes and desserts, use quinces wherever you might ordinarily use apples or pears – they marry fantastically well with other autumnal fruit, and also with spices redolent of times past, such as cloves, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg – and prepare to be amazed at the difference.
To take just one easy example, to elevate the humble crumble into an Autumnal special (after all, what else is crumble for, if not for Autumn?)
- Mix pre-cooked quinces with apples and pears, and cover with the usual toasty topping of butter, sugar, and flour.
- Scatter some chopped golden Kentish cobnuts – also benefiting from something of a renaissance – over the surface for a final flourish.
- Bake for about 30 minutes at 190ºC/375ºF/Gas Mark 5 and serve warm, not hot, with top-notch vanilla ice cream for a delicious dessert.
But, to be perfectly frank, the quince is a fruit of such merit that it doesn’t need anything else to accompany it.
Picture left: Quinces from Jespahjoy
Poached simply in water and sugar until changed in colour and tender, it’s fabulous eaten in its own syrup, or else – if you really must – with cream, crème fraîche, or yogurt. Either way, you might want to take the precaution of eating solo, because this is one treat you won’t want to share.
Finally, if you get the bug (and you will), why not indulge yourself further, and consider growing your own quinces?
The quince tree is a relatively hardy specimen, and should grow readily in good, deep soil. It is also self-fertilising, so you only need one tree, not vast orchards, in order to obtain a fruit yield.
Quince trees are available from several nurseries across the country, particularly in the south, including the National Quince Collection. See http://www.nortonpriory.org
for more details. Soon you could be celebrating your very own harvest of quintessentially autumnal quinces!