Most people know the first line of Keat’s famous poem “St Agnes’ Eve..ah bitter chill it was” but not that many have read this gorgeous poem through completely.
It’s a long poem based on the idea that on St Agnes’ Eve (20 January), if a virgin completes a series of ritual actions, she will see the man she will marry in her dreams. On this particular evening the family of our heroine, Madeleine, are throwing a wild party. She completes the rituals and prepares for bed while our hero, Porphyro, a member of a rival family to Madeleine’s, persuades her nurse to let him watch her while she sleeps. He arrives a bit early, in time to watch her undressing… and sneaks into a cupboard as she goes to sleep.
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
She wakes up to find the feast, but doesn’t realise she’s not still sleeping so allows him to make mad passionate love to her…. Then she understands what’s happened, but declares undying love all the same. He returns her love and, in order to preserve her honour suggests they elope, which isn’t too difficult since all Madeleine’s relatives are by now completely blotto.
In any case, from a culinary point of view we’re interested in the stanza above. The ‘syrop tinct with dates’ (I accept it was probably just the cinnamon that was used..) must be that described in this post. And the ‘candied quince’ is described here – a wonderful preserve which goes excellently with both ham and blue cheese, with pork, and also as an extra flavouring in a tagine. The original concept comes from the cookbook of the Roman epicure, Apicius which I finished reading a few months ago (translated, not in Latin!).
This post is dedicated to Jacqui Eggar
To make the quinces in syrup you’ll need:
- about three quinces
- 720 ml/3 cups cider vinegar
- 420 g/2 cup sugar (you can, as the ancient Romans did, use honey instead in which case you will need less water and more honey)
- juice of a lemon and some lemon peel which you will need to fish out at the end
- 10 Indonesian long peppercorns, crushed in a pestle and mortar
- 10 cloves
- knob of ginger
- 1 cinnamon stick
- about twenty grinds of nutmeg
- Gently wash off the down from the quinces and slice off both ends, retaining them and putting them in large, heavy bottomed saucepan.
- Peel the quinces using a sturdy potato peeler, again retain the peel and put it in the saucepan
- With a strong, sharp knife which you don’t care too much about cut vertically down as close to the core as you can without touching the core, four cuts down, and then chop off the bottom and top, also as close to the core as you can. Put the remaining core in the saucepan. Add a couple of bits of lemon peel if you have them.
- Pour the water into the saucepan, add the spices except the ginger, and bring it to the boil, reduce to a simmer (don’t cover, you want it to reduce) and continue to cook for about 45 minutes to an hour.
- Meanwhile excavate any bits of core which have strayed into the flesh – they will have the texture of bits of chipped bone!
- Peel and chop the ginger
- Sprinkle the quince flesh with a little lemon juice to stop it going brown while the cooking proceeds.
- It’s at this stage that you’ll start to really smell this aromatic fruit (it’s quite sensous!) and the water will turn a beautiful rose colour.
- Ten minutes before the end of the simmering time slice the quince flesh thinly.
- Take the core, peel etc out with a slotted spoon and discard
- Add the flesh and the sugar to the saucepan.
- Continue to simmer for at least an hour, until the flesh is tender and has begun to blush profusely. Now TASTE! Too sweet, add more lemon juice; too bitter, add more sugar
- Pour into sterilised jars (go here to find out how to do that) making sure that all the quince flesh is covered by the syrup. DON’T EAT FOR AT LEAST A WEEK. They will keep in the fridge for a couple of months.
Prior to ‘falling prey to her beauty’ Porphyro plays his love some music:
Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy:”
Close to her ear touching the melody:—
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
And, to get you in the mood, here is some beautiful lute music played by Christopher Wilson. Or buy Carol Wood’s St Agnes Eve harp CD and play tracks 12-15. If you want to treat yourself even more go to St Agnes Eve for some truly beautiful scarves for both ladies and gents.