After the Owl and the Pussycat were married in the Edward Lear poem,
'They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.'
Now, I’m not sure about the combination of mince and quince (though there are many Middle Eastern dishes that happily combine the two), but the quince itself is a fruit that would be more than welcome on my wedding table (metaphorically speaking, people). Such delicious little morsels are worth waiting all year for. And I’d love a runcible spoon, whatever that is, with which to eat them.
The transformation that cooking can bring about, the alchemy if you like such fanciful ideas, is nowhere more evident than in the slowly cooked quince. The change from dull and inedible to headily-fragrant, jewelled pink is miraculous. In just under 3 hours, with a bit of lazy attending to now and then whilst pottering about, they are ready. It’s enough to make a girl feel very clever indeed.
Recently I read that Mexican cooks use the pips, cores and skins to make a syrup to soothe coughs and sore throats. If you have a jar of these quinces in the fridge, a spoonful or two ladled into a glass and sipped slowly with a smidgen of honey will do your aching throat no end of good. Thus the use of the whole fruit in this recipe – there is much wisdom to be gained from traditional ethnic cookery. Use it or lose it I say. Just in time too with winter, officially that is, just days away.
Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander both wax lyrical about the quince. Naturally I turned to them first, but both used excessive and frankly scary amounts of sugar. Deborah Madison saved the day (again). In fact you could quite easily replace the sugar with something like agave syrup or even honey to make it far more virtuous. Over to you.
The fruit makes a luscious dessert with a spoonful of the poaching liquid, a coat of thick vanilla yoghurt or cream and a few hideously expensive but oh-so-worth-it amaretti biscuits crumbled over the whole lot. Kept with its syrup in a tightly sealed jar in the fridge, it will be good for two months.
Poached quinces – adapted from Local Flavours by Deborah Madison
6 quinces (4 if they are huge)
¾ cup of caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 wide strips of lemon zest
1 tablespoon of rosewater (optional – but very good)
Rub the downy-fuzz from the quinces with your fingers, though there may not be any on yours. Give them a good rinse. You’ll need a very sharp knife for this, so sharpen yours if it’s looking dull.
Trim a little bit off the base of each fruit so that they stand upright. Cut away the skin from top to bottom in long strokes. Quarter each fruit lengthways. Cut out the cores. Reserve all of the trimmings. Slice the fruit into wedges just larger than 1cm.
Place the skin, cores and pips, into a heavy-based saucepan or lidded, flame-proof casserole with 2 litres of water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid and return it to the saucepan. Add the sugar, stir to dissolve and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to very low and place a piece of baking paper, roughly cut to fit the pan, directly on top of the fruit to help keep it submerged. Cover and simmer for 2 ½ - 3 hours (maybe even a little longer). When ready, the slices will have become a deep pink and should be slightly translucent.
Store, with their syrup, in a lidded jar for up to 2 months.
No runcible spoon required.