"They call for dates and quinces in the pastry"
~ Romeo and Juliet
Whenever I am cooking with quinces, it is inevitable that one of my housemates will ask what they are, and then remark that they've never tried one. I was on the Waitrose forum (OK, I am slightly ashamed to admit that...let's just move on) last autumn, and someone was asking whether Waitrose would be stocking quinces this year (autumn is British quince season). Their head of customer whatever replied that no, they would not, as there's not enough demand for them.I find it hard to see why. They are the most luscious of fruits. Well, no, the Alphonso mango is probably the most luscious of fruits. But the quince comes a close second. It is absolutely divine. I would quite like to convert the entire world to eating quinces like they do cooking apples. Or just hoard them all for myself.
They are probably best described as a sort of cross between an apple and a pear - some are quite pear-shaped, others more squat, and their flavour has the perfume of pears and the sweetness of apples. You can't eat them raw, as they are rock solid and sour, but when you bake them, something magic happens - their flesh goes soft like a Bramley apple and they taste of honeyed loveliness. Not a very technical description I know, but you'd have to taste one to find out - I recommend you do. They have a lovely grainy texture which goes really well with soft meat in a tagine, or smooth vanilla ice cream as a dessert. If you cook them for long enough, they turn bright red - I remember Nigella has a lovely recipe for red quinces with pomegranate seeds on top. A scarlet feast of fruity delight.
There's all sorts of fun mythology surrounding the quince. It has been suggested that cultivation of the fruit preceded cultivation of the apple, so references to apples in early literature (the garden of Eden...the golden apple that Paris gave to Aphrodite) may actually refer to quinces. In medieval times, to give a quince to a lady was a declaration of love, and Plutarch reports that Greek brides used to nibble them before entering the bridal chamber to ensure their kiss was not "unpleasant". In Slavonia, Croatia, when a baby is born, a quince tree is planted as a symbol of fertility.
The word 'marmalade' comes from marmelo, the Portuguese for quince, and so marmalade was originally a quince jam. That's just one of the things you can do with quinces - make membrillo, as the Spanish call it - quince paste. It's delicious with cheese or roasted meat such as lamb or pheasant, and I also quite like it on toast. I made it a few terms ago, and probably won't do so again - it was incredibly labour intensive, involving pushing quinces through a sieve to get a tiny amount of puree which was then mixed with equal amounts of sugar, boiled until gelatinous, then set like jam. Admittedly it was superb, especially with a chunk of crusty bread and some strong goats cheese, but in future I reckon I'll just buy it ready-made...especially as I never even got to finish the amount I made before it developed a "little furry jacket" (my mum's way of referring to mould) in the fridge. Rubbish.
The quince tree is native to Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Pakistan, but has been introduced to all sorts of places, especially the Med and the middle East. They're used a lot in middle Eastern cooking, either as a dessert or with meat such as lamb. I can think of endless uses for this goddess of fruits, but a few of my favourites are: served as a dessert, sliced and poached in a lemon and vanilla infused syrup; baked and served with ice cream; sliced and added to a lamb tagine (absolutely sublime); my stuffed pheasant recipe from a couple of weeks ago; in a compote with rosemary, served with roasted venison steaks; baked and stuffed with minced lamb, onions, pine nuts and cinnamon. It's also good in an apple or pear crumble, adding a fragrant note. Next time I can get my hands on some more quinces (at the moment they're hard to find, though there are some Turkish ones around, if you're prepared to pay £2 a fruit, or so...which I am) I want to try a quince crumble. Every time I spot some at the grocer's, my heart flutters a little. Shakespeare and I were clearly on the same page (no pun intended) - I would definitely call for dates and quinces in my pastry. In fact, I might try some date and quince turnovers. With filo pastry. Yum.
So I found a couple of joyous fruits in Cambridge while I was home for easter, and decided to make the aforementioned stuffed quinces. Sliced in half, baked until soft, then the inside scooped out and added to a mixture of lamb mince, chopped onion, pine nuts, cinnamon and allspice, which is then put back in the fruit and baked for another half hour or so. I served it with spinach and couscous, though a rice pilaff might also have been nice, or some chickpeas.
To paraphrase Edward Lear:
"We dined on mince, and slices of quince, which we ate with a runcible spoon"
No idea what a runcible spoon is. I suspect Lear didn't either. But the quince tasted nice.