Quince – a sinister fruit?

All I want for Christmas is my ……… don’t go there!

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!

Postscript

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.

Forbidden fruit?

As I began to write, Madame was eyeing up this bowl of quinces and wondering what to do with them. At the moment they are filling the room with the most wonderful fragrance. However as she was Googling possible uses, she informed me that they are thought (by some people) to be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Other (equally benighted) people – think it’s the apple. My goodness how awful that would be, if we could have avoided all that suffering if they’d just turned down the chance of a scrumped Bramley. Sadly, if people actually read the Bible instead of furnishing their prejudices with it, it was neither the apple nor the quince that introduced sin into the world – according to the incredibly important mythical story. The tree in question – and I quote – is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A short diversion into dangerous territory

The power to determine between good and evil – or to remove the terms from their religious frame – right and wrong, is almost the only power not awarded to Homo sapiens in the Old Testament and it’s the usurpation of that power by fragile, impatient, greedy and none-too-clever humans that has been the Granddaddy of all the pain and suffering ever since. It’s called idolatry and it’s the almost universal temptation to worship the partial over and against the whole. And that’s my considered view as a card carrying Post-Christian lost soul!

It may seem anachronistic to brandish an ancient myth in a modern scientific and rational culture but – to risk just one more spadeful before the hole closes over my head – I’d say that idolatry is a greater danger now than it was in the past, except we are more inclined these days to worship ‘rational’ idols like The Economy, Efficiency, Productivity, GDP and so on, and these false gods come disguised as common sense. The high priests of this death cult wear suits rather than robes but make no mistake, they wouldn’t care if they reduced the earth to ashes and humanity to slavery as long as it turned a profit.

Back to Quince and Redlead Roundheads

It may be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) – or perhaps it’s a perfectly rational response to the impotence of our democracy to find anyone with more than half a brain to find the way back from the cliff; but this time of year always gets to me. There’s something inherently melancholic about the allotment which – until we clear it – is populated by the ghosts and skeletal remains of crops past. Angelica, Lovage and Sunflowers have passed into dry senescence, their seeds eagerly consumed weeks ago by birds and mice. After a drought-blighted summer, we went away for a couple of weeks and returned after the rain had encouraged a billion weeds to burst into new growth. The patch of Common Ramping Fumitory amongst the leeks, which I’d reprieved because it’s rare round here, had repaid my generosity by swamping the bed; I suppose there’s a clue in the name! Slightly late, we spent yesterday clearing and sowing winter salads which would stand a chance if the autumn is warmer than average. However average weather is an increasingly fragile concept as climate change moves into its terminal phase.

On the bright side, we dug potatoes and beetroot – we’ve been blessed with the best ever crops this year – and as I carried a box of apples up to the car, Madame disappeared for five minutes and then reappeared with four quinces, foraged from a neighbour’s tree. Neither of us have ever seen such a huge crop on that tree before; there must be hundreds of ripening fruits there. We’ll email her and ask her permission to take about ten pounds for jelly and, perhaps, marmalade. Meanwhile they’re a far better fragrance around the flat than the stuff that comes from an aerosol and makes your eyes water.

As for the Redlead Roundhead fungus, it was hiding under a wayward clump of Catnip and my eye suddenly caught a glimpse of bright red – hence Redlead – lead oxide. The battered specimen in the photo hardly does it justice, but it has an interesting backstory because it seems to be a species from Australia and although it used to be quite rare, the fashion for woodchip (its favourite food) for mulching and paths has given it a new lease of life.

The life of the allotment is the perfect antidote to the terrible modern myth that time is an evolutionary straight line where everything except us humans – the allegedly most highly evolved – is an exploitable resource. Real life, away from the trading floors, is cyclical, seasonal, rich and vulnerable; dependent upon wind and weather. Old Pete – something of a fixture on the allotment – leaned over the fence as we were packing up. “It’s a bit of a mess” – he said. I responded, through gritted teeth, “Well we’ve had the best crops ever this year”. Nature – real nature – is glorious, extravagant, messy and governed by relationships that the new high priests will never begin to comprehend. It’s just too immersive; there are too many variables, there’s too much about it that challenges their grey reductionist orthodoxy. So we choose not to throw in our lot with their nasty little gods. The Potwell Inn is on the side of the natural mess.

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