One Saturday, I got home from the rather middle-class activity of buying fresh croissants from the local market for a late breakfast, and returned instead with a brown bag of ominous, hairy orbs.
‘What on earth are they?’ My flatmate demanded.
‘Quinces,’ I grinned.
‘Why are they hairy?’
‘I’m not sure. And get out from behind that sideboard. It’s just a fruit.’
Ah, I have given myself away now. You thought a quince might be a vegetable, didn’t you? You were expecting some sort of cousin of the cucumber, the one with the deformations which the family keep away in the west wing of the castle whilst they play croquet with the neighbours – because quinces seem very Victorian, and look like the fruit of a Gothic novel. They behave like the fruit of a Gothic novel too: when cooked and therefore loved, they are coral-pink, glassy fruits with the texture of fresh, salted butter; when uncooked and therefore completely inedible, they are jaundiced yellow with a tight knot of poisonous pips in the centre, covered in a patchy brown fuzz and so fucking hard that you will bruise your chopping board trying to core them.
Quinces need to be shown love to be beautiful. Love is pain. The love of quince is a pain in the arse.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy and eat quince. You absolutely should buy and eat quince. Quarter and core them and roast them for an hour, as you would a potato. Quarter and core them and grate them into an apple crumble or tarte tatin. Jelly them, jam them, make mincemeat out of them (Nigel Slater has a recipe), whatever you do, just buy the blasted things. Yes they’re a faff, but things that delicious must be indulged. Quinces are described in The Flavour Thesaurus as having a flavour like a cross between apple, pear, honey, rose and exotic fruit, except – in my opinion – far better than that actually sounds. It doesn’t taste in any way like Marie Antoinette’s bathwater, but instead like the sort of thing the Greek gods would eat on Mount Olympus after a good day of free love, smiting and turning people into flowers.
Their scent is very powerful too – leave a bowlful in the fridge for two hours and every time you open the door you’ll be blasted with a resiny wine fragrance which completely blunts the edge off your hunger. So very useful for dieters to have in the house.
I must confess, I don’t even buy quinces regularly (and my paring knife has taken out a restraining order against the fruit), but I try to keep the agriculture of them going by buying quince jelly whenever possible, from brands such as Tiptree or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. Sometimes it’s called quince paste or membrillo, which is the same but thick. Heap it onto a crumpet and let your shoulders sink with its heavenly delights.
Oh, and by the way – don’t peel them. Just don’t. The hairy fuzz washes off really easily and all the flavour is in their skin. I learnt this the hard way when I made quince crumble with peeled quinces that had all the flavour of a wine gum from 1997. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Good luck and god speed quinces in your direction.
Quince crumble – mmmm for 2 but if it’s just you, save one half for breakfast tomorrow
- If you know a foodie friend or an axe-wielding maniac, invite them and their strongest knife around for an evening of fun chopping. Or roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. Don’t drink a protein shake beforehand, you’ll spoil your appetite. Anyway, wash the fuzz from 2 fist-sized quinces, then quarter them, remove their cores and slip them into a pot which contains 750ml boiling water and 100g sugar. Simmer for 40 minutes, then drain but reserve the liquid. Leave to cool enough to dice into a smallish crumble dish. Grate half of the pieces to have a more apple crumble-like texture. Keep the skin on the quince – it’s not texturally noticeable in the eating.
- The reason I suggest you boil them for so long at the beginning is because it’s a hell of a lot easier than dicing them raw.
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC fan. Make crumble with your usual method. For a pudding basin of 1.2 l, I use 75g plain flour, 25g wholemeal flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder and 50g cold, cubed vegan butter or margarine (fat content minimum 70%). Rub the fat into the flours until the texture of breadcrumbs or lumpy sand, then using a fork, stir in 40g granulated sugar (big-grained sugars make better crumble). Put the crumble in the fridge until ready to use.
- When the oven is up to temperature, stir 1 tbsp quince jelly into the quince in the pudding dish, plus 4 tbsp quince-boiling liquid. We are going Owl-and-Pussycat levels of quince here. Gently pour over the crumble and spread it out flat, then sprinkle 1 tbsp porridge oats over the top, like my Grandma always does. Whack the crumble in the oven for 30-45 minutes until the crumble topping is crisp to the touch.
- Let it cool down for 20 minutes or so once out of the oven, and use this time to make some decent vegan custard. I use Bird’s custard powder, following the packet instructions but halving the quantities and adding 1 tsp vanilla extract at the end. The only stipulation when making vegan custard is you cannot use oat milk. It does not work. At least not for me. I hope oat milks haven’t collectively taken out a vendetta against me. And for quince crumble, avoid strong-tasting plant milks like coconut or hazelnut. You want the kindly mellowness of soya or almond milk instead. Invite the axe-wielding maniac back to meditatively stir the custard, because it will calm them down enough to realise that there’s more to life than wielding axes.