Sunday 16 November 2008

Quince – A Tale of Abundance

Many authors mention the ancient nature of the quince tree, Cydonia oblonga. They refer to biblical references about apples actually referring to quince, showing how the fruit of this small, deciduous tree has been valued for thousands of years.

I first came across quince when my friend, Jean, who was my child-minder for many years when Stephen and Kathryn were small, talked about making quince jelly for Christmas. My second experience was at a Herb Society AGM at Sulgrave Manor in 1998, when Jan Greenland produced a quince cheese. I was instantly hooked and the following year I planted a quince tree in the Sanctuary next to the main herb bed along with a meddler, an ancient pear.

Quince is related to both apples and pears. The five-petalled flower is pink tinged and as the year progresses, it turns into a small, green, lemon shaped fruit which eventually grows into a large yellow aromatic pear.

During my tree’s first year, the flowers dropped off and the leaves drooped. It wasn’t happy. Over the following years, it grew in size and always flowered, but produced no fruits.

This year was different. During one summer visit, I discovered a small fruit forming and was overjoyed. The next month, my father asked if I had seen my five quinces. This time I took pictures to record the momentous event.

At the end of October, one of the quinces had fallen off onto the floor, so we knew they were ripe to pick. The five quinces were reverently laid in a basket and more pictures taken. Then we brought them home and left them in the cool section of the fridge to wait until I could concentrate on turning them into jelly and cheese.

It would have been better if I had stored them in a cool, dark, dry place as they would have kept indefinitely. One of quinces was starting to go bad when I took them out of the fridge.

Surprisingly, Mrs Beeton doesn’t have any recipes for quince jelly, neither does the 1960s picture version of Good Housekeeping (my mother’s standard cookbook). I knew I’d seen recipes in my Good Housekeeping cookbook which I’ve had since before we were married, so even in the 1970s, people were using quinces.

I found another recipe on The Cottage Smallholder website which suggested cooking the quinces for many hours and using the juice for jelly and the flesh for cheese, which she referred to by its Italian name, membrillo. In the end, I used a combination of both recipes which yielded around 4lbs of cheese and 5lbs of jelly – not a bad quantity from 5 quinces!

Quince Jelly and Cheese

Wash the quinces. Chop into small pieces using a sharp, heavy knife as they’re very hard. I cored mine as I didn’t want the pips in the cheese, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to peel them either. Add the juice and grated peel of two large lemons. Cover them with cold water (I used 3 pints of water for 5 quinces). Bring to the boil and simmer on the lowest heat until the quince flesh is tender (between one and three hours). Strain.

You should use a jelly bag and strain overnight to ensure the jelly is cloudless. I didn’t have the appropriate equipment so I strained the juice into a plastic bowl and left it for a couple of hours so all the sediment fell to the bottom. Then I measured the juice and poured it back into the cleaned saucepan after I’d finished making the cheese, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the bowl.

Add 1lb granulated sugar to each pint of quince juice. Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved stirring with a wooden spoon continuously. Then heat to a rolling boil for ten minutes. Spoon several spoonfuls of jelly on to a pyrex saucer and place in the freezer to cool for 5 minutes. Keep doing this every five minutes until the jelly has a wrinkled skin over the top of it when you gently push it back with your finger nail. This is the setting point. Take the saucepan off the heat and pour jelly into sterilised glass jars heated in a low oven for ten minutes. Seal with jampot covers.

To make the cheese, place the quince flesh with a small amount of liquid in a liquidiser until you have a puree. Weigh the puree and return it to the saucepan with an equal weight of granulated sugar. (5 quinces produced 2 1/4lbs of puree and 2 ½ pints juice.) Cook on the lowest heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick or burn for another couple of hours. (I went away to start writing a new short story and returned for a stir every 15-20 minutes and it was fine.)

The cheese will turn a deep crimson and have the consistency of a thick soup you can stand a spoon up in. Apparently membrillo is cut into slices, so to achieve that consistency you need to cook it for at least three to five hours. I only cooked mine for two. You don’t need to cook at a rolling boil because you aren’t looking for a setting point. When the cheese is thick enough for your liking, pour into sterilised glass jars and cover in the usual way.

The cheese has a slightly gritty texture because of the stone cells which are also found in pears. It tastes aromatic and unique and very moreish! I’m looking forward to trying it with feta or other salty Greek cheeses. The jelly tastes very much like an aromatic pear and will be wonderful as an accompaniment to meat, cheese or just spread on toast.

Apparently the energetic properties of quince are linked to purification, protection and exorcism, but I prefer to look to the energies associated with apple – abundance. Quince is a veritable cornucopia and I am so pleased the tree has finally gifted me with its fruit.

No comments: