Are quinces not one of the most remarkable of fruits!
On our recent visit to Olive’s Cottage at the end of April we had offered to take dessert for lunch with several friends. The quince tree in the cottage garden was full of fruit – not ripe enough to use. However, it gave us the idea for the perfect dessert: poached whole quinces. It is an ideal dish for when we are at the cottage as the quinces are easy to prepare, can be left alone to cook, last well in the fridge and can be reheated later. And they are easily transported to someone’s home, not to mention that they look and taste sensational: crimson orbs in a burgundy coloured syrup!
Here is a photo of ripe quinces harvested from the tree in the garden at Olive’s Cottage several years ago.
In the 1950s and 1960s there were dozens of orchards in the Tamar Valley. In addition to apples and pears, every orchard had a wide selection of other fruits: stone fruits of all sorts, mulberry, walnut and loquat come to mind. However, quince trees did not seem to be common.
When we lived at Swan Bay, there were two orchards within a few hundred metres of the small weatherboard house we rented. My recollection is that neither had a quince tree.
However, the owners of another orchard several kilometres away did have one, as I later found out. It was only on rare occasions that a few of us kids would find our way over there to play with their children. The wife was an accomplished country cook and we were always invited into the kitchen, where we would look around wide-eyed at the bounty of food on display, not to mention the modern equipment. She would invite us sweet-treat-starved siblings to choose a cookie (aka biscuit in those days) from one of several large glass jars on the wide kitchen bench.
It was because of this orchardist’s wife that I have my first recollection of the beautiful ruby colour that cooked quinces produce: on the bench on one visit was what could be mistaken to be a bowl of poached pear quarters which somehow had taken on an amazing colour. It would be many years later when I realised they were quince pieces that had been cooked for hours.
There is no doubt we would have tried quinces at home – we could be certain that my father would get his hands on any new fruit or vegetable he came across. However, I suspect my parents gave up on them by stewing them as per apples or pears but finding them so much less interesting. My parents certainly weren’t familiar with the colourific and flavour changes from long, slow cooking.
Working with quinces
Quinces have a texture that is a cross between apples and pears and are peeled and cored in the same way. When are they ripe? It can be hard to tell, but if they have reached a reasonable size and look yellow enough, they probably are. If you are unsure as to whether they are ripe enough for cooking, check with your greengrocer.
The most common way to cook them is by poaching pieces. While apple and pear segments are cooked within 10 minutes or so, quinces require a little longer but they might be uninteresting. However, if you poach them for several hours, both the fruit and the syrup in which they are cooked take on a superb red-burgundy colour with a wonderful scented fragrance. Be careful not to cook them quickly as they could disintegrate or even burn. You can simmer them very gently on the stove top or cook them in a slow oven. Quinces are frequently combined with apples or pears but a dessert from quinces alone can be superb, especially with farm cream on hand.
Quinces seem to attract more than their fair share of bugs and grubs – cut out the bad bits when you come across them. The fruit also seems to have a tendency to have quite a deal of brown flesh which looks almost as if the fruit has gone off. Chop out the brown bits and discard: if it is not too far gone the remainder will cook up OK. It is worth buying one or two extra quinces in case you have to discard a lot due to grubs and brown flesh.
As you peel them they discolour quickly so immediately drop them into water with lemon juice added. Or prepare your sugar syrup then drop fruit straight in when it is peeled. The peel and core can also be cooked separately and used to make quince jelly or poached in sugar and the syrup strained off and saved. If the peel is to be used, the grey down on the skin should be cleaned off.
Poached whole quinces
The link to our recipe is given below. It is an adaptation of one in Stephanie Alexander’s “The Cook’s Companion”, which itself is based on a recipe of Maggie Beer. The main changes we make are to use less poaching liquid and to add orange rind. The rind gives a heightened flavour and is delicious in its own right.
Because everything gets cooked, for poached whole quinces you need quinces that are blemish and bug free! In the photo at the top of this post you will notice that some of the fruit have blemishes, making those unsuitable for this recipe. The photo after that shows the good quality ones we found in the Launceston markets.
We make the syrup before adding the quinces. (The original recipe says to boil the quinces with the water and sugar for 30 minutes to make a syrup, but our experience has shown that that way the quinces can become soft and break up.) Whether cooked on the stove top or in the oven, use a pot or casserole or similar that fits the quinces reasonably snugly, but allows them to be turned easily. In the end you want quinces that have retained their shape. In the photo below, the orange is quite apparent, draped over the quinces.
For the recipe, click here: Poached Whole Quinces.
If the quinces are large, you could halve them as that allows more immersion in the syrup. Following is a photograph of quince halves after a few hours in the oven.