The quince is a most intriguing fruit - a cousin of the apple and pear, in the Rosaceae family. Its fruit is similar in appearance and shape to a pear. It is green when young but as it ripens, it develops to a bright yellow and is in season right now through to late autumn. And the best thing – they grow right on our doorstep, in fact a very generous customer gave me handfuls from her tree just around the corner with an open invitation to go back and pick more whenever I like! Throughout history the cooked fruit has been used as for culinary purposes, but the tree is also grown for its attractive pale pink blossoms and other ornamental qualities.
Quince is a delicious fruit to poach (with honey & lavender and a little wine) but perhaps its most classic use is membrillo or quince cheese, which is traditionally eaten with Manchego, a Spanish cheese made from ewe’s milk. It’s also great with a good cheddar or goat’s cheese.
I personally think that quinces are utterly magical: the resulting membrillo couldn’t be further away from the fruit from which it originates, yet all that is added is sugar and of course, heat, and lots of it. Quinces also have a monumental quantity of pectin (found in the pips and skin), which makes jelly or paste set so well. What’s more, as you cut the fruit, the surface oxidises very quickly but once it has been in water for a while and starts to cook, the brown colour magically subsides and the fruit turns the most beautiful blush orange and the perfume that permeates the kitchen and the whole house is mesmerising. In short, a day making membrillo is a day very well spent and when it’s cold outside with a Wedgewood blue sky and the windows are steamed up with the quinces’ cooking vapours and you are hauled up inside, breathing the most beautiful scent, it is hard to beat. Just add some really good music and you will be in heaven…
To make the membrillo, clean the fluffy down from the fruit with a damp cloth and then cut up into equal sized pieces, don’t bother to peel it. Simmer in a generous amount of water until they are soft. At this stage, you can strain the liquid to make a jelly by adding a little sugar and whatever aromatics you like, be it thyme, rosemary or lavender with honey in place of sugar. Now take the cooked fruit and pass it through a moulis or a potato ricer if you have one. Discard the rest. Weigh the pulp and add ¾ of the amount of sugar. Then put back on the heat in a heavy bottomed pan and cook and cook. This is the tricky part as it really spits and is positively volcanic so you should put on a pair of gloves, some people even wear goggles! Continue to cook until it becomes jammy in consistency and parts easily and does not come back together straight away when you remove the spatula. Don’t stop stirring though, as it will stick. Then cool on a baking tray lined with parchment. The next day you can dry it out in a very cool oven for 4 hours so that it sets more, or you can omit this step altogether. Cut into tablets and wrap in parchment. Store in the fridge in an airtight container.
As well as eating the membrillo as it is, you can use it to sweeten and add depth and richness to a game casserole. It can also be used to make an aioli, in place of egg yolk for vegans. I also use it as a syrup on cakes and to make quince éclairs which are absolutely delicious and can be found on our menus.