The late, great cookery writer Jane Grigson quoted a reader in her 1982 classic, The Fruit Book, who cavilled at her quince recipes. “First catch your quinces,” he wrote, paraphrasing the recipe instruction “First catch your hare,” apocryphally attributed to the 18th-century domestic goddess, Hannah Glasse.
He had a point. Quinces were for decades almost impossible to get hold of, a semi-mythical fruit, found in literature as the golden apples of Aphrodite or the mince-and-quince wedding feast of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, but not in supermarkets.
But let’s face it, the quince is not the most accommodating of fruits, so it’s not that surprising that the fruit fell from favour with shoppers tantalised by seedless grapes, bags of salads and shelves of waxy, perfect Granny Smiths. To start with, the quince doesn’t look great, an angular, awkward looking beast, with patches of greyish fluff concealing the yellow skin.
Unlike apples, it can’t be eaten from the tree, nor will it ripen in the bowl like a pear. Instead the hard fruit must be whacked open with a heavy knife, and the core gouged out before cooking with sugar or honey to sweeten it. A labour of love.
But over the last decade or so, the tide has turned and it seems we have discovered that quinces are worth the work. After a generation in the wilderness – sometimes literally, in forgotten orchards or overgrown gardens – the quince is back. In part because of our fascination with Middle Eastern food, where the quince is queen, and also the rediscovery of traditional British quince jelly and quince cheese, quinces have become if not easy to find, at least possible. You will have to look a bit further than the supermarkets, although Waitrose sometimes has them, as does Ocado. Good greengrocers are the place to look, especially those whose owners have Turkish or Middle Eastern heritage, or enterprising whole food shops who take in local produce.
The quinces right now may even be British. If they are smaller, a bit more battered looking, then this is more likely. The huge, unblemished ones, chrome yellow and polished free of their fluffy coat, maybe with a blob of red wax tenderly sealing the end of each stem – how I love the care this implies – are probably imported. These suave foreigners taste a little less intensely quincey than the homegrown variety (our cooler temperature improves the flavour) but will be good all the same. No catches.
How to prepare a quince
- Wash the fruit, rubbing away any of the fluff on the skin.
- I always used to peel quinces, except when baking them whole or making jelly, until a reader, Glenys Lunt from Wiltshire, pointed out that it’s generally unnecessary: the skin is tender when cooked. I still peel the fruit before poaching it for a tart, say, but purely for looks.
- Use a heavy knife to cut the fruit in half. It may take some force. Cut out any rotten patches; a little discolouration is fine, but anything slimy needs to go.
- To keep the fruit in halves: remove the core and the flower end. A sturdy melon baller is the best implement, or a grapefruit spoon with a serrated tip. Use a small knife to make a V-shaped cut from stalk to core, to dispense with the stringy bits. Or just cut the fruit into quarters and slice out all the core.
- Look closely at the inside of the fruit. The area around the core can be gritty, so use the melon baller, grapefruit spoon or a sturdy teaspoon, to scrape out any obviously white-spotted areas. Don’t worry about the fruit beginning to brown. It will darken as it cooks.
- Wrap the peel and core in a piece of muslin and tie securely, to add to the cooking water if poaching. This is optional but will add pectin (a thickener, vital for a good set in jam) and flavour to the pan.
- The perfumed flavour of quince comes into its own with slow cooking. Use in autumnal tarts, or freeze in their syrup to top Christmas pavlovas.
- For one to two quinces, gently heat 50g sugar and two tablespoons of honey (or 110g sugar), a vanilla pod, a thumb length of lemon zest and 500ml water in a small pan until the sugar dissolves. Add a halved, cored quince and cover with a piece of greaseproof paper pressed on to the surface of the fruit, and a lid.
- Cook very gently for three hours or more, turning occasionally, until the fruit is tender and turning terracotta colour. Top up the water from time to time.
- Afterwards, the poaching liquid is delicious mixed with dry prosecco for a quince bellini.