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They Dined on Mince and Slices of Quince
“They dined on mince and slices of quince which they ate with a runcible spoon,
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced in the light of the moon.”
The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear
As a child I always loved Lear’s nonsense poem of the unlikely romance between an owl and his feline friend, and I guess I never questioned their feast of ‘mince and slices of quince’ as I’m not sure I even knew what a quince was. But it was nonsense, it rhymed and it sounded funny so it didn’t matter.
Quince and Teapot by Victor Kuzmich Teterin 1966
It was only much later in life did I encounter this slightly exotic and highly fragrant fruit. Originating in the Caucasus, the mountainous region between the Caspian and Black Seas, the quince was first cultivated in Persia, although there are references to it having originated throughout Asia before being introduced to the Middle East and Europe, to Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. Because of its presence in the Middle East there is speculation as to it being the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge referred to in the bible. The apple that we most commonly associate with the story of Adam and Eve might actually be a quince lost in translation. Personally, I doubt this is the case, as had the serpent served up quince to tempt Eve, he most certainly would have had to cook it first. The raw fruit is hard, acidic and virtually inedible. My own view is that the pomegranate was the forbidden fruit but that’s a whole other story for another time.
Two Quinces by Albert Kechyan 2019
The quince does however come from the same family as apples and pears and it has a long association with fertility. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is often depicted in both modern and ancient sculpture holding a quince in her right hand as a symbol of love, beauty, fertility and devotion. The ancient Greeks would eat quince at wedding feasts and baked them into wedding cakes where they were prized for their delicate aroma. It was customary to toss a quince to a newly married couple as a symbol of their love.
The quince is first recorded in England in 1275 when Edward I had four quince trees planted at the Tower of London. The tree gained popularity due to its hardiness and hundreds of years ago there would have been quince trees in almost every orchard. English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about the quince in the fourteenth century in the following poem attributed to him:
O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake.
I am ryght sory, masteras, for your sake,
Ye seme a thyng that all men have forgotyn;
Ye be so rype ye wex almost rotyn.
Quinces by Eliot Hodgkin 1969
Shakespeare too refers to the quince in his famous tale of star struck lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The quince is not left on the tree to rot as in Chaucer’s tale but is used in a wedding feast. Romeo and Juliet have secretly married but Romeo has been exiled following a fight and the death of Tybalt. Not knowing of her secret marriage, Juliet’s parent have arranged a marriage for her to Paris, but to avoid the marriage Juliet has taken a draught that makes her appear dead. On the morning of the arranged wedding the household is busy preparing the wedding feast not knowing that the bride to be is lying, apparently dead, in her room.
LADY CAPULET: Hold, take these keys and fetch more spices, nurse.
NURSE: They call for dates and quinces in the pastry. (IV, 4, 1-3)
Sadly, as we know tragic events follow in the Capulet household and no one gets to eat the wedding feast with its pies or tarts of quince and dates, although they do sound rather appealing.
The only other Shakespearian reference to the quince is in the name of his famous carpenter from A Midsummer Night’s Dream but alas Peter Quince has nothing to do with the fruit.
Still Life with Quinces by Vincent Van Gogh 1888-89
The quince looks much like its cousins both apples and pears but by October they have swollen to something more voluptuous than either. They are covered in a light brown downy fur that can be rubbed away revealing a lush yellow fruit beneath. They will often remain on the tree after the leaves have started to fall giving the appearance of a tree decked with golden baubles. They have an exquisite scent and bowl of quince in the kitchen gives off a beautiful aroma. I always keep them in a bowl on the kitchen counter for a few days before using them, just to enjoy the fragrance every time I pass. The raw fruit is rock hard, sour and unpalatable but once cooked they transform into something glorious.
They can be peeled, sliced and poached in syrup, used in pies or turned into jams or even made into slices of ruby membrillo, a quince cheese or paste that is divine with Manchego cheese. I have done all these things in the past but the poaching of fruit or the making of jam requires them to be peeled which is a job fraught with danger as the solid fruit resists the knife. Making membrillo requires hours of boiling where the thick paste bubbles and spits like Vesuvius erupting, yet another task for the fearless. But the making of a couple of jars of quince jelly is one of those easy kitchen jobs spread over a couple of autumn afternoons, that requires little effort but yields satisfying results that leave you feeling like some sort of domestic goddess. It also makes the kitchen smell divine.
Having collected the handful of windfalls pictured above, when we went on our tree climbing adventure, I spent a happy few hours last week making quince jelly and this is my recipe;
You will need quinces, (no more than half a dozen), a lemon, a bag of sugar, some jars with lids, a jelly bag to strain the fruit and a large saucepan.
Wash the quinces thoroughly and chop them up into smallish chunks, core, skin and everything. Put them into a large pan with water and the juice of the lemon, so that they are just covered. The lemon helps preserve the colour as the fruit starts to brown as soon as it is cut. Bring to a boil and then simmer gently for an hour or more until the fruit is very soft. Put the cooked fruit into a jelly bag and strain off the liquid into a measuring jug. I usually leave it to drip overnight. Don’t be tempted to squeeze the bag as this will make the jelly cloudy. (If you don’t have a jelly bag you can line a sieve with a couple of layers of clean muslin.)
When you are ready to make the jelly, measure the liquid and put it back into the pan with the same amount of sugar. I had 500ml of liquid and so used 500g of granulated sugar. Gently heat to dissolve the sugar and then when dissolved bring it to a rapid boil until it reaches setting point. I test for setting point by putting a small amount onto a very cold plate. If it wrinkles when you push it, then it is ready. Mine took less than five minutes, so make sure your jam jars are washed and are sterilising in the oven ready to fill. If there is any scum on the surface of the jelly skim it off first, before pouring the hot liquid into your prepared jars, sealing with the lids as you go. My five quinces yielded two jars of jelly.
When cooked the quince turns in a beautiful golden colour somewhere between amber and garnet quite unlike anything else. A jar of quince jelly makes a beautiful gift if you can bear to part with it. I like mine on toasted buttered crumpets but it is equally at home spread onto a cheese scone, as an accompaniment to meats and cheese or stirred into gravies and sauces. And there is something about its glistening jewel like colour that reminds me of the approach of the festive season filling me with a feeling of anticipation.
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