I was young, inexperienced and a little nervous at the time and I was in two minds as to whether I should stand quietly behind my stall, allowing people to browse my products in peace or whether I should attempt to draw them in with loud questioning. Quince Charming was clearly not in any doubt as to what he should do and every person who strolled to within a few feet of his table was asked, "Do you know quince?" Looking slightly startled and taken unawares they would usually mutter something about having quince growing in their garden to which he would take pleasure in pointing out that that was "Quince japonica", a rambling shrub and that he was talking about "true" quince. I admired his efforts and one way or another learnt a thing or two from him about what to do and what not to do regarding capturing people's attention. Certainly, by the end of the weekend I knew his speel as well as he did, and still do to this day!
Apart from bumping into Quince Charming a few more times at craft fairs over the years, I didn't really have much to do with quince until a couple of years ago when one of my regular customers asked me if I could make quince jelly. I told her I couldn't as I didn't have any quince but I put a plea out on Facebook, asking if anyone knew where I could get hold of some. I soon tracked down someone who was more than happy for me to come and help myself to the quince on his tree... but he said I would need a boat! It turned out that his tree was on an island in the middle of a small lake. We went up to have a look but there was no way to get to the tree and our pleas for a boat on facebook were not successful. So another year went by without quince in my life.
I give talks to various gardening clubs and other associations and in them I go through the kitchen garden year, month by month, looking at what needs doing in the garden and what can be harvested. My November section always mentions quince, it being one of very few things that are harvested at this time of year. I mention too, my desire to use some but my failures to date. However, this year, my fortunes changed when someone who had seen my talk emailed me to say she had arranged for me to pick some from someone she knew who had a tree in her garden that was cropping abundantly. Eagerly, I set off with my fruit picker and harvest bags, returning shortly with two bags full.
Finally, with some quince to play with, it was time for me to "get to know quince". It certainly does have a strong aroma, that quickly fills any room they are put in. It isn't, however, an unpleasant smell, it being sort of like clementines cooked in hot butter. They look like large, misshapen yellow pears but they are hard, tough to peel and with a core that takes a fair bit of effort to cut through. The core is quite big too, relatively speaking, so there isn't that much usable fruit compared to the other familiar members of the Malus family: apples, pears and crab apples. The fruit too is quite dry and covered with a fluffy grey down. I had read not to attempt to enjoy the fruit raw as it is dry and unpleasantly tart but to be honest I didn't find them particularly appetising to look at anyway.
I didn't think the quince would keep well, so with the clock ticking, I flicked through my recipe books and decided what I would make from them. Quince jelly was first - relatively easy to make in that the whole, unpeeled or cored fruit are cooked up and then allowed to drip through a jelly bag over night. I made two batches of this and another batch with added gooseberries from the freezer. From the pulp that was left behind, I made quince cheese, or membrillo, as it is known in Spain. This is supposed to be amazingly tasty with Manchego cheese so I purchased some of that and gave it a go. It didn't blow my socks off but I could see that some people would adore that flavour combination.
When I had been collecting the quince, the tree owner had recommended an apple and quince sauce recipe from the River Cottage Preserve cookbook so I gave this ago, using the Bramley apples she had also kindly given me from her garden. This was a beautiful sauce and went very well with the roast pork I had at the weekend. The flavour notes from the quince would help it to go with other meats too, I suspect and it was certainly less sweet than some apple sauces. Inspired by this idea, I had a fiddle with the recipe and created a quince and cranberry sauce that I think will go very well with turkey. As it contains quince, apple, cranberry and pork I think it will go well with anything served up at Christmas actually.
As I neared the bottom of my second bag, I made a batch of lemon and quince marmalade and then moved on to chutney, making one from pumpkins and quince, adapted from a recipe from River Cottage. I really had no expectations as to what a pumpkin and quince chutney might turn out like but I was surprised to find it turning a beautiful glossy dark brown with a fruity sweetness not that dissimilar from Branston Pickle; a chutney I have long attempted to imitate. That's not to say that I think Branston is all that wonderful but it is certainly something that people are familiar with and one that they are comfortable to use so anything that is like it is sure to be a hit. Branston Pickle is a completely meaningless and undescriptive name so it seemed fitting that I should come up with a name that is equally as obscure... So "Ps and Qs Pickle" was born; a nod to the two principle ingredients and a reminder to use your table manners!
So that was it, I had ticked everything off my wish list in terms of what I wanted to try with quince but I still had a handful of fruit in the bottom of the bag. I had briefly searched the internet for quince related cake recipe but it was clear that quince is not used in baking with the abandon of its cousin the apple or even the pear. However, I have a pumpkin and ginger tea bread recipe that is my husband's all time favourite cake... when it goes right. It is a weird thing because often it produces the most beautiful loaf, like a divine Madeira cake with gingery favours but equally as often it fails to cook properly, remaining undercooked and stodgy in the middle no matter how long it is left in the oven. Having chatted to a friend, who also makes this cake, we decided it must have something to do with the pumpkin used. Some pumpkins are quite wet and others dry so maybe the cake fails if the water content is wrong. My theory would be that a dry pumpkin would more likely work. With this in mind, I wondered whether the dry flesh of the quince would work, adding to the cake the citrus butterness that seems to define the fruit. And it turned out I was right as the last few fruit went towards making this beautiful cake.
That completes my voyage of discovery regarding the quince for this year at least and now I feel that should I wander to within a few feet of Quince Charming, I would honestly be able to say yes should he ask, "Do you know quince?"
Quince and Ginger Tea Bread
175g melted butter140g clear honey1 egg, beaten250g grated quince flesh100g light muscovado sugar350g self-raising flour1 tablespoon ground ginger1 tablespoon Demerara sugar
Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a 2lb load tin. Mix together the butter, honey, egg and quince. Add the muscovado sugar, flour and ginger and stir until well combined. Pour into the tin then sprinkle over the Demerara sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes until risen and golden. Leave in the tin to cool for 10-15 minutes before turning out to cool on a wire rack.