When my boyfriend and I arrived at our hotel in Crete this summer after a chilly 3.15am start, a long flight and a fraught attempt to navigate the Greek roads in an unfamiliar hire car, I was elated. My body hummed with intense joy. It wasn’t the sight of the empty blue pool, mirroring the radiant sun, nor the distant glow of the Mediterranean on the horizon. It wasn’t the sight of our pastel painted balcony, tangled with grape vines laden with translucent, plum-coloured fruit. It wasn’t even the knowledge that the bar would still serve us a huge Greek salad and a chunk of crusty bread despite it being far past lunchtime. No: my eyes swept breathlessly over the pool, the landscaped gardens and the cloudless sky and instead landed on the quince tree.
There it stood, largely inconspicuous in the garden except for its ripe, golden burden. Gnarled and lumpen, the quinces dangled ponderously from the branches like misshapen baubles. Wisps of grey fuzz clung to their pale yellow skins, cosseting the fruit in a cocoon of soft down. They were rock hard, firm in the hand and warm to the touch; the fat, ripe products of 320 days of sunshine a year. Every time I passed the tree I gazed longingly at the fruit, awed by the sheer abundance before my eyes, by fruit so precious presented in such a state of copious plenty. It became a ritual to touch the soft wisps of the quince skin on my way to and from the pool, marvelling at the sight of one of my favourite fruits in its natural habitat.
Quinces are, even in these days of air-freighted blueberries and Peruvian asparagus, an exotic rarity. They are one of our few remaining seasonal fruits, appearing in the UK only at the beginning of autumn, shipped from (usually) France or Turkey after they’ve had their chance to grow replete on Mediterranean sun and develop their characteristic apple-pear shape and coating of grey fluff. When they do make it over here, they’re often expensive compared to other fruits, and very few shops stock them. Most people are bewildered by their bulbous shape and solidity. They will put even your strongest kitchen knife to the test. Quinces seem a somewhat other-worldly fruit; after all, their culinary heyday in the UK was the medieval period, that hedonistic era of stuffed fantasy animal sculptures and roast swans, when the line between sweet and savoury was deliciously blurred in a sugary, spicy, rosewatery haze.
There is something almost magical about cooking a quince. Anaemic, tough and slightly gritty when raw, they mellow into beautiful glowing tenderness when gently simmered in liquid. The flesh deepens in colour to a luscious sunset red and the exotic, perfumed aromas of the fruit’s heart come to the fore. Somewhere between a fragrant apple and a succulent, sweet pear, the quince also has a slight citrus note to it. It works well with rich meats and cheeses, for this reason: in a classic lamb and quince tagine, perhaps, or a thick slab of honey-coloured membrillo with sharp manchego cheese.
This is my all-time favourite quince recipe. I’ve blogged about it before, but it deserves another post, several years on. Inspired by the excellent David Lebovitz, this recipe poaches slivers of quince to melting softness in a syrup of lemon juice, sugar and spice: cloves, cinnamon, star anise and cardamom, all of which seem natural alongside a fruit so popular in the Middle East. The amber syrup is reduced to form an intensely sweet, perfumed caramel, thickened with a little quince jelly or paste, which surrounds the quince pieces as they bake underneath a crisp, flaky pastry. The caramel saturates the edges of the pastry, turning them gloriously sweet and sticky. While I love a tarte tatin in all its guises and the classic apple version is hard to beat, this is the most beautiful to tip out of the pan. It’s the rosy, autumnal glow of the quince, simmered in spiced caramel and nestled into the buttery folds of the pastry. I love the excitement of an upside-down tart, the anticipation as you clumsily flip over the hot, heavy pan to reveal a sticky, steaming mass of caramel and burnished fruit. This version doesn't disappoint: it's deep gold, lusciously fragrant and deliciously syrupy.
You can see, now, why I was so excited about that quince tree. You can also see, now, why I travelled home from Greece with an extra two kilos of weight in my hand luggage. And, now, you can see where those special edible souvenirs ended up.
Quince tarte tatin (serves 6):
- 3 large quinces
- Half a lemon
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 cloves
- 1 star anise
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- 900ml water
- 100g sugar
- 140g flour
- 2 tsp light brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 85g cold butter, cubed
- 3-4 tbsp very cold water
- 2 tsp quince paste (membrillo) or jelly
- You will also need a suitable pan - an ovenproof frying pan or tarte tatin pan around 20-23cm is ideal.
First, poach the quinces. Put the water, sugar, lemon, cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom and star anise in a large saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Peel, core and quarter the quinces, then halve again into eighths. Drop them into the poaching liquid. Lower the heat to barely a simmer, and place a circle of greaseproof paper with a 1-inch hole in the middle over the water. Cover with a lid, if you have one; if not, the paper alone should be fine. Cook on a very low heat for an hour or so, until the liquid has turned pink and the quinces are tender. Turn off the heat and leave the quinces in the syrup until you need them.
Next, make the pastry. Put the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor and pulse until you have fine crumbs (or rub the butter in with your fingers, trying to touch it for as little a time as possible). Add the water a tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together and looks like little pebbles. You will have to squash it together with your hands. Form a flat disc and wrap it in cling film. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to assemble the tart, put 250ml of the quince poaching liquid along with the quince jelly or paste in your chosen ovenproof frying pan and simmer until it has reduced to a thick syrup (you want a layer about 5mm deep on the base of the pan). Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
Lay the quince segments, drained, over the bottom of the pan, curved side down in a circle. Try and squish them together as much as possible so there are no gaps. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to a circle slightly bigger than the pan, and lay it over the quinces, tucking it in all around the edges (this will be the best bit of the whole dessert, where the pastry edges are saturated in caramel!)
Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and golden and the caramel is bubbling around the sides. Remove and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before putting a plate over the top of the pan and turning it upside down to release the finished tart (you might have to shake it a bit to loosen it).
Serve warm with ice cream, creme fraiche or cream.