“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 by the light of the moon”
From The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear
It looks highly likely that the owl and the pussycat were using the cookery book compiled by the Roman foodwriter, Apicius, which has a whole chapter dedicated to mince, and which includes a recipe for stewing quinces in honey to make them edible (most varieties of quince can’t be eaten raw).
Apicius was probably writing in the late 4th century AD but quinces had been cultivated long before that. Like so many other plants of ancient origin they come from Mesopotamia (the area ‘between rivers’ – the Tigris and Euphrates), but they were also popular in Persia.
Some thousand years later the English writer of This Boke of Kokery gives helpful instructions regarding how to bake quinces explaining that you need to ‘pare them pyke out their cores and fill them full of good syrup made clary or wast pouders and sugre then lette them in coffins and hyle them and back them and serve them’. ‘Clary’ is a sweet, spiced wine and the ‘wast pouders’ were ground spices – probably cinnamon and nutmeg, which was a highly prized and very expensive spice only affordable by chefs such as the author who was probably responsible for catering for the feasts of ‘King Harry the Fourth’. ‘Coffins’, see Shakespearean spinach sacks, were pastry cases.
Now they are used prolifically in all kinds of ways throughout the middle east, and also in Spain in the form of membrillo – a sort of solid quince jam eaten with Manchego cheese.
In Britain we’ve been using quinces since Chaucer, particularly in apple pies (which is why the membrillo goes so well in a tarte Tatin), in gravies for game birds (I also think it’s good with duck), and as a jelly (which works particularly well due to the quince’s high pectin content) to serve with cold meat.You can buy jelly on-line – or at Cottage Delight – their heavenly quince with Shiraz fruits. But if you want to try making it, Carolyn Hart’s recipe is a good one to start with. It’s also excellent as a chutney – the best to buy is Roger’s Own Relish – cranberry and quince which is made in Cornwall. It’s especially good with Cornish Yarg – see the image at the bottom of this post.
The idea of lamb stewed with quince, vinegar, saffron, and coriander first appeared in Europe in Manuscrito Anonimo, a medieval cookbook from muslim Andalucia in Spain. The restaurant Asitane in Turkey, which has researched historic Ottoman recipes, has unearthed a version of lamb-stuffed quince (pekmezli ayva dolmasi) dating back to 1531 Even today, in Morocco quince is often used when making a lamb tajine (go here for Ollie Hunter’s wonderful recipe – you could substitute the honey for membrillo). I suspect Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall also used this Moroccan approach to develop his hot lamb and quince salad. As Fearnley-Wittingstall describes tantalisingly, “the zingy sweetness of the quince goes beautifully with the rose lamb”.
In the Valais region of Switzerland an aquavit and a sweet liqueur made from quinces is produced, while in Dijon the firm Briottet also makes an excellent one, as do Bramley and Gage in the UK. If you go to the Savoy hotel in London you can sip a Kings and Quince – a cocktail of quince liqueur, salted almond and bourbon.
Quinces look a bit like a cross between a pear and an apple (they are a member of the same scientific family as apples and pears, the Rosaceae, but the quince is in a genus all of its own). Avoid the type called Pineapple (mediocre); Tashkent is good, as is Aromatnaya (recommended if you are thinking of planting a tree of your own). Also good for planting is Meech’s Prolific, a highly productive variety which is easy to grow and which self-pollinates – you only need one tree to get fruit.
Buy them as golden as possible – little flecks of green are ok, not more, and leave them out to continue ripening.
Like crab apples you can’t eat most types raw, they are rock-hard and very tart, but when you cook them a transformation occurs. They become softer in both texture and flavour, they turn a beautiful ruby red colour, and they scent your kitchen with the most seductive aroma. Once experienced you can understand why brides in ancient Greece would nibble a quince before entering the bridal chamber in order, as Plutarch describes (Roman Questions 3.65) “that the first greeting may not be disagreeable or unpleasant”.
They can be baked whole, or you can peel, core, and simmer them in just enough water to cover them (with a little honey if you like) until they are soft. Go here for the method for poaching which is probably the best way to bring out their full flavour and velvety texture. Don’t throw away the poaching liquid – it can be boiled down to make a thick cordial with which you can make a wonderful whisky sour.
Quince whisky cocktail
For two people mix ¼ cup/60 ml of the quince cordial with ½ cup/120 ml whisky and 2 tbsp/30 ml of lemon juice (save rind to rub the rims of the glasses you choose and for garnish). Cool in the fridge together with the glasses. Divide between the glasses and top with soda.
Niki Segnit is the writer who has best described the flavour of the quince:
“a combination of apple, pear, rose and honey with a musky, tropical depth”
Quinces are in season from October to December.
Don’t overpower the flavour of the quince, which is the main event, with too many spices. You can grate a quince and mix it in with anything which is then going to be cooked – include the skin which contains most of the flavour.
Culinary uses of the quince:
- the tartness of quinces is a good counterpoint for anything in danger of being too fatty or too sweet
- quinces pair well with apples, pears, almonds, oranges and ginger
- (pre-stewed) in any of the puddlngs where you would normally use apples and pears – for example in pies (eg with almond paste and crème pâtissière, or in a savoury goats’ cheese quiche), crumbles and of course the magnificent tarte Tatin. It also goes very well as a topping for cheesecake.
- poached with clotted cream and pistachio nibs
- in a hazelnut torte
- in a syrup, hot, with vanilla ice cream
- in jams, jellies, chutneys, marmalades, and, of course membrillo – quince paste
- as a flavouring for vinegar (better than cider) – the Huilerie Beaujolaise makes an excellent one.
- in lamb tajines
- or in a guinea fowl tajine
- with veal in a Persian Khoresh
- in an Ottoman dish, Pekmezli Ayva Dolmasi (recorded in 1539) where baked quince is stuffed with a mixture of minced lamb and beef, rice, aromatic herbs, pine nuts, currants and grape molasses
- in a hot lamb salad (see above)
- with duck, or with pork
- grate it, as Jane Grigson suggests in Good Things, into ratafia liqueur, which usually made by combining unfermented grape juice with marc (especially good is Marc De Bourgogne)
- serve it, as Sally Clarke suggests (30 Ingredients) with panna cotta
- roast with spinach, labneh, dukkah and bacon