My mother never cooked quinces, so I can only imagine that my love affair with them started in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen. My strongest memories of smells and tastes come from the old house in Rochester. Early memories of ripe peaches on the tree, wet bran, peppercorns and the taste of cucumber and mayonnaise together come from there. And so for now I will allow the peculiar taste and smell of quince jelly to come from her kitchen.
Jane Grigson, my earliest culinary inspiration had a wonderful book called Good Things and in it was a chapter on quinces. I cooked my first batch of quince paste from this book. Pasta di Membrillo. I peeled, chopped, boiled, drained, mashed and added sugar then boiled the paste until it came away from the sides of the pan and turned a deep burnished red. All the while my hand wrapped in a tea towel to stop the volcano like eruptions from burning me.
Very few years have passed that I have not had a ready supply of quince paste in the fridge all winter and gifted much of my supply to friends. In the years that I have been making it I have learned a great deal.
I have learned that I can make jelly and paste from the same quinces. I have also learned that there is no need to peel the quinces. A Country Women’s Association recipe for boiled quinces instructed to just wipe the fluff off the surface and boil them in a sugar syrup for hours and hours. The syrup then turns to jelly and the quinces can be served whole (and warm) with double cream. This is a magnificent dessert. The best thing I learned was from an early Australian cookbook, that slightly green quinces from the start of the season have a higher pectin content and always make the best jelly and paste.
Until this season I have always bought quinces, when I first see them in the shops, and made paste and jelly.
I wipe the fluff of the quinces, cut them on each side around the core then slice each bit roughly. I cover the pieces with water and boil until they are soft. In another pan, I cover the cores with water and boil them up as well. It is the seeds and peel that produce the pectin. Then I drain off the liquid from both and measure an equal amount of sugar and start boiling it for jelly. For the paste, I mash up the fruit with my bamix and put it in my slow cooker adding an equal amount of sugar. I cook this all day – or until the paste comes away from the sides and is a deep burnished red colour – stirring regularly. When it is cooked I turn it into a Swiss roll tin, lined with kitchen paper and set it in the turned off oven. For the next few weeks, when I use the oven I take it out then put it back in to the cooling oven after my cooking is done. This dries it out. I cut generous wedges of it and smear it on buttered toast or eat it with cheese. Each year it has a taste all of its own.
The jelly is ready when it starts to set as it forms drops on the wooden spoon. This is a hard process to describe … it’s a bit intuitive.
Three years ago I started a garden in what was then my back yard. I planted a quince tree. The first summer it just grew. The second season I harvested one quince. This year the tree was covered in blossom in Spring and I have just harvested over 24 big, ripe, bug free quinces. I even left a few on the tree for later in the season. I am so proud of them. I just want to look at them for a while before I chop them up and turn them into this year’s jelly and paste.