My first ever quinces. My first ever quince paste, or membrillo. It didn’t go the deep red I had been reading about, and hoping for, no matter how long I cooked it, but rather a dark, rosy gold. In Mexico it is seen as candy, and it candies as you cook it. It feels and looks like a humongous boiled sweet, the way it wraps itself around your wooden spoon. Gradually, it solidifies, becomes harder to manage and your forearm sweats and reddens. I felt like one of those glass blowers by the end, with roasted arms. And then you must unwrap it, flatten it into a block and cool it on a baking sheet, smoothing it out with wet hands. It’s a tough little thing, and you need to prize it off in cubes. Some suggest burying it in sugar and cinnamon. I was interested in the Spanish version, where you serve it with Manchego, a chalky sheep’s cheese, which you dribble either with honey or olive oil. What I love about Manchego is the crystalline quality when it dissolves on the tongue – there is sharpness, it is intense, but crumbly, frail, reminiscent of ragged, yellowing parchment.
Quinces when they are cooking are startlingly honeyed and musky, almost ‘heavy’ smelling, but it is also an astringent fruit and you are left with traces of acid long after the sugar has gone. The best paste is a reminder of the fruit’s essence. Thin slices of Manchego, a hunk of bread, a few jellied sheets of membrillo – a tapa we would get for free en route to our house in Picena, southern Spain, and a bar stop demanded by the driver, Pepe el taxista. If you bought a drink, you’d get the food for free. Amazing if you think about it, and I doubt it still exists in quite the same way now.
I remember patatas a lo pobre – poor man’s potatoes – served in terracotta dishes, cakes of sweet onion tortilla and chunks of melting lamb. It was just enough to stave off hunger, and the alcohol would make everything nice and blurry. A lot of people died on that mountain road. No barriers, alcohol, a few stray goats. Everything was crumbling and dry. On average, a person a year from the village careered off the mountain side to their death, and travellers were picked off with horrible ease. But I always remember the food first, and only later the slow, lurching ascent into the clouds.
Quinces (cydonia oblongata) were the original ingredient in marmalade; the word marmelo is in fact the Portuguese word for quince. It wasn’t until 1790 that oranges were used, and all marmalade recipes before then were based on quinces, even in England. These days they are considered too tart, dry and tannic to eat raw (blame the advent of sugarcane). Cooked is the only way to eat them, unless already ‘bletted’ – beyond ripe and softened by decay.
They flummox people. What are they, exactly? For many years, they were thought to be a relative of the pear, and though most pears are grown on quince rootstock, they are not pears and will not hybridise with them. They are a separate species, full of mythology, and loved by preserve-makers and food enthusiasts. They are hard, yellowy, blocky, sometimes shaped like commas, thick-set. Imagine a great aunt with a plinth-like bosom called Enid. Anyway, they are very exciting to cook with because they transform, becoming glassy and gorgeous and they work well with fatty meats. The ones above are green and would benefit from a long sit for a few weeks until they become a mellow yellow.
Quince paste with Manchego
Adapted from Sam and Sam Clark, Moro – The Cookbook & Nigel Slater, Tender
2kg (4lb) quinces
Juice of 2 lemons
Remove the down/fur on the quinces, wash them and cut them up. Don’t bother to remove the core or peel them, you will sustain injuries. Put the fruit into a heavy pan and just cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, and then simmer until tender. Strain off any excess water and push the quinces through a sieve, removing pips and core as you go, letting the purée collect in a bowl beneath. This can take some time. Alternatively, if you have one, use a mouli, but remember to use the disc with the smallest possible holes, or you will be eating fibres and grit.
Weigh the purée and add to it half the weight again of sugar; the Moro cookbook calls for equal weights of fruit and sugar, and I have adhered to their recipe for years, but having tried this Nigel Slater version, from Tender, I find the paste has more flavour, tang and quincy character and still keeps its shape.
Place both the sugar and the fruit purée in the same (but washed) pan. Return to the stove, and heat gently until the sugar has completely dissolved. Now raise the heat and let the mixture bubble, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (wear an oven glove to protect your hand). Add some lemon juice to taste. It is ready when it starts to come away from the sides of the pan, attaching itself to your spoon like a thick, deep orange wand. By the end, you can hardly move your spoon through the paste.
Now, remove the mixture and spread it out in a centimetre (½ inch) layer on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Push it out to the sides as evenly as possible. When it has cooled slightly, wet your hands and smooth it down. Switch the oven to its lowest heat and dry it out for a couple of hours, or simply air dry it. It should be tacky dry and firm enough to be cut into solid pieces. Pack it in greaseproof paper and store in an airtight container. Refrigeration should not be necessary and it keeps for many months.
Traditionally, the sheep’s cheese Manchego is served in thin triangles with the rind left on. The quince paste is sliced and then placed on top of the cheese, with a thread of extra virgin olive oil alongside. Honey is also lovely here if you fancy it.