These are the best ways to cook with quince
Six years ago, during a particularly damp Autumn, we packed up and moved our entire lives from London to Kent. Swapping the bustling city for the calmer countryside, one of the biggest and most startling of changes was how much farm and woodland we were suddenly surrounded by.
Excited to make the most of our reconnection to nature, I decided to sign-up to a local farm’s fruit and veg box scheme.
As I excitedly delved into the first delivery, nestled amongst the soil-smeared root veg and thick-leaved greens was a crackly paper bag, abundant with something weighty.
Unfurling the top, I was delighted to discover inside a crop of knobbly, golden quinces. Quinces are not something readily available in the supermarket, so despite having been a food writer for many years, the opportunity to cook with them fresh had never arisen.
Quinces are fruits that grow on small trees, and like apples, pears and cherries, belong to the prolific and varied rose family - a fact that becomes somewhat apparent when the shrubs blossom.
Quinces are not native to the UK, but have been grown here since the 1200s. They were most likely brought over by the Romans, who rather romantically referred to them as ‘melimelum’ - which translates to ‘honey apple’ - for their preference was to make a jam from the fruit using honey.
Unless you live in Sussex, you are unlikely to find them wild whilst foraging, and they tend to be cultivated in gardens and farms.
If you’ve yet to see a quince in the flesh, they are yellow, often with a green or blush-pink tint, depending on their ripeness level. Sporting a smooth skin, yet an irregular form, they resemble an apple that’s shaped like a gnarled pear.
What do quinces taste like?
The fruits are a triply-challenging combination of hard, astringent and bitter when raw. It’s possible to eat one in this state, but frankly, you wouldn’t want to.
To render quinces edible, they need to be slowly cooked and sweetened, after which you will be rewarded with tender fruit that’s delicately perfumed.
Where can you find quinces?
You can find quinces in greengrocers, farm shops and veg box schemes, or get them from green-fingered friends who grow them. If you’re fortunate enough to live near Turkish or Middle Eastern grocers, you might also spot them, as they are - unsurprisingly, given their proximity to where the fruit originated - beloved of their cuisines.
What should I look for when buying quinces?
Under-ripe quinces have a green skin, which turns yellow as it ripens. Ripe quinces will be fragrant but still feel rock-hard and if you find a soft one, avoid it at all costs, as it has most likely gone past its best. Since we’re not dealing with supermarket perfection, blemishes and little dings to the skin are to be expected, but large bruises or rot are not ideal.
How do you prepare quinces?
Not as yielding as apples or pears, the quinces I bought put up a firm fight, so I advise arming yourself with your best peeler, sharpest heaviest knife and exercise a little patience and caution. After peeling and halving, I then pried out the core with the tip of the knife, and chopped them into chunks (but you can slice them as per your recipe).
What is quince fruit good for?
Historical literature is scattered with reference to quinces, from the Bible to Chaucer. Cooking with them gave me a curious sense of travelling back in time and made me feel marvellously medieval.
When researching recipes to use up the quinces, most of the ones I found seemed to follow basic but ancient preparation methods. Being packed to the rafters with pectin, preserves are one of the most common, and practically every culture that cooks with them has their own version.
The one that is ubiquitous is Spain’s offering: membrillo - also known as quince paste / quince cheese - a firmly gelatinous confection that accompanies a cheeseboard as a sweet counterpoint.
It’s made by simmering chunks of uncored and unpeeled quince in water until tender, then pressing the cooked fruit through a nylon sieve to make a smooth puree. The strained pulp is then stirred with sugar and cooked again until thick enough to hold its shape, at which point it is potted and left to set solid.
How can I cook with quinces?
Ultimately you can try and substitute quince anywhere you’d cook an apple or a pear, so quinces were also popped into pies too.
With a nod to this, and for ease and speed, I chose to use most of the fruits to make a rough, rubbly, clove-spiced apple and quince crumble.
The quinces added an unusually fragrant edge, the chunks turning a pretty orangey-pink hue when cooked, and transformed the pudding from classic Sunday lunch fare to a dessert that was elegant and rustic all at once.
I did save one to try something a little bit different with. Thinking about how perfect a partner quince is to meat and cheese, it inspired me to make a warm salad with a few leftovers in the fridge.
The following day, I halved, cored and chopped the last one - unpeeled - into wedges, drizzled it with the runniest of honey and roasted it until they collapsed. After leaving the sticky slices to cool a little, I layered them with crisp salad leaves, a crumbly but sharp blue cheese and tender shreds of roast lamb. Lightly drizzled with a simple vinaigrette to cut through the sweetness, it made a delectable and decadent lunch.
The season for quinces is fleeting and they only make a short guest appearance in the fruit and veg box every Autumn, but their ephemeral arrival (and a roasted quince salad) is now something I look forward to every year.
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