Nevertheless, we can’t sink entirely into a slough of despond. What is needed is some cheer that will run all the way through the coming season, something to introduce joy in the simplest of fashions without any fuss.
I offer you the quince.
These begin to appear in the shops in late October, a lime-coloured pear-shaped fruit covered in a pale grey fur. But they should be at their best now, having been given time to mature to a sunny yellow.
Unlike pears - which come from the same Cydonia family - you can’t eat them raw. And, unlike pears, you can’t bite into them. You’ll need to axe them open with a meat cleaver.
So what do they offer on the positive side? Colour and flavour and history. Cooked, their flesh turns from white to a delicate coral pink, giving off a strong flowery scent reminiscent of roses, of which the quince is a relation. Its flavour is delicate, almost illusive, reminiscent of apples (also a member of the same family).
But its most romantic attribute is that it is believed to have been that second most famous apple, the one which Paris gave to Aphrodite and which triggered the Trojan War.
Now common across Europe, quince trees originate in eastern Asia, thriving on rocky slopes in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Georgia, and further east. Almost ornamental in shape and producing beautiful, quite prominent, pink or white spring blossoms, they make a far greater impact in landscape gardening than other more mundane fruit trees.
Cooked, unpeeled, in slices, their flavour marries well with game dishes, from a wild boar stew to a roast partridge or similar bird. Where it scores, however, is as a jelly more subtle than redcurrant jelly for Sunday roasts or spooning over plain breakfast yogurt, and far more exquisite in colour. The fruit is rich in pectin, so even if you’ve never made jam or jelly before, this recipe won’t fail to set. And, if we are free to celebrate Christmas with others, it fills a jar with a jewel-like clear coral pink jelly to lift flagging spirits and give as a present.
There are some pointers to adhere to. If you overcook the fruit, the jelly’s delicate flavour will be lost, so keep the fruit at a simmer. Under no circumstances touch or squeeze the jelly bag while the juice is being strained or you will produce a cloudy jelly. Don’t necessarily throw away the fruit pulp - you can use it to make membrillo, the Spanish fruit paste so delicious with a hard goats’ or sheep’s cheese.
- 1.7 kg quinces
- 2 litres water
- granulated sugar, not preserving sugar - quinces contain enough pectin
Wash the quinces, and cut into 2.5cm chunks, only throwing away the stalk.
Add them with the water to a large saucepan and heat until simmering. Cook until the fruit turns soft, about 30 minutes. Mash into a pulp with a potato masher or a stiff whisk.
Spoon the mixture into a jelly bag suspended over a bowl. If you don’t own one, line a colander with muslin and pour the contents of the saucepan carefully into it, to drain into a bowl.
Leave overnight or 8-12 hours for all the juice to drain through.
Set jam jars in a roasting tray and place in a 140°C oven to sterilise.
Weigh the juice and pour back into the cleaned out saucepan. Add to it 75% of the juice’s weight in granulated sugar and heat gently to dissolve the sugar, stirring all the time, then turn the heat up high to rolling-boil the jelly.
To test if the jelly is ready set without a thermometer, put a saucer in a freezer and once chilled, drop a teaspoon of jelly on it and draw a finger through it. If the jelly wrinkles, it is set. Alternatively, pour a little iced water into a saucer and drop a little jelly into it. If it solidifies, it’s ready.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and ladle the jelly into a heatproof jug. Keeping the jamjars in the roasting pan in case one should shatter with the heat (unlikely, but it makes sense to take precautions to prevent a jelly lake on your counter), pour in the jelly and close the jars.
It’s not necessary to make the jelly immediately after cooking it - it can hold for a few days in the fridge, or longer in the freezer.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the December 2020 edition of The Bugle.