“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”
Unlike Chaucer, who often seemed to encounter in the wild, the fruit he described in ‘O Mosey Quince!’ as having cheeks ‘enbolned lyke a melow costard, Colour of orenge your brestys satournad”, I rarely come across English quinces on the tree, let alone for sale in local stores. That is my fault, not the fruits. I have seen them sold by the side of the road in French villages of palest stone and hanging from Spanish hedgerow branches that lean into the light to set their fruit. I have made the acquaintance of quince trees amid the cork oak forests near Tempio Pausania in north western Sardinia and their opposite; the trellised, manicured ‘Minarette’ beauties of Villandry which edge the potagers planted with pink-frilled cabbages, miniature artichokes and the tangled frizz of fennel. I have even seen a gnarled and elderly wind-sculpted specimen on Cheju island in South Korea, a silent witness to generations of newly-wed Koreans who traditionally honeymoon there. Earlier in the year, it fluttered with blossoms the shade of sugared almonds which faded to white barred with shell-pink as sunlight and wind-sear got to them. Later on, the tree staggered under the weight of its fruit, their rounded rumps a perfect spanked bottom rosy yallery-pink. Clusters of leaves were thickly felted with white and provided shelter for clouds of winged creatures as vivid as stained glass windows.
A honeymoon destination sounds like an appropriate location for quinces although the fruit is often associated more with a knowing carnality as opposed to blushing and innocent exploratory fumblings. When the vicar conducting our wedding suggested he read from ‘Song of Solomon’, I read it, blushed and felt an unusual coyness at the thought of quince carnality. We decided against it.
This poem by Shafer Ben Utman al-Mushafi, vizier to Caliph Al-Hakam II of Cordoba in Andalusia is another favourite of mine and the words possess a similar drowsy eroticism:
“It is yellow in colour, as if it wore a daffodil tunic, and it smells like musk, a penetrating smell.
It has the perfume of a loved woman and the same hardness of heart, but it has the colour of the impassioned and scrawny lover.
Its pallor is borrowed from my pallor; its smell is my sweetheart’s breath.
When it stood fragrant on the bough and the leaves had woven for it a covering of brocade,
I gently put up my hand to pluck it and set it like a censer in the middle of my room.
It had a cloak of ash-coloured down hovering over its smooth golden body,
and when it lay naked in my hand, with nothing more than its daffodil-coloured shift,
it made me think of her I cannot mention, and I feared the ardour of my breath would shrivel it in my fingers.”
In France, they call quinces ‘les coings’: the original Latin term for the fruit was cotoneum which then evolved into the French coin or coings. Quince is a well travelled fruit, aside from where we plant it, native to the Caucasus between Persia and Turkmenistan and spreading in cultivation to the eastern Mediterranean basin. Apples originated in Kazakhstan but it is thought that the quince came earlier: was Eve’s apple really a quince? Did Helen of Troy bribe Paris to award a quince to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as the prize in a beauty contest, starting the Trojan War? Did quince trees spring up wherever Aphrodite walked? The truth about Eve’s offering is hard to qualify but it is likely that most golden apples mentioned in literature were actually quinces as they would have been more widely grown and certainly more familiar to locals, particularly in the Levant and southern Europe.
Time and good breeding has seen its shape transformed from those earlier fruits which came from the town of Kydonia on Crete and which gave the quince its botanical name, Cydonia Oblonga. The Greek name “Cydonian apple” appears to suggest that Crete served as a ‘halfway house’ in the spread of the quince to Europe. The quince’s route to the west is intensely romantic, travelling through the narrow trepidacious valleys along ancient trade routes, reaching the Middle East and then the Mediterranean under their old name, golden apples. The routes they took eastwards were no less arduous and dramatic, a tough skin and sturdy flesh helping them survive the deserts of the Silk Road, arriving in China and acquiring a new name: the golden peaches of Samarkand.
