The stalls along Seven Sisters Road sell £1 bowls of fruit and vegetables all year round. During the winter, they sell root vegetables, imported citrus fruits and bananas – but last weekend the first indicators of seasonal change arrived in the form of rosy pomegranates at one stall, enormous fragrant strawberries at another, and, almost glowing in their stainless steel bowl, bulging golden quince. I buy them every year from the local Turkish shops, but normally they are closer to a pound apiece than £1 for five, which is what I bought one Saturday a few weeks ago.
I’d never heard of quince, let alone seen or tasted one, until reading the sublime Nigella Lawson, who describes them as Rubenesque golden apples (I’m paraphrasing) and recommends poaching then roasting them in her book Forever Summer. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit to failing at the recipe – I ended up overcooking the quinces into impenetrable black-red glass, like volcanic rock*. But I am a huge fan of the principle, and make roasted quinces for a luscious but light dessert every year when quinces reach Holloway, although one wonderful summer we stayed at a friend’s family house in France, the grounds of which included not just barns with hammocks and tennis tables, but also a clear, deep pool, a barbecue, swinging bench and a whole orchard full of quince trees, the gnarled branches heavy with ripe fruit. Fresh quince are heavy and very hard; chopping them up takes a bit of muscle, and although they would probably be very nice unpeeled, I prefer to peel them because the peels, when poached, turn a glorious ruby and make a lovely infusion for gin. If you can’t quite face the thought of tackling the peeling the day that you buy them, they can sit out in a fruit bowl for longer than most fruits – easily a week with no ill-effects. I would prefer to decorate my table with a bowl of raw quince than with any scented candle. [An aside: does anyone actually light scented candles? I’ve always thought that they exist just as “token presents”, literally something you present a person with as a token of your esteem, as opposed to a practical expression of it. I receive them – gratefully – as regifting credits, like flowers that don’t wither and vouchers that don’t expire.] Keep your candles, I would rather fragrance my kitchen with the wonderful scent of quince, almost like a heavy rose, all musk and sweetness. And although I know it is impossible, they really do seem to glow.
Variations on a theme of poached quince
Once your quinces are poached, they can be used just like you would a cooked apple or pear (e.g. in a crumble or tarte tatin, either alone or combined with other fruit) or a stone fruit (e.g. as the topping for a fruit tart).
Stewed down further, their colour deepens from blush to rose to crimson, and they make a wonderful preserve that can be stirred into porridge, or spread luxuriantly onto buttered toast. Given a bit of an edge with extra lemon juice, this preserve is also good as an accompaniment to fatty roast meat, such as roast pork, duck or even grilled mackerel. Eventually, under continued slow heat and occasional stirring, the fruit collapses and darkens into a thick pectin-rich puree that sets into a jelly, slices of which make a fine addition to cheese, or so I’m told.
Recipe: Poached Quince
based on the reliably excellent David Lebovitz’s recipe for Rosy Poached Quince and inspired by Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Red Roast Quince in Forever Summer 5 large quince (avoid any with soft brown spots, although they can be cut out. Some bruising and the odd scratch are fine) 1 lemon, or 2Tbsp lemon juice 200g granulated sugar (ideally golden, or swap half for light brown sugar if desired) – you might need more to taste 100g honey Half a vanilla pod, split or 1 tsp vanilla 1. Fill a large saucepan with approximately 500ml water, and squeeze in the lemon. 2. Wash the quinces, and make yourself comfy on the sofa with a sturdy chopping board, large knife, potato peeler, the quinces and the saucepan to hand. Peel your quinces using a potato peeler, slipping the peels straight into the saucepan of lemon-water. Quarter and core them, getting rid of any dark gritty flower residue, and add the cores and quarters to the water also. 3. Add more water if necessary until the quinces are just covered, and the vanilla bean (I scrape the seeds into the caster sugar stored in a tupperware box in the pantry, but you could add them to the quinces – I don’t think they contribute much extra flavour though). Pour in the sugar and honey. 4. Heat over a medium flame until just simmering, then reduce the heat and leave to poach gently until the fruit is soft when poked with the tip of a knife. This can take over an hour – keep an eye on the liquid, topping it up if necessary, and taste occasionally, adding more sugar or honey if necessary.
[At this point you can leave the quinces in their poaching liquid until 20 minutes before you want to serve them – in the fridge this can be up to a day or so]. 5. Remove the soft quince quarters carefully using a slotted spoon, and place them in a roasting tin lined with parchment. Sprinkle over another teaspoon or so of sugar, and bake in a very hot oven (230C) or under the grill until just caramelised. 6. While the quinces are roasting, boil the poaching liquid (still with the quince cores and peels) until it is reduced to a viscous ruby syrup. 7. Serve the roasted quince with a spoonful or so of the syrup and some very cold pouring cream, creme fraiche or, my personal favourite, lemon frozen yoghurt (BONUS RECIPE: whisk 600ml full fat Greek yoghurt with 3 Tbsp caster sugar and the zest and juice of one lemon until the sugar is dissolved. Churn in an ice cream maker or pour into a tupperware and stir every 30mins or so to prevent ice crystals from forming)
Bonus “Recipe”: Quince GIN
The remaining syrup (and peels and cores) makes a wonderful infusion with gin – when cooled, simply pour into a Kilner jar with a 700ml bottle of gin. It isn’t necessary to shake the jar of gin, but it is oddly satisfying. It makes the most wonderful rosy G&Ts – a glass of this, clinking with ice and adorned with a thin slice of lemon, is both elegant and fun – the most refreshing way to enjoy the perfumed sweetness of this most remarkable fruit.