Friday, 22 October 2010

Quince - the versatile fruit


With the look of a monstrous mutant pear that has been consigned to a dusty corner, the quince is hardly a physically attractive fruit.  Get close enough to inhale its distinctive perfume however and you will be intrigued.  Related to apples and pears, there is a hint of both in its fragrance, but the quince is also related to the rose so there is a floral note.   Add a little guava and pineapple to the mix and you have, as close as I can get, to the fragrant, versatile quince. 
Turning from green to golden as it ripens, the best varieties are Smyrna or Pineapple.  The fuzziness of the skin depends on the variety, but the riper the fruit the less fuzz appparently.  Quince will keep in a cool room for a week or two.   As with the Seville orange, never, ever eat an uncooked quince as you will regret it. Although, according to Tony Booth, an authority on fruit, vegetables and fungi (see my posting of 16th September – The Bermondsey Trail) “the Croatians and some people from the Middle Eastern countries eat it straight from the tree because it grows softer in those regions, but it still has that really tart taste”.  I imagine this is the Mulvian quince, the one variety which, according to Pliny the Elder, could be eaten without cooking.
The raw flesh is off-white, hard, dry and astringent.  It oxidises quickly but a little browning isn’t noticeable as long, slow cooking turns it into a soft, rose amber delight (a few varieties turn beige), whilst losing none of its heady perfume.  Jane Grigson, in her invaluable book English Food, has a recipe for ‘Pears in Syrup’ which she describes as a Medieval recipe usually made with “Wardens or cooking pears” that were “as hard as quinces and first boiled until just tender, in water”.  Grigson also makes the point that although wine is necessary for poaching pears satisfactorily, with the much more highly perfumed quince, water is sufficient.
Originating in the middle-east/Central Asia, the quince grows happily in tropical and sub-tropical climates.  A quarter of the world’s crop comes from Turkey but it is also grown in China, Iran, South America and Europe.  They are grown in the UK but in Northern Europe they tend to rot from the centre so you may have some disappointments with those.
Quince is high in pectin so is perfect for jams, jellies or pastes.  Quince pastes are made in many countries – known as membrillo in Spain, cotognata in Italy, and cotignac in France – and are often served with hard cheeses.  A Spanish alioli made with quince paste instead of egg yolk is delicious with roast pork.  Added to long cooked meat dishes, the sliced fruit holds its shape well. It’s a particular favourite, used this way, in the Middle-East and North Africa in dishes such as cinnamon flavoured beef and Moroccan lamb and chicken tagines. 
To prepare quince, clean and rub off any fuzz.  For jams, jellies and pastes, there is no need to peel and core.  Core and slice for adding to slow-cook meat dishes.  Core, quarter and, maybe, peel, for long, slow poaching. The quince is cooked when a knife pierces the fruit easily.  I like to enjoy the heavenly perfume so usually I will leave them out in a bowl for a week or so before cooking them.  It's good to have something slightly tart and fruity at Christmas-time to counteract all the rich food we eat.  Poached quince fits the bill perfectly and if you want to get ahead, you can poach the fruit now.  Bottle them and keep in the fridge until needed (they should easily keep for 3 months if your jars are scrupulously clean).  Beautiful as this illustration by *Patricia Curtan is, check back in a few days, or subscribe, and you'll find a recipe and a photograph showing their transformation into a delectable dessert. 

* Illustrattion in Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters with illustrations by Patricia Curtan