The Ancient Greeks associated this most plump of rump fruit with fertility, love and marriage, and as a bridal breath-sweetener before she entered her marital chambers, a reminder of Shafer Ben Utman al-Mushafi’s words: “It’s smell is my sweetheart’s breath.” The quince played a meaningful role in wedding celebrations and rituals too. They are baked into Greek wedding feast cakes along with honey and sesame seeds-a symbol of enduring commitment. Lear knew of this and celebrated it in the union of The Owl and the Pussycat whose own meal of honey, mince and quince was imbued with romance and the desire for marital bliss, escape and adventure- all perfectly encapsulated by the quince and its own history.
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.
The golden skin of the quince was compared to that of the planet Venus by Nˆaser-e-Khosrow- an Ismaili poet and philosopher and we also know Venus as the planet of love. During the Middle Ages, moslems prized the quince as important for fortune-telling and dream-interpretation: it was given to brides the night before their marriage ceremony although accounts of what might happen should bridal dreams advise of a grooms’ unsuitability are thin on the ground.
Last week, our own journey in search of local quinces ended in Harleston where we picked up a couple of crates worth from a Twitter friend made flesh, yet another journey undertaken by this most travelled of fruits. A fruitful year had left him with a surfeit of everything and we were some of the lucky recipients. An hour later, after driving through an early Autumn fog which rolled in over Thetford and the Brecklands, we were home. The car was filled with a perfumed fug as dense as the Norfolk mists outside, notes of pineapple, the verdancy of pear and a heady guava sweetness, with a sneeze-inducing pepper at its heart. The scent is still there, weeks later.
It isn’t just the scent which lasts either. The quince is emminently suitable for careful storage, each fruit shrouded in newspaper and placed in crates down in a cool cellar or dry weatherproof shed. We don’t brush off the grey lanugo-like coating that clings to the skin of just ripe quinces; just as the lanugo on a newborn child is left to rub off naturally, so must that of the quince. Whether prepped immediately or stored, we modern cooks follow a grand culinary tradition because medieval cooks also held the quince in high regard, spiking its cooked flesh with exotics such as cloves and ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and honey and serving it alongside game and other rich foods. The quince’s epic history made it perfect for medieval courts and banquets and it was presented to the nobility of Europe in the form of jellies and pastes: cotogna in Italy, carne de membrillo in Spain, marmellad in Sweden, cotignac in France and marmelline in Middle French. Both the Greeks and Romans preserved quinces in honey, giving rise to the name melimelum from the Greek for honey apple. It is not difficult to see how this became the Spanish marmello and then, membrillo although later versions of the paste replaced the spices of the original charde de quince with rosewater, honey, musk and ambergris. Similar pastes were also made at the time with crab apple and pear, namely, chardecrabe and chardepere.
The Tudors believed in its early reputation as an aphrodisiac and stimulator of carnal and carnivorous desires. They cooked it down into pectin-rich marmalades until it was a deeply pinkish- orange jelly, firm enough to hold its own shape. Wrapped in golden foil, this delicacy would thus be served to the object of their desires. The effects of naturally occurring pectins were first discovered by the Romans who cooked and then preserved the fruit but, by the sixteenth century, the Portugese began to make marmelada, whose name came from the Portuguese for quinces, marmelo. In 1611, John Tradescant brought this Portugese quince to Britain and a royal marriage between Portugal’s Catharine of Bragacança and Charles the Second benefited England not only because her dowry included two cities, Tangiers and Bombay, but also because of its copious amounts of tea and quince jelly. So fruitful was this union that Picadilly in London was even named Portugal Street in commemoration and little wooden boxes of this paste became tres chic, given as gifts and seen at the smartest functions. The British, via their close links with the Portugese, began to devise their own recipes for thick fruit pastes because they could be costly to buy and the name thus morphed into marmalade. However, until the eighteenth century, marmalade solely referred to a preserve made with quinces and not with oranges or other fruits.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a quince always requires careful preparation and cooking because it is sour to the point of being inedible. Was thus not always so. In the first century AD, Pliny praised their medicinal virtues and mentions the Mulvan variety, which was the only cultivated quince at the time that could be eaten raw. Later on people started to believe that raw fruit of many types would cause illness and inflame the senses so, until the eighteenth century, eating it uncooked fell out of favour. Alongside Pliny’s Mulvan quince, the quinces of Isfahan can swell to large sizes and when ripened, are fecund with a sweet juice which can be enjoyed straight off the tree. Many of the quinces of Central Asia, the Middle East and South America can also be eaten ‘raw’ but they are also gustatory reminders of a time when Westerners possessed a less developed sweet tooth. In the past a toothsome sharpness, an astringent citrus perfume in the mouth was more highly prized, not regarded as undesirable and became a most welcome counterpoint to heavy, rich and sometimes greasily fleshed meat. The Persians were masterful when it came to melding different qualities on the plate and in the mouth, cooking meat and sour fruits together, and the British took careful note, going on to serve quince sauces with richer game meats like partridge.
