You know those chainmail gloves you can get to protect your hands when shucking oysters? Well, they would be useful if you plan to grow quince. The growing of the quince itself is, apparently, relatively effortless. Unlike their pear and apple cousins they are compact, unfussy and largely pest free. And because the fruit is fairly slow to mature, it won’t go from sour rock to mushy wasp fodder in days making it ideal for the inattentive gardener. The blossom is beautiful and fragrant too. Why I don’t have a quince tree I don’t know.
It’s in the cooking of them that the effort is spent. They are completely and utterly impenetrable. Butternut squash is a ripe peach in comparison to tough quince flesh. You can’t, therefore, eat them raw. To be honest you probably couldn’t even get your teeth into one raw; or if you did you’d want to know a good dentist. This is where the chainmail glove comes in because if you quarter and core them before cooking (a good plan if you don’t want to wait 2 plus hours for it to cook) then their impervious flesh makes protection from knife slippages a necessity. Once butchered, they need cooking, roasting or poaching, for a good hour before you even consider tasting them.
But oh, once you do taste them: sweet, perfumed, voluptuous – they taste exotic and mysterious, almost otherworldly.
Their rareness too adds to this sense of mystery. You can’t generally buy them in a supermarket or grocer. But they do keep for a couple of weeks so should you see them, buy them. I’ve found Natoora have them between roughly November and March and that this is the only reliable non-commercial source. I really am going to have to get a tree.
So, once you have your prized quince wafting their fragrance about your kitchen (reason enough to buy them in my view), what do you do with them? The most common option is to poach them in sugar syrup and booze as you might pears. Or make them into quince jelly; the pectin levels are sky high in quince so it sets beautifully. In fact, I’ve found that even just the syrup left over from poaching a quince will set. It tastes delicious and smells divine too so is worth keeping to adorn vanilla ice-cream.
I’m feeling a bit experimental so I try my quince with pressed pork belly for a decadent, show-off starter.
A faff for a starter, yes, but my goodness, worth it. China is the second largest producer of quince (after Turkey), which might explain why I am drawn to pairing it with the tongue-numbing zing of Sichuan pepper. The combination of fatty pork with sour rhubarb and sweet, fragrant quince is the classic sweet-versus-sour story of so much oriental food.
There might be a pudding too. Probably involving almonds. But more of that in next week’s blog…