Bizarre though it may seem, when you next order a slab of membrillo to partner your Manchego at a tapas joint you are actually tapping into an English culinary wellspring that dates back to Tudor times and before.
Quince paste, which we associate with the Spanish kitchen (there’s also a French version called cotignac) was once commonplace and highly prized. Even as late as 1845 Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery is offering us a recipe for quince blancmange with almond cream.
But the quince fell out of fashion compared with its kin, the apple and the pear. Not helped by any image problem. So many varieties were merely ornamental with fruit too small to make use of. There’s one such in our garden.
Nowadays this glorious seasonal fruit is definitely undergoing a foodie resurgence.
The best place to find them affordably is a Middle-Eastern grocers. My first batch of the autumn was bought from a little shop around the corner from Levenshulme Station in Manchester. A quid each for some magnificent specimens. Yellow and downy, their scent permeated the train carriage on the way home.
Quinces are believed to have been the ‘Golden Apples’ stole from the Hesperides in the Greek myth, sacred to Venus (they are a backdrop to Venus and Mars in a section of Mantegna’s Parnassus), but it won’t be love at first bite. So resist the temptation to bite into your prized fruit, which has been picked slightly unripe; raw, it will prove hard, almost gritty and raspingly sour.
You will have to make plans for them, all of which will involve stewing of some kind or baking with sugar or honey. As it cooks it turns from yellow to a “cornelian pink’. A little will go a long way as in aromatically enhancing an apple crumble along with cloves and cinnamon, say.
Moroccan tagines and any number of long simmered Persian lamb dishes will welcome the sweet/sour vigour a quince contributes (make sure you core and de-pip them thoroughly, though). Below is a dish I made with part of my haul – chicken with caramelised quinces from the great Claudia Roden’s Arabesque.
If this sounds on the exotic side let’s trace back to quince as the quintessentially English fruit via a historical cookbook I treasure – Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. Published in 1986, it was a side project and obvious labour of love for Hilary Spurling, biographer of Matisse and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Her husband, the playwright John Spurling inherited the original handwritten book, inscribed ‘Lady Elinor Fettiplace, 1604’.
From this stout tome, bound in leather and stamped in gold with endpapers made from scraps of medieval Latin manuscript, Hilary extracted 200 recipes that reflect the month by month workings of the kitchen at the Fettiplace home, Appleton Manor in Oxfordshire.
Elinor calls her quince paste quince marmalade but don’t let that fool you. The word derives from Portuguese marmelada, meaning ‘quince cheese’ or ‘quince jam’). The Seville orange version was the eventual breakfast table usurper.
Boxes of quince marmalade had been the medieval wedding present of choice and, according to Hilary, “they remained a luxury gift for anyone from royalty downwards until well into the 17th century”. They commonly came in brick shapes – shades of membrillo.
So what is Mistress Fettiplace’s timeless recipe for membrillo? It is one of 15 she provides for this fruit, twice as much as for any other.
Take your quinces and rost them, then take the best of the meat of them & way to every pound of it, a pound of sugar & beat it together in a mortar, & boyle it till it be so thick that it com from the posnet, then mould it & print it, & dry it before the fire.
Hilary Spurling interprets it (I’m paraphrasing) as first wipe the quinces with a cloth but don’t peel. Bake them, preferably in an earthenware pot for an hour or two until they are soft but not collapsed. Cool, cut up and core. Sieve the pulp and mix with an equal weight of white sugar. A posnet is a three-footed metal cooking pot; any thick-bottomed pan will do instead. Bring slowly to boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Gently cook for a further hour or two until the mixture begins to candy and leave the pan sides. Ladle it out into patterned moulds or in a half inch layer on a flat oiled tin. Dry in a warm place until the paste is firm. Wrap in greaseproof paper for storage.
Serve with Cheddar or Stilton since we have reclaimed quince paste for England. Better still a Rachel (goat) or Berkswell (sheep) unpasteurised farmhouse cheese.