Imagine a platter piled high with chunks of young lamb, sliced or cubed quince on a bed of rice which swiftly becomes saturated with fragrant juices. The Persian ḵᵛorešt-e beh uses a bed of yellow split peas as a sop for flavour instead of rice. Quince also stars in in āb-gūšt-e beh, a thick soup where the fruity flesh is cubed and combined with lamb shanks, dried legumes, tomatoes and spices, all served with piles of flat breads their surfaces blistered with chewy brown heat bubbles. Their cooks called their version of quince paste morabbā-ye beh and served it for breakfast and used the fruit in wildly inventive ways: in the tenth century, the chef Bāvaṛčī refers to a recipe for a sweet bread (komāj-e beh) made with quince, flour, ghee, milk, almond paste, pistachio paste, and rose water.
The Persian table would also include toršī-e beh- another kind of pickled quince- and a sherbert style drink known as šarbat-e beh-līmū, which refreshes an over-indulged palate with a sweet syrup base comprising lemon juice, sugar and water. A stock quince syrup is layered with water and ice to make the prettiest of drinks, a Tintoretto in a glass, although the daftest [ab]use of quinces I could find appears in The Satyricon, by Petronius. Here we learn of a dinner given by Trimalchio, a vulgar freedman with more money than taste or style, where the assembled diners are presented with ‘Quinces, with thorns implanted to make them look like sea urchins.”
This time of year leaves us awash with recipes for quince jellies, preserves and the various eau de vies and flavoured liqueurs that ward off the shivers during a long British winter. I’m offering a couple of recipes that are a little different and most certainly hark back to Olden Tymes. The first is my version of ‘Quynces Bake’ which was served during the coronation of Richard the Third. Originally a pastry coffin filled with quinces cored and filled with sugar and ginger, my version is considerably lighter and devoid of anything entombed. The original menu from the banquet still survives actually, and this was the last dish served to diners no doubt suffering from fairly advanced dyspepsia or what the French might call ‘un crise du foie.’
Quynce Bakes (or tarts)
For the crust and filling:
butter 100g, room temp / golden caster sugar 80g / plain flour 200g / egg 1, lightly beaten / 1 lemon / 500g dessert apples (I use Hereford and Egremont Russets) / 2 tbsp golden caster sugar / 4 tbsp honey mead (I use Tournament mead from Lyme Bay Winery but any good one will do.)
plain flour 150g / 75g butter, salted / golden demerara sugar 75g / 1 lightly beaten egg / 1 tsp ginger / tbsp crushed hazelnuts /
Grease a 22cm tart tin with a removable base and set aside. You will need to make the pastry crust first and this is made easy by dicing the butter and putting it into a processor/mixer with 80g sugar, creaming until fluffy and light. Add the egg and after this has been well mixed, tip in the flour, spoon by spoon. Work the dough lightly until it forms a ball and put it onto a well floured surface. It will be soft and yielding and you will have to knead it a little to bring it into line. Dust your rolling pin and roll out the dough to fit your tin, pushing it carefully into the corners so it fits. Don’t worry about having to patch any tears; this is a forgiving and rustic tart. Refrigerate for at least half an hour when done as this will help prevent the crust from shrinking.
