Quinces

Quinces

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

The quince is a strange old-fashioned kind of a fruit, with a delightful sibilant name. Its fall from grace in our kitchens is something of a mystery, as despite its ordinary appearance, rather like an overgrown apple, it is deliciously fragrant. A bowl of quinces will perfume a whole house – well, a small one like ours, anyway. Even more bewitching is the transformation of its flesh, on cooking, from an unremarkable pastry white into a beautiful rosy-amber hue.

According to American food writer Waverley Root, a key reason for the demise of the quince is its startlingly astringent flavour. He suggests that because sugar is now such a dominant flavour preference in western diets we reject foods which lack it. Less prosperous regions like the Middle East or the southern Mediterranean are traditionally more dependent on natural sweeteners such as honey, date syrup and fresh fruits rather than bland old sugar cane. Their palates are more likely to accept sour, tart and bitter flavours than our lazy western ones!

However, the quince in this country is a very different fruit to that of the hotter countries of the Middle East, where it has been widely cultivated for over 4000 years. In those climates, the fruit becomes softer and juicier and can even be eaten raw. Quince trees do not fruit as well in more temperate climates, where the lack of enough sunshine means the fruit has a disappointing tendency to rot on the tree rather than ripen.

As they have a very high pectin content, the most obvious use for quinces is to make jams, jellies and pastes. French cotignac, Italian cotognata and Spanish or Portuguese marmelado are all different sorts of quince paste, the latter in fact being the origin of our English word ‘marmalade’. The curious word ‘quince’ is itself derived from a French word, ‘coing’, after the ancient city of Kydonia on Crete, where the best quinces were said to grow in ancient times.

In Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Syria and Turkey, quinces are commonly used in both sweet and savoury dishes. They make a delicious fruit compote, poached with a little honey and lime syrup and served with whipped cream or yoghurt. They can be stuffed with a mixture of chopped nuts and spices, and slowly oven-baked until their aroma fills the kitchen. Other Persian recipes favour stuffing them like a vegetable, with a mixture of minced meat and split peas. They are also the fruit par excellence to use in a Moroccan lamb tagine, enlivened with paprika, saffron and ginger.

Selecting and storing quinces

In terms of finding quinces, you have to seize them when you can. If you know someone with a quince tree in their garden, make sure you become their best friend! The season for quinces is startlingly short (May–June) and they are not really grown commercially in Australia. However, they are becoming a more common sight in specialty greengrocers and markets, and, a true sign of increased acceptance, stewed quinces are returning to the breakfast menus of lots of chic little bistros, while quince paste has become almost a common accompaniment to many a cheeseboard.

Choose fruit which are firm and free from wrinkly bits and insect damage. The colour of the fruit will give some clue to its ripeness – as quinces mature they lighten from a sharp, pale-green to a Golden Delicious yellow. Fully ripe quinces are a deeper, brighter yellow, and the real giveaway is the bewitching honeyed fragrance which is at its most intense in the ripe fruit. Don’t reject the less ripe fruit though. They have a higher pectin content, which makes them ideal for making jams and jellies. Riper fruit is better suited to poaching or baking.

Quinces should not be kept in the refrigerator. They have a naturally long shelf life and are very slow to rot. But more obviously, one of the very best things about quinces is their extraordinary scent – leave them in a bowl on the kitchen table and allow them to work their magic!

Using quinces

To prepare the fruit for poaching, it first needs to be well washed to get rid of the grey down on its skin. Then comes the hard work. Quinces are usually rock-hard, so use a very strong knife to cut, core and peel them. Include the cores and peelings with the slices of fruit as they also contribute flavour, especially when making jellies or pastes. A great deal of the fruit’s pectin is to be found in the skin and the pips.

Like apples, quinces discolour very quickly, which may or may not matter to you, and will in most cases depend on the recipe you are using. Some people recommend dropping them in acidulated water until you are ready to cook, which will certainly slow the browning process. However, quinces undergo a fairly dramatic colour change on cooking – poaching them transforms them to a glowing pink, and if you are simmering the fruit for a long time to make jam or jelly, then the individual slices will collapse down to a deep-amber hue, and a little surface discolouration won’t really matter.

When poaching quinces, the key thing to remember is that they take a long, long time – sometimes as much as an hour, or even more, to soften to an acceptable texture. As they are very tart, they require a lot of sugar, especially in sweet dishes. They also benefit from the addition of a vanilla pod, or some orange, lemon or even lime zest to the cooking syrup.

A few wafer-thin slices of quince added to an apple pie will impart a delicious scent to the whole dish. You might also like to develop an eastern theme by adding a few grains of cardamom.

Recipes in this Chapter

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