Nothing can make a room smell quite as wonderful as a quince. Forget air-fresheners; instead, put a single quince on a plate and after a day your room will have taken on the delicious aroma of the fruit.
The quince tree is beautiful, with its smooth, shiny bark and generous green leaves, the silvery undersides of which are covered with down. Our trees at home are grown en espalier, or trained against a wall. The blossoms vary between pink and white, but all are open and have a delicate scent, faintly promising of an autumn glut. The fruit itself varies tremendously in shape. Most are like rather large, fat pears and have a bright, golden colour; as with the underside of the leaves, they are covered in down. Stored as you would pears or apples, they keep remarkably well.
Quinces are delicious and easy enough to use, but they are of no use raw, being extremely astringent and hard as rocks, though I believe there are varieties that grow in hotter climates that can be eaten raw. Cook them, however, and it is as though an amazing magic trick has been performed ? their pale, near-white flesh slowly turns a magnificent golden orange, like a brilliant sunset, and they become one of the most delicate and delectable tasting of fruits. If you don?t have very many, you can use only the peel and core for jelly (it has a tremendously high pectin level, so sets very easily) and preserve the rest for more exciting dishes.
If you don?t have a tree, quinces are rather hard to come by. Middle Eastern shops invariably have them, as they are such a vital part of the cuisine, and at this time of year I head over to Edgware Road, in London, where I can always find a supplier. The quince originates from Persia and Turkestan, from where it travelled to Greece. Southern Europeans have long been familiar with the quince, the Spanish making the marvellous membrillo, a paste often eaten with sheep?s cheese, a delicious version of Turkish delight that is very unlike the excuse for the stuff you get here. The Portuguese make marmello, a quince jam, which is where our name for marmalade comes from. Incidentally, orange marmalade was not produced in large quantities until the late-18th century.
It is thought that quinces predate apples and pears as a widely cultivated fruit ? and therefore that much of the mythology and symbolism surrounding apples is, in fact, about quinces. Did Eve give Adam a quince to taste, rather than an apple? It was almost certainly a quince given by Paris to the goddess Aphrodite, the golden apple of discord that started the Trojan War. It became a symbol of Aphrodite to the Greeks; it was served at wedding feasts and presented to the bride to encourage fertility.
And what of the quince in Britain? It was extremely popular and there are dozens of old recipes for quince pastes known as quiddiny or cotoniack (the French still make cotignac), which were pressed into highly decorative shapes and presented in between courses at banquets to aid digestion. It was served with meats and used to make apple tarts, in particular taffety tarts, with quince slices or jelly added to improve the flavour. An English favourite was a quince sauce to serve with partridge, while the French roasted quail
with slices of quince. In 1629, John Parkinson, James I?s herbalist, wrote of the quince:
There is not fruit growing in this land that is of so many excellent uses as this, serving as well to make many dishes of meate for the table, as for banquets, and much more for the physical vertues. I have to agree ? this fruit makes any meal into a banquet.
Pheasant with Quinces
Many people skin their pheasant, but this and every other dish is so much better with the skin left on, as it retains much-needed moisture.
Ingredients: ? 2oz butter ? 1 pheasant ? 1 cup of calvados or apple liqueur ? 1 quince, peeled and sliced ? 1l dry cider ? 2 sharp eating apples, peeled and sliced ? salt and pepper ? 1 cup of crème fraîche
1. Melt the butter in a casserole until sizzling and brown the pheasant all over. Add the calvados and turn the heat down immediately. Add the quince and half the cider.
2. Cover and cook, either in an oven on medium heat or over a slow flame, for half an hour. Add the apples, more cider if necessary, and season. Cook slowly for another 40 minutes and finish the sauce with crème fraîche.
Ingredients: ? quinces ? sugar ? lemon
1. Wash the quinces and rub the down off them. Cut into eighths and put into a deep pan. Cover with water and bring to boil. Simmer for 45 minutes. Strain through a muslin bag or sieve.
2. Measure the liquid and add 1lb sugar for every pint of liquid. Pour into a clean pan and add the juice of a lemon. Bring to the boil and test to see if it has reached the gel stage. If it has, pour into clean jars (there is no need to sterilise them ? the boiling jelly does that) and seal immediately.