It is not luscious and red like a strawberry; it is not juicy and crunchy like an apple; it is not blushed and soft like a peach; it is not sweet and bold like a plum. It is hard, gnarly, irregularly shaped, pale yellow and covered with an unflattering wooly layer. But in spite of its humble appearance, the quince is, for me, the most mysterious and romantic of fruits, like a melancholy noble lady with ivory skin and silky, golden tresses. It can turn any cool room into a fragrance store and many of my childhood memories come to life with a bare hint of its smell.
It is believed that the golden apple of discord Eris threw to the Greek goddesses was indeed a quince, the fruit that jealously hides its beauty beneath the unattractive surface. In the Balkans, it is forever tied to the elusive East, caravans, and white cities glowing in the summer sun. They pose proudly atop pale green and white credenzas in our grandmothers’ dining rooms, patiently waiting for their chance to shine and convert the unbelievers, subduing them with their rosy charm.
It takes heat to transform the nondescript yellowish white of their flesh into an array of sensual colors ranging from coral and pink to deep orange and ruby red. Only when heated do they release their fragrance, losing the tart, mouth-puckering taste they have when raw. And they morph in front of your eyes, becoming mature, ripe, and full of life, showing off like concubines, seducing all the senses, revealing their real nature, blushing like plump, healthy girls from a Rubens painting.
They ripen in October and November when only a late apple and pear manage to survive on the trees, as if prompted by an icy kiss of merciless northern wind. They are forgiving and patient, arrogantly aware that their pale yellow glow preserves the last of summer sun. They sit perched underneath high ceilings, etched against old-fashioned wallpaper, giving away only the allusion of the flavor they hide within, laying in ambush, comfortable in their ugly duckling disguise.
During the summer months hornets made a nest in one of three Father’s quince trees. Whenever I went up to “the Hills”, I avoided the trees in a huge arc, letting my wasp phobia take control. But Father trapped hornets in his empty 2 liter Coke bottles filled with sugary syrup and collected the ripe quinces once the hornets went to sleep. He made rounds in the neighborhood leaving the crates full of fragrant fruit whenever he received even the smallest sign of enthusiasm. He deposited four of them on the floor of Mother’s blue and white formal dining room, much to her consternation. The unheated room quickly filled with the quince fragrance, and I took every opportunity to open the door and inhale with full lungs, feeling lost faced with all that yellow bounty.
I knew that I was taking good care of her when Mother, as sick as she was, perked up and commandeered the post as the Chief General, all of a sudden energetic enough not only to give me the instructions, but to wobble on pushing her walker all the way to the kitchen to supervise the process. I was elated to see her in her element, resigned that she will take the whisk away and apply it with her own sense of accomplishment. I smiled, watching her stir and sweat, while holding on to her walker with her left hand, panting, growing tired, but unwilling to let go of the role that elevated her to the culinary throne so many years ago.
I enlisted her help in conquering the quince, eager to tackle its smooth transformation into preserves, jam, jelly, liqueur, compote, and paste. She shouted the instructions over the murmur of the bubbling fruit, giving me reassurance and scolding me whenever I made the smallest mistake. In the end, I stood proudly watching the products of my efforts, satisfied and happy that the fruit yielded to me, offering itself to me without reservation.
I left most of my preserving feats on Mother’s pantry shelves when I returned to the States on Thursday. But in the last moment, I grabbed a slab of quince paste, wrapped it tightly in plastic foil, and placed it in my suitcase. And on Sunday, I brought it to Andrew’s and Matty’s gorgeous house in Santa Monica for another fabulous food bloggers party. I served it nicely molded on a platter surrounded by triangles of Manchego cheese, just like they do in Spain.
QUINCE PASTE, MEMBRILLO OR QUITTENKÃ„SE (KITNKES)
Paired with sharp and sweet Manchego cheese we call it membrillo and serve it as an appetizer. Placed into thin triangular or rounded molds and kept in a cool place it can survive for several months. Sliced thinly and rolled in sugar we enjoy its sweet and tart complementary taste as a unique dessert.
- Quinces, peeled, cored and cut into wedges (place cut fruit in cold water to avoid discoloration)
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice to preserve the color (optional)
Place the fruit into a stainless steel or enamel pot and add water to cover. Heat to boil and simmer on low temperature until completely soft. Drain the fruit and reserve the liquid (it makes heavenly jelly).
Weigh the fruit, puree it in a blender, and place it into a shallow, wide-bottom pot. For each kilogram of cooked fruit, measure 800gr of sugar. Add the sugar to the fruit and cook until it dissolves. Continue simmering while stirring continuously until done (when you drag the wooden spoon across the bottom, it will leave a trail, and a drop will stay put on the saucer without spreading). Add lemon juice if using.
As soon as it cools off it can be served.
If you choose to make QuittenkÃ¤se, pour the quince paste into molds lined with plastic. Leave intact for 24 hours and turn over. Repeat several times for several days, allowing all the surfaces to get into contact with air and dry. Using a sharp knife cut slices ¼ to ½ inch thick, roll into sugar and serve.
Visit Andrew’s blog Eating Rules for delightful and healthy recipes shared at the party.
Last year: Nostalgiada: Eggplant Rigatoni Pasta