Is that a lemon tree?
Do these pears have a disease?
What do you do with those things?
Variants of these questions have been ringing through the kitchen garden at Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden this past month. The object of all these questions and speculation? A Quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), which has looked particularly spectacular this year.
Pale golden-yellow fruits drip from the branches like giant baubles, set off by the dark green leaves surrounding them.
These fruits look like knobbled pears, covered in a downy fluff that rubs off on your hands and announce their ripeness by releasing the most amazing aroma, (probably my favourite fruit scent.) Perhaps Eve was actually tempted by the delicious fragrance, as it is thought that the apples mentioned in the bible and other classical texts were probably quinces.
Though clearly unfamiliar to us now, the quince has been a popular ingredient in England for hundreds of years. The south of the UK was home to many commercial quince orchards before apples took over as the nation’s favourite fruit – possibly as we lost our suspicion of eating fruit raw, the quince, which requires cooking to become edible, fell from favour.
We have a record of what were probably the first quinces planted in England, as Edward I ordered four to be planted in the grounds of the Tower of London in 1275. Perhaps these trees or their offspring provided the fruits for the dessert of ‘Quynces Bake’ served at Richard III’s coronation in 1483. Thereafter they make frequent appearances in medieval cookery books, either baked whole, pureed for pies or used to make a set cheese or jelly. The first marmalades in this country were also made using quinces, only substituting Seville oranges in the 18th century.
Using quinces to make set preserves seems to have been common all across Europe, but we are only recently rediscovering it in the UK through the popularity of Spanish membrillo, a firmly set quince paste which is traditionally eaten with Manchego cheese.
Quinces lend themselves to preserving due to their high pectin content, which encourages a firm set. Therefore fruit jelly and fruit cheese (basically a jam you can slice) from quinces is surprisingly easy to make. The fruit is cooked to a pulp, then either strained through a fine cloth for jelly or left to collapse and become a puree for a cheese. Add sugar in equal quantity by weight to the fruit pulp, then cook down, stirring to prevent burning, until the mixture thickens and turns a deep red in colour. It can then be left to set and stored in greaseproof paper in a sealed plastic box, where it will keep for months.
Quince is not the only fruit you can treat this way. Crab apples make good fruit cheese, as do plums and damsons. What links these fruits is that they are all high in natural pectin. If you want to experiment with other fruits, you could either mix them with the fruits mentioned above, or buy a commercial packet of pectin to add during the cooking process.
The trees are not hard to grow and generally free from pests and diseases – just give them a sunny position and make sure to water well during hot, dry summers to prevent powdery mildew on the leaves.
They make lovely specimen trees, with smooth, dark, bark, pink/white blossom in April, followed by the fruits which hang on the tree through the summer and are best picked as late as possible in October to let that delicious aroma develop. Otherwise, if frosts threatens, bring the fruits indoors, where they will act as natural air fresheners until you are ready to use them.