Steaming pineapples and musky roses. Damp, heady and sweet. A bit like a fruit and veg shop. That’s the best I can do when it comes to describing the strange perfume of quinces. Warm and wet? Sultry. They smell like perfume. I’m at a loss.
This is also what happens when I’m asked (and this happens a lot) “how do you find LA?” I haven’t yet found it, I want to say. I’m still at a loss. Sometimes words are tricky and some things are hard to grasp. There’s no ‘it’, there’s no graspable thing. The quince is yellow when ripe and is almost waxy, and it smells definitely of pineapples. It is hard in the hand – there’s no give in it, unlike a pear which it resembles. A pear with a big bum. You can’t eat it raw unless you like having bloody stumps instead of teeth. You have to wait for the fruit to become bletted, which means soft to the point of decay, if you want to eat it like that. The quince needs to be cooked, and then there’s the smell (see above). It’s probably what is known as an acquired taste.
LA is dry and hot and sunny most of the year. Sometimes it rains and then it buckets down and no one knows how to drive when the road is wet so they crash. There is no centre, but lots of grids. So if you get lost, then you just take the next left and go backwards. It is a maze of suns. Everyone wears sunglasses all the time, even at night. It is a city of endless fragments where you are unlikely ever to bump into anyone you know. If you want to get lost, it’s a good place to be.
There is a huge botanical garden, The Huntington, with a library attached that has the first edition of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. Oskar Schindler lived above a dry cleaners in Beverly Hills for a while. David Hockney learned to drive in LA (and drove all the way to Las Vegas after his test, because he didn’t know how to get off the freeway), as did I. The smell of wild fennel is strong, and I would say it is a place of colour. It is rarely damp.
I found these quinces in a bag on someone’s front lawn on the outskirts of Seaford. Previously there have only been apples there, so discovering quinces was very exciting. I hope it was okay for me to take them. I took all the other things they left out, and nobody said anything. You are unlikely to find local quinces in the shops. Along with mulberries, you’re better off befriending someone with a tree and a glut and a kind heart. It is worth it.
One of the many spectacular things about quinces is the way they turn a deep rosy gold during cooking, which makes them rather dramatic and a bit serious-seeming. Good for dinner parties, or just on your own, slumped over a book. This compote is lovely served with yoghurt, cream or ice cream. Good as a sorbet too, or puréed for a tart.
Compote of quinces and allspice
Inspired by Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, originally from Audiger’s La Maison Reglée, 1692
Allspice isn’t, as I once thought, a combination of ‘all the spices’. The name was coined around 1621 by the English, who likened its aroma and taste to a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Allspice (Pimenta officinalis) comes from a tropical tree native to America, also cultivated in the West Indies and Jamaica. The berries – as seen below – are often tied in muslin and used in the making of preserves and pickles. The flavour, like the quince, is elusive, and works well here.
6 quinces (or thereabouts)
Sugar or honey to taste
3-4 Whole allspice berries
Cut up two quinces – use windfalls for this, as it doesn’t matter what they look like – and put them, peel, core and all into a pan. Cover generously with water. Also peel neatly the four remaining quinces. Add these peelings to the pan, and then the cores as you cut them into quarters. The cores are very tough, so pare gradually away otherwise you’re left with shards and splinters of quince.
Prevent the pieces from discolouring by dropping them into a bowl of lightly salted water. Boil up the pan of quince ‘debris’, and stew lightly until it begins to turn a rich amber. Not red as many suggest – you’ll be waiting forever for that. Now strain off the glowing juice, add sugar or honey* to taste, and bring slowly to simmering point, stirring every now and then. In this syrup, cook the quince pieces along with the allspice berries, until the fruit is tender. Serve with something white and cool.
Other recipes with quince:
*I have not used honey in the making of this recipe so far, though it was used traditionally, before the advent of sugar. However, you may need to experiment with the strength and sweetness, as honey behaves differently to sugar in the cooking process.