Luca was born in time for lunch on the 14th of September. He is, as my sister Rosie would say, a bonny boy. I am feeling deeply unqualified for this truly wondrous but frankly bewildering job. Luca however, seems to have faith in me and so we have agreed to muddle – and I mean muddle in the nicest possible way – along together. Have no fear, even though I’m sure Luca will come up from time to time, I’ve no intention of dishing out a blow-by-blow account of this muddle. I do intend to talk about quinces.
I am slightly obsessive about quinces. This is partly because they are so illusive, their short season coupled with their fall from favor can make them hard to find. But my obsession is mostly because I adore both their heavy, properly sensual scent: a heady cocktail of apple, pear, rose, musky honey and a dash of something exotic, sultry and tropical and their particular but superb flavor and texture when cooked.
Quinces are ancient fruit, part of the rose family and cousins of apples and pears. They are rather odd-looking, bulbous and lumpy but somehow curiously beautiful. They could be the love child – conceived during a night of passion at the back of a fruit crate - of a knobby, yellow pear and a underripe cooking apple. They are the pome fruit equivalent of the tall, gawky boy with a massive nose and aptitude for physics who turns out to be by far the most interesting and delicious male in your year. Quinces are covered in strange downy brown coat and their hard, astringent flesh when raw gives little clue as to the potential delights in store when they cooked with sugar or honey. They are not easy fruit, they need a bit of attention and keen hand to deal the devilishly hard flesh. They need - like me on a Monday morning – sweetening-up and then patient cooking; a simmer, bake or slow bubble, to bring out the best in them and transform them into something delicious, be it jam, marmalade, thick paste, relish or clear jelly.
I entertained the idea of making some cotognata (quince paste or cheese) when I spied a crate of particularly bulbous but fantastically scented fruit at the market. This domestic fantasy persisted all the way home. Encouraged by the heady scent curling provocatively out of my shopping bag, I daydreamed of slices of amber quince cheese with chunks of hard, piquant goats cheese all the way along via Branca, round the corner into via Marmorata, into the courtyard and up the stairs. I only came to my senses when I entered my kitchen and remembered that I’m hard pressed to make a cup of tea at present, never mind execute lengthy fruit preservation. As I put the quinces in a bowl I resigned myself to the fact this was probably their final resting place! At least they would make the kitchen smell glorious I told myself.
As is so often the case, once I accepted the fact I wouldn’t find the time to cook my quinces and promised myself not to feel guilty about my fruity air freshener, I found time to cook them. Not quince paste I hasten to add, that will have to wait until next year, but something nearly as delicious: poached quinces with lemon.
Quinces poach beautifully. Peel, slice and sweeten them with sugar or honey, then leave them for a long gentle simmer over a low heat and they transform. They become tender and succulent (while resolutely holding their shape and pleasing grainy texture) and taste like buttery poached apples, fragrant grainy pears, sweet honeyed wine and something sharp and rather tropical.
I’ve actually written about quinces before, poached quinces no less, but this recipe is a little different, simpler and (particularly if you can find really good, unwaxed lemons) just as delicious. You simmer wedges of quince gently with long strips of lemon zest in a light syrup of water, sugar and lemon juice. The lemon lends a sharp defining edge which both accentuates and balances the honeyed sweetness of the quince. Whats more, the strips of lemon, having made their, sharp, citrus contribution, cook into tender almost candied softness and can be eaten with the quince.
The recipe is ridiculously simple, you could argue it is not really a recipe at all, more a suggestion. The amount of sugar you add really depends on you and how sweet-a-tooth you have. I’d say I’m pretty middle-of-the-road when it comes to sugar, not a fan of either sickly sweet or too bracing, my quantities reflect this. You should adjust accordingly.
I like this poached quince with a dollop of creme fraiche and a little almond biscuits, it’s a pretty perfect pudding. What am I saying, pretty perfect pudding, the heady combination of tender fruit, slightly sour cream and soft, milky, nutty almond biscuits is pretty perfect at anytime. I imagine a little pile of poached quince would also be nice with a slice of plain or almond cake.- you could pour a little of the syrup over the cake! I also like poached quince for breakfast with yogurt and muesli.
Poached quince with lemon
- 1.5 kg (roughly 6) ripe quines
- 150g fine sugar
- 1 large unwaxed lemon
- 500ml water – you may need to add a little more
- Cover the quinces with warm water, and rub them in the water to remove the fuzzy down from their skin. Rinse, drain, and dry.
- Using sharp knife carefully pare away the lemon peel in long strips from the lemon (trying to avoid too much bitter white pith). Put the lemon strips, 500ml of cold water, the sugar and the juice from the lemon into a large heavy based pan
- Carefully peel the quinces with a vegetable peeler. Using a very sharp knife (carefully, they are devilishly hard), cut each quince in quarters, carve out the core, and cut into slim wedges. As soon as you have cut a wedge drop it into the lemon water in the pan to stop it discoloring.
- Over a modest heat, bring the pan to a gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer for about an hour or until the quince is very tender but still holding its shape and liquid has reduced to a thick syrup.