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Horseradish and mustard seed. Apples and quinces. A dollop of something that smarts and sears is what is required now. I found the last quinces of the season where I am staying, tiny little gnarled things covered in crystalline cobwebs. Yellow turning to black and as small as tomatoes. And I found some Granny Smith apples that were bunched on a tree in someone’s front lawn. Green, luminous and numerous and unpicked. The rest of the garden was bare and suburban. But the apples were a cartoon green. Perfect and unmarked, with an almost waxy sheen.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” the voice behind us was arch and querulous. I quickly retreated my camera. We turned on our best smiles. “We were just admiring your lovely apples” I said. “Well, come on then, I’ll give you a tour. You can have some if you want.” I promised her a jar of spiced apple jam in return and she perked up. We followed her round her plot and listened to the story of how they bought the house, 40 years ago, and how before that the actress Dame Sybil Thorndike would sit in the conservatory and ‘be round the bend.’

“Won’t you come in? You haven’t eaten? You must be hollow.”

We walked into the house. It too had been untouched. Simple and spartan and her husband Colin was also both these things. Small, white-haired and dainty. He was writing Christmas cards but when we came in he looked up as if he’d been expecting us and started talking as if it was a continuation of an earlier conversation. Our hostess went off to make coffee and came back with a cafetière. She was unsure what was in it; tea or coffee. “Perhaps it’s the most revolting thing you’ve ever drunk?” She enquired smiling and I ate a soft biscuit. The songbook of the musical Cats sat on a side table.

We talked about Cornwall – they had just sold a holiday home in Looe. Very pleasant, pronounced Colin. I had spent some time in Cornwall as a child when my dad moved there. “You probably won’t have heard of the place,” I said, “because it was a tiny hamlet on the edge of Bodmin Moor called Henwood. It had a riding school.” “Oh, we know it well,” cried Colin, in his soft burr. “Do you know Ted and Mary?”

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“Now tell me again – where do you live?”

Joe and I paused. He was sitting in a too-small green chair drinking tea-coffee. What do we say? Los Angeles? But we’re English, it was all too complicated. “Ormond Drive” said Joe, where we’ve been for exactly two days, house-sitting. Free-basing, I suppose you could call it, in Hampton, suburb of London, green and leafy, not really a town. A town lite, heavy with history. Colin got out his Cats songbook, and started to read from Growltiger’s Last Stand.*

His bucko mate, Grumbuskin, long since had disappeared,
For to the Bell at Hampton he had gone to wet his beard;
And his bosun, Tumblebrutus, he too had stol’n away-
In the yard behind the Lion he was prowling for his prey.

“We should really push off now. We haven’t done any shopping”, Joe said. “Oh, yes of course. We’ve ruined your morning”.

“And the apples?” Joe asked, as we stood on the threshold. We put on our winning smiles again. Colin gave us an apple each. I was expecting more of a flurry, and two seemed a paltry sum. It was enough for one jar only, which I had promised them. And they had asked us in, they knew Ted and Mary. It was Christmas. Colin had read us poetry. Time to be kind.

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Spiced quince, apple and mustard jam

Adapted from Felicity Cloake, The Guardian

Like its cousin, the apple, quince makes a wonderful pairing with pork (think Christmas ham), but is good with any fatty meat. The sweet spices, and the warm hit, make this jam an especially good partner for cheddar or other hard cheese. English quinces are now all but over, unless you can find a few malingerers as I have here, but Cypriot and Turkish grocers, and Middle Eastern shops will have their luscious and bulbous imports, so there’s no excuse. Ginger can be used here instead of horseradish, or as well as.

500g ripe quinces (or a mixture of quinces and apples)

1 shallot, finely chopped

100ml cider vinegar

175g light muscovado sugar

5cm horseradish, peeled and finely grated (or ginger)

½ tsp cinnamon

1 tsp mustard seeds

2 tsp mustard powder

Peel the quinces, cut them into sixes, remove the cores, then roughly chop the flesh. Put the fruit in a pan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and leave to cook for half an hour until soft. Drain, then mash or blitz to a pulp in a blender.

Put the quince back in the pan with the remaining ingredients, except for the mustard seeds and powder. Cook for about 20 minutes, until thick, then take off the heat and leave to cool. Stir in the seeds and mustard powder. Decant into a sterilised jar (washed with soapy water, rinsed and then put in a hot oven for ten minutes) and refrigerate.

* Originally from Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S Eliot

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