Quinces are the fruit of nostalgia. They belong to an era when cooks had lots of time, strong arms and a cognassier, or quince tree, in the garden.
Like all things nostalgic, the quince—coing in French—is special, and very well-loved. As I picked the lone quince from my own cognassier the other day, I felt blessed. It’s not a quince year, in fact it’s not much of a tree-fruit year at all here in Normandy. Freezes came when blossoms were fragile, drought came when fruit was forming. You name it, the weather sent it. The result is fewer and softer apples and pears, and just a shadow of quinces. Which is why I felt so lucky to get even one.
Of course, I will pad my harvest with quinces from the market, if I find them this year, and I hope I will. If I do, they’ll be offered by older market gardeners, those who know their value.
Once I have my quinces, I’ll put several in a bowl and set them in the dining room. Within an hour, their floral aroma will have filled the room, and I’ll find myself going in there often, for a whiff.
Quinces are tough little fruits, hard as rocks. It takes the strength of Samson (with his hair) to cut them in half and remove the cores. Then a good sharp knife is needed to slice them. They turn splotchy brown quickly, but it’s not a problem because once they’re cooked, they’ll turn a gorgeous, deep pink that will replace any discoloring.
With all the effort required to prepare a quince, it’s no wonder it seems to belong to an earlier time. That said, quinces do appear on today’s restaurant tables. Just the other day at Origine in Rouen (26 Rampe Cauchoise, 02.35.70.95.52), the day’s dessert was delicately sliced quince with vanilla ice cream and puffs of vanilla whipped cream.
When I see a nostalgic fruit like quince on the menu of a hot spot like Origine, I know the fruit won’t disappear from the contemporary scene. It will, instead, be given pride of place and listed with other heirloom beauties like parsnips and colored carrots, beefheart tomatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. Chefs will be increasingly proud to put quince on the menu as a sign of honor to the past; the public will follow.
My grandmother and my mother both added quince to applesauce, which gave it a subtle perfume and a gorgeous sunset hue. I grew up loving them, and when I moved to France was so happy to find them in the market. The first time I encountered quince I wasn’t looking for one. I smelled something sweeter than heaven, and followed my nose. It led me to a box of quinces, and I bought some for the aroma alone.
I began researching what to do with them, and set out to make jelly. But first I asked friends with quince knowledge if they had secrets. They uniformly assured me that quince jelly was “inratable”, impossible to mess up.
Filled with confidence, I carefully followed directions and found myself with a runny pink mixture of quince juice and sugar that refused to jell. I reread the many instructions I’d distilled into a recipe. They all assured me that quinces have so much pectin they jell quickly. Mine didn’t, apparently, and wouldn’t.
I returned to the market to buy more quinces. The lady who sold them to me gave me a quizzical look. I explained how my jelly hadn’t jelled. “This is a bad year for pectin,” she said. “I had trouble with mine, too. If you have trouble this time, add some lemon juice. That makes it jell.”
I did more research before trying again. I found what I’d suspected—not much is really known about quinces, aside from the fact that they contain a lot of natural pectin. That I knew. The new information was that the pectin might also be in the skin, so this time I didn’t peel them. I scooped out the cores and the white pithy substance that surrounds them, wrapped it all in cheesecloth, and put the bag in the pot.
This time success (with the addition of lemon juice) was mine. I filled many jars with quince jelly, and set them on my windowsill to admire. The color is indescribably crystalline. Neither pink nor orange but somewhere in between, it is almost too beautiful to eat.
Paste and purée
But eat it we do. On toast, with salted butter in the morning, which is quince jelly at its best. I make enough that I use it for all sorts of other things, including painting on the skin of roasted chicken fresh from the oven. I add it to sautéed apples right before serving; I use it between layers of a cake.
After making jelly, there is lots of quince pulp left over. I strain it through a drum sieve and mix it with sugar, a vanilla bean and some lemon zest, and cook it until it is very thick and rust-colored. While it’s cooking I sprinkle my countertop with sugar, and when the pulp is the texture I want, I turn it onto the countertop and smooth it out as best I can—an offset spatula dipped in water works the best. I sprinkle the flat rectangle with sugar and, when it’s hardened, I cut it into diamond shapes. Voilà! I’ve got quince paste for Christmas.
And that isn’t all one can do with the quince. I like to braise slices in butter with a bit of nutmeg or tonka bean—they hold their shape well, and are delicious with roast duck or pork. Sometimes I make a quince puree and set sliced magret—fattened duck breast—on top. Occasionally I braise quinces with sugar, star anise and cinnamon stick, and serve it with brioche that I’ve dipped in egg and milk, to make a sort of fruity French toast.
The options for quince are manifold. Whether it plays the role of candy or jelly, dessert or side dish, it’s a lovely addition to any meal. And the fact that it’s nostalgic doubles or triples its value.
QUINCE JELLY / GELEE DE COINGS
5 large (10 oz or 300 g each) quinces
8-1/2 cups (3-1/4 pounds or 1-3/4 kg) sugar
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, if needed
1. Sterilize six 8-oz (250-ml) canning jars and lids according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
2. Rub each quince briskly with a cotton towel to remove the outside fuzz. Cut the quinces in half horizontally and use a melon baller to scoop out the seeds and the hard white case that surrounds them. Tie the seeds and cases in a double thickness of cheesecloth.
3. Place the fruit-and-seed bundle in a large heavy stockpot. Add water to cover by about 1 inch (2.5 cm), so the quinces are floating slightly but not swimming. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat so the liquid is simmering merrily.
4. Cook, partially covered so very little liquid evaporates, until quince can be pierced easily with a metal skewer—from 25 to 40 min, depending on the fruit. While quinces are cooking, press on the seed bundle often to extract pectin. Drain, reserving the liquid and seed bundle.
5. Measure 6-1/4 cups (about 3 liters) of the liquid and return it to the stockpot along with the seed bundle. Add sugar, stir, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat so liquid boils steadily but not wildly, and cook, stirring and pressing on the seed bag, until the liquid thickens, anywhere from 10 to 25 min. (To test for consistency, drizzle some of the liquid on a plate and refrigerate it for a minute, then check to see if it has thickened enough.) If the liquid hasn’t jelled after 30 minutes, stir in lemon juice and cook 5 to 10 min longer.
6. Remove jelly from heat and strain, if necessary, so it is perfectly clear. Ladle it into the sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch at the top. Seal jars according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Yield: About six 8-oz (125-ml) jars.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of France Today