The street is a soothing, nondescript muddle of brickwork and grey cobbles, glistening slightly in the aftermath of the morning rain. The sombre wares of the shop windows merge into a blur; dusty vintage clothing, old leather-bound books, pens of various shapes, sizes and degrees of antiquity. Everything has an air of tiredness to it, of weary age yearning to be invigorated with new life. It's calming, easy to walk down the street in a daze as everything blends into the background.
But there they are. Sitting there in their little wicker basket. Great orbs of primrose-coloured sunshine, their vivid yellow blazing out like a flame amidst their drab surroundings. Their voluptuous curves whisper seductively of hotter, more exotic and carefree climes, yet the soft down that clings to their skin like cobwebs suggests light snowflakes, or a vain attempt to wrap up warm for the winter. They are firm in the hand; heavy, satisfying. They feel sturdy, promising robust, heady flavours; whispering of brightness both to look at and to eat. I pick up two, cradling them gently against my stomach, leaving the rest to their quiet yellow repose.
I am, of course, talking about the first quinces of the year. Always a happy moment, the arrival of quinces in the markets promises delicious culinary joy for the coming months. It's like Mother Nature's way of making up for the cold, dreary weather that starts to grate and sadden at this time of year. You can't refuse to be cheered up by the bright spectacle of a quince, and you definitely can't refuse to be made happier by eating one.
Okay, so maybe all that was a little over-the-top and wannabe-poetic. But I really do love these fruits, which seem so modern and exotic despite dating back thousands of years. We still haven't quite figured them out as a nation - they're pretty tricky to track down, and currently the only place I can find them in York is a lovely little deli called the Hairy Fig, which is where I spied the aforementioned glowing yellow basket. None of my new friends at university have ever heard of, let alone eaten, a quince.
I'm not quite mean enough to try the 'Oh, just bite into it - it's really nice, like an apple!' trick, though. Damn my good nature, getting in the way of hilarious practical jokes.
To celebrate the first quinces of the year, I've made a rather wonderful little tart. While I love using quinces in savoury recipes, sometimes their fragrant perfumed flesh just yearns to be coupled with a liberal amount of butter, either in the form of pastry or crumble. This tart does both, in that half the crumble is pressed down to form a rough pastry, onto which the fruit is spread, while the remaining half is scattered over the top, to bake into a rough, crunchy, buttery mass. This was inspired by a Dan Lepard recipe that uses plums and cobnuts, but I figured it would work with quinces and almonds (and, dare I suggest that it might be even tastier?)
It's very common to pair quinces with apples - sometimes pears - in baking. This is, I think, because their strong flavour can rather overwhelm when left to its own devices. I don't agree, loving the taste of quince pure and unadulterated, but this is the first time I've tempered it with apples and I rather liked the result. I used cooking apples from the tree in my garden, which are rather tart, and take the edge off the cloying sweetness of the quince. The result is a gorgeous marriage; it tastes homely, somehow, like going back to basics - you can't beat the purity of stewed fruit, enhanced only with a little sugar.
There's also something rather texturally appealing about cooking apples with quinces - the quinces don't soften as much, remaining delectable, tender morsels, while the apples dissolve into a froth. The combination is delicious, and the perfect filling for this crumble tart. It's basically apple crumble, but in sliceable form, and improved with the delectable fragrance of quince. I added some flaked almonds to the crumble mixture, which give a lovely nutty crunch, and sprinkled some demerara sugar over the top for the same reason.
One of the reasons behind this dessert, apart from my passionate love for the quince, is that I was recently sent some lovely wines from South West France to sample (I know, it's a hard life being a food blogger). Home to around twenty indigenous grape varieties and the point of origin for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, the South West is a wonderful region for wine diversity (there are 16 PDO wine denominations). Even more excitingly, wines from this region have the highest procyanidin content of any in the world - the chemical that means wine can have positive effects on cardiovascular health.
I haven't noticed any immediate benefits yet, so I guess I'll just have to keep drinking it until I am fully conscious of my arteries expanding.
My first taste was of the PDO Gaillac, Domaine Rotier, 2008. This is a beautiful dessert wine. I don't know that much about wine, so I won't be a fraudulent bore and start waxing lyrical about bouquets and body and finish. Instead, I will tell you that this wine is like drinking liquid honey. It warms you from the inside, and is gorgeously sweet and aromatic. It has, according to the bottle, notes of apricot, fig and quince, which makes it the perfect partner for this dessert.
I made the dessert with the inkling that it would go well with the wine. In fact, it was an even better match than I could have hoped.
It's quite hard to pair wine with dessert, because very sweet or tart things tend to make the wine taste overly sour and acidic. The best way is to ensure there is a rich, buttery component to said dessert, to mellow out any assertive fruit flavours. This crumble, then, is the ideal way to go. It provides a rich, buttery base for the sweet, fragrant wine, which perfectly reflects the quince flavours in the fruit filling.
It's a way of putting a proper autumnal pudding on the table without the heaviness of crumble (not that I'd ever turn down crumble, but sometimes you want something a bit lighter and more refined). You can serve it in elegant slices. It looks far more effort than it actually is. It's exotic and will make people say 'Ooh, what's quince?' It's an amalgam of two very traditional British ingredients: quince and crumble. It breathes sweet and tasty life into a much misunderstood fruit.
Then you have the taste, which is just wonderful. Serve it with lots of vanilla ice cream, while it's still a little warm from the oven. There's rich buttery pastry, the crunch of toasted almonds, and the soft, unctuous collapsed autumnal fruit inside; sweet, yet tart, standing up robustly to its crumbly trappings.
Buttery crumble, a sweet fruit filling and a glass of ambrosial dessert wine - the absolute best way to end a meal.
(Adapted from a recipe from Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet)
1 medium quince
3-4 tbsp brown sugar
Squeeze of lemon juice
3 medium cooking apples
2 tsp cornflour
3 tsp water
100g plain flour
75g wholemeal flour
100g cold butter, cubed
50g brown sugar
50g flaked almonds, toasted, plus 1 tbsp to garnish
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp demerara sugar
First, make the fruit filling. Peel and quarter the quince. Remove the core. Cut into 2cm cubes and put in a medium saucepan with the brown sugar, lemon juice and enough water to just cover it. Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 10 minutes or so until almost tender. Peel, core and chop the apples into similar sized pieces, then add to the quince and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, uncovered, until the fruit has mostly collapsed. Taste and check the sweetness - add a little more sugar if it's too tart (but you want it fairly tart to contrast with the crumble). Mix the cornflour with the water then stir into the fruit to thicken it. Set aside to cool.
Grease a 20cm tart tin with a removable base. Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
For the pastry, rub the butter into the flours using your fingers or a food processor. Stir in the sugar. Finely chop the toasted almonds (except the ones for the garnish) then stir these in too along with the baking powder. Stir in the milk. Press half of this mixture into the tart tin, along the bottom and up around the sides too, to make a crust. Spoon in the fruit filling, then scatter the rest of the pastry mixture evenly over the top, but don't press down. Sprinkle over the demerara sugar and reserved flaked almonds.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Check it halfway through to make sure it isn't burning - if so, cover with foil and turn the oven down slightly. Leave to cool in the tin before dusting with icing sugar, removing and slicing to serve (preferably with ice cream).