The first time I stumbled upon a quince tree, I thought that I had discovered the Holy Grail of pears. Golden against grey Cambridgeshire skies, they looked like the juiciest, sweetest fruit that I had ever come across in a city. Frustrated with my diminutive stature, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to reach them (despite numerous attempts with the crook of my umbrella), and began to concoct a plan for how I might.
Several weeks later, walking through the streets of South London, I came across the mythical fruit once more. Ever tempting (and ever out of reach) I was beginning to understand why the fruit was believed to be the temptation of Eve.
I returned with the aid of two strong arms and a picking device, crudely and ingeniously fashioned from the remains of an invasive buddleia plant and a plastic bottle. To our delight, the device worked, and while we worried about our merry missiles bouncing off car roofs, we savored the sweetly-ripe smell that arose from their downy, waxen skin. But this is where the magic ended. As I sunk my teeth into the flesh and brought the fruit around my tongue, I was met with a fluffy, floury texture and thought that I had in fact bitten into some kind of deceptively delicious-smelling fruit hybrid. Despite my sadness at the hoard of bad apples, I kept the fruit, deciding that they would probably work well in a pickle or a preserve irrespective of the texture. I was right.
A little reading revealed that the fruit I had picked were in fact quinces, and that my instincts to pickle them had been correct. The quince does not yield its gifts willingly, and the heady bouquet of flavors that tempts us in the first place needs coaxing from its flesh. We owe the name of one of our most prized preserves—marmalade—to the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, derived from the Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, or “honey fruit”). It was the Greeks who first discovered that cooking quince over a low heat with sugar or acid would cause the resultant reduction to set, and it is from this point that we can trace most modern jams and pickles.
Unlike other chutneys, which are often flamboyant and act as a foil to earthier flavors, membrillo maintains a subtle allure. Tasting it on its own, it will deceive you with its sweet simplicity; paired with other flavors, it brings out the faintest, hidden notes and makes them sing. I cook up a jar using four medium-sized quinces, peeled, cored and cut into chunks. Reserving the peel and to dry and use in teas, I place the chunks into a large pot, matching the quinces’ weight in sugar, and cover them with water. I snip a quarter of a vanilla pod, halve it, and add it to the mix. You can add a squeeze of lemon here if you like. I tend to just add a bit of zest roughly chopped into thin matchsticks. I let the mixture boil up until the quinces are soft, purée them, and cook them for a further hour and a half on a low heat, waiting for the mixture to thicken and turn amber in colour, before potting it up in airtight jars. It goes particularly well with Brunet or Chaource cheese.
Quince season holds a particularly special place in the Turkish culinary calendar. The fruit grows plentifully there, and is a feature in some of Turkey’s most-celebrated sweetmeats.While many flock to Istanbul during the summer season, I felt fortunate to be there in November for a chance to try some of their esteemed quince—or ayva—desserts. In the winter months it is not unusual to see men walking through the markets with backpacks crammed with the golden-yellow fruit—much larger than those that I found in South London—loudly touting their wares. One dish that stood out during my visit was ayva helvası, a dessert prepared much like the above recipe for membrillo, but with a little polenta added in the final stages. The resulting loaf is sliced thickly and topped with vanilla cream and smashed pistachios, a blissfully moreish ending to a meal.
Whether you choose to bake them, pickle them, ferment them, or turn them into jam, you will delight in the flavors that this long-heralded fruit will bring to you throughout the winter months.