15th November 2022
You might have thought – with no supporting evidence at all apart from a mention in a glossy food supplement – that the quince was just another unusual fruit. Quince marmalade, quince cheese and quince jelly all feature on the menus of aspirational (overpriced) restaurants where the finished food slides effortlessly onto the plate and we eat it with no thought of the process; in fact with not much thought at all except possibly its impact on the bill.
A couple of years ago I made medlar jelly which is unlikely to figure on any menu anytime soon because the faffery involved in picking, bletting, cooking and bottling them exceeds any fleeting pleasure at its weird flavour. The French name which roughly translates as dog’s arse, referring to its appearance, is close to being the only amusing thing about it. The recommended use of medlar jelly as a companion to game is a bit of a clue – possibly best eaten with something like a long buried seabird. Its principal value is its prodigious longevity. We’ve had half a dozen jars in the store cupboard since the day I made it – and they’re likely to stay there until they start growing an obvious layer of penicillin.
However yesterday’s task seemed, on the surface, to be a more likely culinary prospect. Quince figures on posh menus and in historical novels but never having tasted it I wouldn’t know why, and when our allotment neighbour’s tree set a huge crop this year we asked her if we could pick a few.
Possibly the nicest thing about the quince straight from the tree is its astounding perfume. Three in a bowl fragranced the whole flat until they quickly went mouldy and then smelt a bit darker. It’s best – the books say – to pick them is when fully ripe and still on the tree. This is one of those bits of hand-me-down gardening advice that has escaped serious scrutiny for generations, because they pass from not quite ready – to lying dead on the grass in the single blink of an eye. In precisely the way the badgers harvest our sweet corn during the night before we intend to harvest them, the moment you look a quince tree in the eye a stopwatch starts ticking and by the time you’ve fetched your bucket they’ve gone – apart that is from the ones at the very top of the tree just out of reach. Undaunted I balanced on a wobbly rail and picked four pounds of them ripe, but still on the tree.
The quince does not give it up without a fight. As I was slicing and chopping them the pips reminded me irresistibly of sets of spare dentures for rats (see photo above). This thought was probably brought on by the fact that some of these fruits had clearly been nibbled by rats – which are great tree climbers – but not consumed. If one bite was enough to put a rat off what could they possibly taste like? Much chopping later I quickly looked at my treasured 1968 HMSO book “Home Preservation of Fruit and vegetables” and found that I needed to simmer them for up to four hours, strain them through a jelly bag, return the pulp to the saucepan and add more water, simmer for another 10 minutes and then pour back through the jelly bag.
During this time the overpoweringly fresh, floral radiance was followed by something more like boiled sweets or bubblegum. Many hours later I’m still waiting for the last drops of juice to drip from the soft but essentially undamaged chopped fruit and then the sugar, boiling and bottling can begin. I reckon we might get four 14 oz jars out of it with a following wind.
However I have to report a deeper pleasure in the making. We’d over indulged in the last everyday sourdough loaf and so I had started a replacement early on the previous morning and left it proving in its banneton overnight. Fermentation is a time and temperature process, and so I woke several times in the night wondering if it was overflowing its banneton like a muffin top – that’s annoying – and so soon after 5.00am I was having a sleep defeating mental battle about going to check. I lost the battle and got up at about 6.30 and, needless to say, the dough had behaved perfectly; gently domed above its basket.
And then, alone in the kitchen, I had one of those epiphanic moments, remembering Christmases past. My parish duties meant that on Christmas Eve I would be at work by 8.00am and then after three services finishing at around 2.00am after the Midnight, I would turn the oven on, grab a few hours of sleep and then start the Christmas turkey in the oven before racing off to take another five services – getting home by 1.00pm usually totally exhausted. But those solitary moments in the kitchen were absolutely precious to me. If there is a reason this memory popped into my mind it must have been the perfume of the quinces, still filling the kitchen with Christmas perfumes; citrus, apple and spice. If I can bottle that later today it will be the first time I’ve ever made a preserve that made me shed a tear!
24 hours on and here are the results. Exactly as I predicted the 4lbs of raw quince yielded 4 lbs of quince jelly; bearing in mind the added water and sugar. The flavour is lovely- certainly not bubble gum or candy – but not the same as the raw fragrance of the quinces off the tree. Chatting to a neighbour on the allotment yesterday she told us that she’d baked a couple in the oven and eaten them with ice cream, and that they were delicious. So all in all, well worth the effort. Picture below.