Now put the baking sheet into your oven which will be set at 200c. You will now have to turn your attention to the filling and start off by juicing that lemon, pouring the juice into a mixing bowl. Peel, core and chop those quinces into small tart shaped pieces, toss them in the juice to keep them from browning.
Put the quince pieces into a deep pan, add the sugar and the mead and cover with a lid. Cook down over a low heat (check and stir from time to time) for about 15 mins and they will be ready when you can easily pierce them with a skewer or sharp knife point. As the syrup reduces, you’ll need to keep a careful watch for burning.
As the quinces cook and fill the kitchen with delicious honeyed scents, peel and dice the apples. Tumble the peices into the quinces when the latter are nearly tender and keep on with their cooking, lid on for 5-10 minutes or until the apples are just soft. Leave in the pan to cool. Your kitchen should now smell so beautifully that Aphrodite might well be resurrected.
Now make your ‘coffin’ topping by cutting the butter into little bits and adding it, with the flour, into the processor, blitzing until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Non processor owners can rub the butter into the flour in the time honoured manner. Then, add the sugar, the crushed hazelnuts and the egg and mix it all together until it forms the crumbly, jumbly texture you love most about a crumble.
Take the uncooked tart case from the fridge and pour that honeyed fruit into it, setting aside any juice, then scatter over the crumble topping with your fingers. Put the tin onto the baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes until both crust and topping are crisp and golden. Allow to stand for ten minutes or until you can stand it no longer and serve with a few whole hazelnuts, a trickle of reserved fruit juices, cream and a glass of mead.
Jane Grigson’s Quince Cream
In ‘English Food’, Jane Grigson rightly celebrates the quince and although her paste recipe is a stalwart, it is to her quince cream that I turn the most. Made also with gooseberries and the muscat with which these tiny sharp fruits have an affinity, the substitution of quinces is, for me, inspired, producing a pudding which is yet another one of those classic ‘doucets’, the set creams that the British love so. ‘Blessed be he that invented puddings” said Francois Misson and in Autumn we are most certainly blessed with a pudding which can be eaten as is, with a dollop of stewed fruit on the side or poured into a pastry or tart case and turned into something a little more substantial.
500g quince / golden caster sugar / 300ml double cream / 3 egg yolks / 60g butter, melted / an ‘appropriate wine or spice’- I recommend mead, any eau de vie which is copacetic with quinces or a madeira, sweet marsala or Stones ginger wine. For spices, ginger, saffron, vanilla or star anise all suit.
Peel, core and dice the quinces and place in a heavy pan with three tablespoons of water and three tablespoons of sugar. Cook down slowly until soft enough for a skewer or knife point to easily pierce its flesh. Remove from the heat and place in a sieve over a bowl. Set aside the juices and put the soft mass of fruit pulp into a mixing bowl. Add more golden caster sugar to taste: you want it sweetly fragrant. Let cool and then beat in the cream then the egg yolks and the soft butter. Flavour with the spices if you have chosen to use them and add a few spoons of the mead or other alcohol but not so much that it makes the consistency too runny.
Now you can either cook this mixture slowly over a bain marie until it is very thick or turn it into a prepared pastry case / tart case and bake at 190C / 375F until just set. If you are cooking on the hob, keep the heat low and take a few moments to enjoy the slow contemplative stirring required to produce this manna from your kitchen. Too high a heat will curdle the egg yolks so be purposeful, be patient. I have made this into a tart with a base of crushed ginger biscuit and butter in the manner of a cheesecake and I have used pre prepared butter pastry from the chiller cabinet too. I have also eaten it as is, spooned from the cooking pot or, when on my best manners, poured into delicate bowls of pressed glass. It is an astonishingly kind recipe.
Thank you Jeanne De Montbaston for your help.
Thank you Andrew McDonald for the quinces (twitter)
For more on the etymology of the word ‘quince’, click here.
Header image: A quince tree in fruit. Detail of the garden mural from the triclinium in the House of Livia, Rome. The paintings date ca. 30-20 BC. The murals are now displayed in a dedicated room of the National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo. By Ian Scott via Flickr. (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)