The Golden Apple
Every time I show someone a quince, they almost always give me the same look (befuddlement) and ask the same question (“What is it?”). But on rare occasions, someone will know what it is, smile, and tell me how their grandmother would make jellies with this strange, hard fruit.
The quince is an old fruit, and is rumoured to be the mythic golden apple of Greek myths and the Fruit Of Knowledge that is named in the Old Testament. The quince is indeed old and ancient, and its secrets can be unyielding to an impatient and unwilling cook. If you were to bite into a raw quince, it would immediately suck all the saliva out of your mouth, as it is highly astringent, almost tannic in its raw state. It is this lack of preparedness that may have made the quince fall out of favor for home chefs over the last hundred years. It is a fruit made for preserving. Quinces are high in natural pectins, and were often used in making preserves. In fact, the term “marmalade”, originally meant a type of quince jelly or jam. The portugese term for the fruit, marmelo, belies its gastronomic and etymological secret; “melo” meaning honey, as it is indeed a sweet and fragrant fruit that smells of honey.
I first discovered quinces, not by eating them, but by reading about them. Both Donna Hay and Nigella Lawson are big fans of the fruit, and more and more chefs are rediscovering the fruit. The problem is that they can be somewhat difficult to find in Atlantic Canada. Very few retail grocery stores sell them, and those that do bring in large, unripened fruit from California, that yield next to no fragrance (quinces are ripe upon the tree once they begin to smell sweet). Occasionally, some farmers will have the odd tree in his backyard, or know someone who does, and you will find them at farmers markets*.
I am lucky enough to have a steady annual supply, due to a family member who planted a tree at my request. (The good news is that a tree will begin to develop fruit relatively quickly, within five or six years). It has taken me some time to get used to cooking with them, to learn how to coax them into becoming something soothing and lovely. Because like I said, quinces are not an obvious fruit.
First there is the aforementioned fact that you can’t eat them raw. If you do bite into one, you will feel like your mouth has suddenly been shrunken and been filled with the fur of a small animal. Touché.
Secondly, time is your friend when it comes to eating and cooking quinces. Quinces, cooked for short periods of time, will look like a dull orange or soft pink. But when they have been cooked for a long time, over low heat, they will turn a deep ruby red. This slow-and-low quality of the fruit is not for the chef who likes to just quickly sauté their food, or even the somewhat-patient chef who will roast fruit in the oven. Quinces benefit from being cooked in the oven for two, even three hours, over medium heat. Your kitchen will benefit as well from the heady scent.
The third thing is that even when cooked, quinces can have a slightly grainy texture. It can be intimidating, if not even frustrating, especially when you’ve been cooking them for a long time. Yes, they are soft, but there is still some of that grainy texture. It’s almost like a visual trick: they kind of look like apples, so you expect the softness of a cooked apple. Quinces have a distinct mouthfeel. It’s not unpleasant, but it can be unexpected to the uninitiated.
Quinces can be baked in bread, poached in syrup, slow basted in the oven, but more often than not, they are made into jellies and jams. Look online for recipes, and you will find mentions of “quince paste” or “quince cheese”. These thick pastes are found across Europe, from Hungary to Spain. The preserve is often served alongside cheeses, especially cow’s milk cheeses. If you’re lucky, you can occasionally find “quince paste” at international and gourmet food stores, but making it is relatively simple. You only need time, patience, and lots of sugar.
This recipe is an adaption of various recipes I have found, including some by Nigella Lawson and Rob Feenie.
2 cups white wine
1 stick cinnamon
1 vanilla bean, split, with seeds removed
Roughly 2lbs quince, chopped
Simmer the wine with the vanilla bean and reduce the volume of liquid by one-third.
Add the cinnamon stick. Turn down the heat to medium-low.
Slowly start adding portions of the chopped quinces to the liquid. If you add them all at once, you may risk burning the pieces at the bottom, as there won’t be enough liquid to cover the fruit. Cover the pot to help soften the fruit, stirring often. Keep adding quince until all is in the pot, and heat until the quince is fork tender.
Remove the quince from the pot, remove the cinnamon stick and vanilla bean from the quince.
Pass the fruit through a fine mesh sieve. This will help soften the texture, remove the seeds, and diminish any “grainy” mouthfeel to the final dish.
Put the puree into a pot, measuring it out, portion by portion, using a measuring cup. For every 2/3 cup of the puree, add 1/2 cup of sugar.
Return the pot to medium-low heat, stirring every so often. The mixture will start to turn colour, from a soft golden-yellow to a deeper, more orange colour. You know the paste is ready when you can pass a spatula through the mix and it leaves a trail.
Allow the mixture to cool and set, about an hour. Pour the quince paste into sterile jars or a container. You may can/bottle the mixture like you would any other preserve. It may deepen in colour if you do this, due to the extra heat.
Serve on toast, tea biscuits or with cheese.
*There are a few vendors who have quinces at the Seaport Market in Halifax. Look closely. They will often have signs nothing “quinces for jelly” around them. Ask around.