There is an old gnarled quince tree in my parents garden, the house I grew up in, which gave us an abundant crop each year. I have to admit though, probably the greatest pleasure for the Roddy children came from hurling the rock hard windfalls at each other in our boisterous garden antics, I seem to remember mild concussion was the result of one particularly good aim. We also used to pursuade the uninitiated to take a bite of one, smug in our knowledge quinces need to be cooked, then collapse with laughter at the contorted face of the eater as they met with the hard, sour, astringent raw flesh.
Throughout my childhood I willingly helped consume the quince bounty, but I secretly harboured mixed feelings and a certain resentment towards our annual quince harvest. Everyone else had apple pie and strawberry jam, we too had pie and jam, only quince, which were delicious but quince nonetheless, aka weird fruit, read, weird family, what can I say, I was young, I still find it hard to talk about packed lunch embarrassment. One particularly humiliating experience involved my Mum shouting into the garden to offer my friends and I a treat, everyone ran open mouthed into the kitchen anticipating chocolate, biscuits, kit-kats, cake – no, the treat was squares of quince paste….my friends all refused, maybe, somebody even mumered yuck and I nearly died of humiliation. Now I think the fact my mum made and served quince squares is charming, quirky, wonderful even, but at the time, I assure you it was nothing less than devastating.
I harbour no mixed feeling about quince now, my feelings are quite unequivocally those of love.
Quince, the golden apple of Hesperides which was awarded to Aphrodite by Paris, the most exquisite of fruits for the most beautiful of deities. A few quinces in a bowl perfume the room, comfort ‘passions of the heart’ and can mitigate drunkenness according to Pisanelli and Mattioli. I am not sure about mitigating drunkenness ( not that I have ever been a drunk London girl!, what an appalling thought) but I can vouch for the exquisite aroma perfuming my kitchen and certainly comforting me and my cotton socks.
I am utterly spoiled for quince delights here in Italy where it is known as cotogna. In season the market overflows with crates of them and we are abundantly supplied with jams, pastes (cotognata), jellies and delicate relishes from friends and Vincenzo’s family in Sicily, I even have a piece of spanish membrillo hiding somewhere. I have to admit a certain amount of quince inactivity on my part, after all our flat is tiny and with all the generous gifts…ok, these are all excuses, I got lazy, but all that is about to change.
I am nearly ready to embark on a quince paste making session, for this year, the responsibility of the christmas supplies falls to me. I am not bringing coals to Newcastle, the harvest at my parents house was not to be this year, the old quince tree seems to have found the enormous and disruptive renovations at my parents house just too much and has stubbornly refused to produce any fruit. We can hardly blame him, all that rude excavation around his roots. So I will be battling with the joys of customs and cheap airlines to transport a very large quantity home.
I am not quite ready for the paste, I thought I would ease myself back into quince activity gently. I am starting with this quite delightful recipe for quinces poached with cinnamon and black pepper.
This is one of my favorite ways to eat quince, gently poached in a light syrup with a stick of cinnamon and a couple of black pepper corns. I love the way quince retains its form and distinct grainy texture even after a nice long poach and the extraordinarily beautiful orange, rose, red colour the quinces take on after being cooked. I like them with a spoonful of thick creamy greek yogurt, a blob of ricotta or a couple of slices go beautifully with some nice cheese.
Like so many of the best recipes this is perfectly simple. You need a bit of clever hand and knife work to peel and core the little blighter, they are hard, and have a habit of shooting out of your hand as you try to get at the core. Once they are peeled, cored and cut into wedges the real work is over, you simply gently gently poach them in a light syrup.
I think they are best eaten the day after you have made them, so the flavours have time to mingle and intensify. You can keep them in the fridge, but let them cool completely before you put them in and remember to take them out and come back to room temperature before you enjoy them, the flavours are more pronounced. If you like, you can always reheat the quinces slightly and serve them warm.
Quinces poached with cinnamon and black pepper.
1 kg ripe yellow quinces (about 4 medium sized ones), 100g sugar, 1 small cinnamon stick, 2 black pepper corns, 1 litre water.
Using a rough cloth wipe away the fuzzy grey coat that cover the quinces.
Rinse the quinces thoroughly and wipe them dry.
Carefully peel and cut each quince into 4, cut away the very hard core and slice each quarter into wedges. Drop the wedges into a bowl of cold water with the juice of half a lemon to stop them discolouring.
In a heavy based pan bring the water and the sugar to a lively boil. Lower the heat and add the quince wedges, cinnamon and peppercorns to the pan.
Leave the pan, uncovered simmering for 1 hour and a quarter.
Check the quinces, they should still retain a distinct shape but be soft to the point of a knife and orange rose in colour, the syrup should be a deeper rose red colour. .
Tip the quinces and syrup into a serving bowl and allow to rest.
Note, if you feel the syrup is not thick enough but the quinces are ready, you can remove the quinces with a slotted spoon and set them aside while you put the syrup back on a lively flame and allow it to reduce a little more before pouring it over the quince wedges.