Sunday, November 7, 2021

Quince jelly reflections

This week I made quince jelly from the fruits in my garden. It's become an annual ritual; my own miniature harvest festival with a bittersweet tang that marks the start of winter and yet the ending of my busiest period of work. The coming months will be—I hope—ones of less stress and more creative plenty. 

Although even to write that has an edge to it too. 

For only recently I gave a talk to some students in which I claimed the difference between creative and corporate writing is more blurred than it seems. I use much the same skills in crafting a blog post as I do in writing a workplace communication; the need for truth and clarity are as applicable to a company announcement as they are to the personal essay. Yesterday I read for the umpteenth time, Orwell's 'In Praise of English Cooking', a piece that in its rounded perfection would merit a place on any menu for a last literary meal on earth.

Orwell doesn't mention quince in his list of British delicacies, though at one time it was more common here than apples, which were not widespread until the middle ages. Today we consider it more of a Mediterranean or even oriental plant, with Japanese varieties having moderate popularity in discerning gardens. The fruits are hard and inedible when raw, but—in some ways like words—when carefully prepared they have seemingly endless possibilities, with a capacity to surprise and delight as well stimulate the tongue.

My crop this year was ample for our needs. In our former house, we had a long hedge of bushes that produced sacks of fruit but made the processing somewhat of a chore. I now have two small shrubs and yet we harvested enough to make four litres of piquant jelly. Had I had more time, I could have made the pith into membrilo, a delicacy from the Iberian peninsula, more commonly known as quince cheese. 

Alternatively, I might have made quince vodka or quince pudding; my friend and fellow blogger Michelle once cooked a quince tarte tatin which she claimed was delicious. Orwell says in his essay that Oxford orange marmalade is one of England's finest foods, but I wonder if he knew that the word comes from the Portuguese marmalada which means quince preparation.  

On which subject, my annual ritual is more about patience than skill. I don't follow a recipe but simply chop the fruits, cover with water and bring to a simmer...  After an hour at most, I mash the mixture and strain it through a muslin bag. The resulting juice is mixed 60:40 to sugar, boiled vigorously and then decanted into sterile jars. Once it's cooled, you can spread it on your toast the next morning... or perhaps you prefer muffins, or eating it with cheese or merely spooned from the jar.

Who cares, it's all good.

I shall share much of our bounty with friends, for though it keeps well the jelly is best eaten when young. There's a piquancy to the new crop that's more alive and arresting than any supposed depth of flavour that comes with age. Or in plainer English—and the type of words Orwell would favour—it comes with a raw and vigorous smack in the mouth!  

Perhaps that's why I like it so much; why this strange gnarly apple appeals to my sense of self; why its tang is something I crave and yet can't quite fix and even less hold onto?

Quinces it seems are among the oldest of fruits but their taste is the flavour of youth. 


  1. I think of quince as the Elizabethan fruit. I love them.

  2. Lovely post! As a jam-maker myself, I know the satisfaction involved in the process and the product. This year I made many, many jars of pepper jam, each batch different from the others due to pepper varieties, methods, and moods. So far, all that I have tasted are delicious! A bit spicy, a bit sweet. Another sort of smack in the mouth.

  3. Hari OM
    I have only once ever engaged with quince; a jar of jelly-like stuff in a gift basket of cheeses (most of which I could not eat due to presence of animal rennet). It was back in OZ ... the memory is dim, but I am certain that I have not sought any more of it due to wondering why anyone would gift a pot of what tasted like ear wax... but each to their own! YAM xx

  4. Last year my daughter's neighbour put a basket of free quinces by her gate. I took a few, then realised that nobody else was. I took more, the basket was refilled... And I had a great time making jelly, compote and more. Sadly this year we have not seen any fruit! Maybe next year...

  5. "Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
    Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
    So they took it away, and were married next day
    By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
    They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
    And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon,
    The moon,
    The moon,
    They danced by the light of the moon.

  6. A copper pan for jam making, inherited from my parents, sits unused in my kitchen cupboard, something about which I feel vaguely guilty. There is some sort of a quince tree in my cottage garden in Torridon but the fruit are rather small and I've never tried to do anything with them. Maybe next year?
    Lovely post.
    Cheers, Gail.

  7. In my garden in Hildesheim I had planted a quince, a real beauty with soft pink blossoms, large silver-green leaves and many sulphur-yellow fruits - a perfect feast for all senses, and a lesson of reliability because a quince bears fruit every year, different from most apples.
    When after 20 years we left for Hamburg I let the huge ground floor flat to a garden architect. Being a wayward Taoist of course I expected Change in the garden - but not the "murder" of the most robust tree I ever had: my quince...

    To cheer us up, here the only recipe I know which uses raw (!) quince:
    it is called "Sultan's Delight", easy though voluptuous:

    Rub off the fluff of your quinces, enjoy the sublime smell, peel off the skin, fight and chop the quince into chunks, and put them into a blender (without core and pips).
    Then tenderly mix 1 part quince puree, 1 part runny honey and 1 part whipped cream.
    Dip your dessertspoon into that - and melt with delight.

    And then you may discover nature's wisdom: the end of the quince season prevents that one develops the figure of a Sultan - be it pear- or apple-shaped as the quince.

  8. I have only ever cooked with quince once and decided that peeling them required "danger money". The end result was worth it! The flavour and colour was divine.

  9. Brita's "Sultan's Delight" definitely sounds voluptuous - makes me want a quince tree! Meanwhile, making do with the now biggest fig tree in the neighborhood which always gives us - and anyone who wants them - plenty of good jam making or dessert baking fruits!

    I found and read Orwell's 1945 piece "In Defence of English Cooking" which is marvelous and I'm sure is the one you mention. When I saw he mentioned Devonshire cream of course I swooned and, as always, can't wait to get home and have some dolloped on a fresh baked scone with real strawberry jam. . . . sitting in a tea garden under the roses of course!
    Your kitchen time dealing with the beautiful colored quince was fascinating - I hope you have quaint handwritten labels for your jars of piquant jelly! Lucky your friends who get to share.

    Marmalade I love too - had no idea that was a Portuguese word!
    Happy week Mark.
    Mary -

  10. What is the most beautiful thing about quince jelly? The translucent amber and then that sharp taste. I always collected the wild crab apples for a similar experience.

  11. Your own miniature Harvest festival.

  12. I have tried preparing quince once or twice, but the peeling of it got the better of me. A student gave me some membrillo her mother had made and we enjoyed that very much. There is a quince tree growing in our neighbourhood and when I walk by it, the fragrance almost tempts me to try cooking quince once more.

  13. Your readers certainly get lyrical about quince and I love Britta's 'feast for all senses'. My mother used to insist that as a child I loved poached quince. I've no idea where she got that idea, the texture is vile. The scent however is divine, and their ability to set anything into jam gives them value above gold. Quince jelly flavoured with scented geranium or fresh ginger is a favorite in this household. Pork roasted with quince. Membrillo and sharp cheese.
    One year a colleague handed me some fruit he couldn't identify and asked what they were. I guessed japonica apples although they were by far the biggest i had ever seen. They are also known as Japanese quince and they made the tartest jelly hit ever - fabulous on cold leftover roast fatted lamb.

    1. My quinces are what you call japonica quinces - like very small very hard apples. They are supremely tart and have a zing like no other.

  14. I'm making apple jelly - oh how I miss our annual jelly swaps! I realise I've not responded to your review request, and I'm probably far too late by now. My apologies but it is on my to do list!