No fruit was more highly prized in in Tudor and Jacobean times than the noble quince, according to scholar and author Hilary Spurling. 'Why the quince and its products should have fallen utterly out of favour in England, when they didn't elsewhere, is a mystery', she writes in her wonderful, scholarly book Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book (more about Elinor Fettiplace here).
Spurling offers a fascinating insight into just how important and prized fruit 'marmalades' (with 'marmalade' used in its original sense; the word being derived from the word the Portuguese marmelada, meaning 'quince cheese' or 'quince jam').
Boxes of quince marmalade were a favourite mediaeval wedding present, 'and they remained a luxury gift for anyone from royalty downwards until well into the seventeenth century'. Quince marmalades, Spurling adds, sold in boxes or by the brick, were an established favourite in England long before the arrival of the orange variety that 'eventually got the upper hand on the breakfast table'.
Pastes, cheeses and jellies made from quinces live on in various forms: in Spain, Mexico and South America as membrillo, which is usually eaten with cheese; and in France as Pate de Coing or cotignac. And here endeth the history lesson.
I was determined to try my hand at making quince cheese, for several reasons: the shops here in South Africa are full of quinces, a fruit I have come to love; I wanted to know what quince paste tasted like; and last but not least, because this recipe for Quince Jelly is - peculiarly - one of the most visited pages on this blog.
The quince paste was easy to make, and tastes sensational: very intense and fruity, and a beautiful deep cornelian colour. It's delicious paired with sharp, salty cheeses. Cubed and rolled in sugar, it's not unlike those treasured South African fruit delicacies mebos and guava or apricot roll (fruit leathers), although it has less gritty texture.
The magic of this recipe is watching the honey-coloured quinces turn, over three hours of cooking, into a gorgeous orange-ruby colour.
A mistake I made was to make the poured-out layer of paste too deep (mine was about 12 mm deep; and it took a full 10 days to dry to the point where I could easily cut it into cubes; I had to turn it over several times). I wasn't in any hurry, but next time I'll pour it out in a thinner - say, about 7 mm - layer.
None of the recipes I consulted (see below) specified a drying time, but I gather, in my reading, that the longer you keep the paste, the more leathery it becomes.
So what to do with the paste once you've made it? Er, that's a good question. I've cut half the paste into cubes, tossed them in granulated sugar and stored them between sheets of greaseproof paper, for lunchboxes and sweeties, and cut the rest into bars for enjoying, in slivers, with cheese and pickles. I read somewhere - and I wish I could remember where - that a few cubes of quince paste are wonderful for enriching gravies, or adding a fruity sharpness to casseroles and stews.
I used as a reference for this recipe, several centuries-old recipes: Elinor Fettiplace's recipe To Make a Paste of Quinces, from the book mentioned above; To Make Quince Paste, from The Complete Confectioner by Hannah Glasse and others; Quince Paste, from Domestic Economy, and Cookery, for Rich and Poor, by a Lady, and instructions from The Italian Confectioner.
Elizabethan Quince Paste or 'Cheese'
6 large quinces
water to cover
a slice of lemon
white granulated sugar (see recipe for quantity)
Half-fill a big pot with cold water and into it squeeze a lemon quarter. Put the squeezed lemon quarter into the water. Using a cloth or tea towel, vigorously rub the quinces to remove any fluff. Now, using a heavy, sharp knife or cleaver, chop the quinces into big chunks - don't bother to peel, core or depip them (these bits contain the pectin that will set the jelly) - and drop the chunks into the lemoned water as you go (this will prevent them from discolouring). When you've chopped and added all the fruit, adjust the water level by removing or adding water: the quince chunks should be just covered. Bring to the boil, and then reduce the heat and boil over a gentle heat for about 45 minutes, or until the chunks are very tender and beginning to break apart.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Tip the contents of the pot (in batches, if necessary) into the bowl of a food processor or a blender fitted with a metal blade. Process to a fine purée.
Now tip the purée (again, in batches if necessary) into a metal sieve and, using the back of a soup ladle, strain the mixture into a bowl. This is quite a laborious process, and will take up to ten minutes, but persist until you are left with just a mush of fibrous material. Scrape down the outside of the sieve and discard its contents. Now measure the smooth purée as you tip it back into the rinsed pot. Add an equal quantity of white granulated sugar (ie, if you have three cups of purée, add three cups of sugar). Put the pot over a medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until every grain of sugar is dissolved. Now turn down the heat to its very lowest setting, and allow the mixture to simmer very slowly (you may need a heat-diffusing pad), stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, for about three to four hours. How long this will take depends on the type and ripeness of your fruit, the heat, and so on. As the mixture burbles (beware of volcanic bubbles) it will darken and eventually turn a deep, glorious brick-red. It is ready when it is very thick, and begins to pull away from the sides of the pot as you stir it: or when, as you pull a spoon through the middle of the paste, it leaves a gap (like the Red Sea parting) that closes very reluctantly. It should be very thick, like a polenta, and very red. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat and overcook it: it will candy and burn.
Line a large (about 40 cm x 40 cm) ceramic dish or a metal pan with clingfilm [saran wrap] and pour the paste in, to a depth of about 7-10 mm. If you have any small fancy jelly moulds, with embossed bottoms, you can use these.
Cover with a net cloth or a metal-gauze food-protector to keep away insects, and set aside, in a warm, draughty place, or until the paste has set. For quicker drying, place the paste in the sun, and turn it every now and then. This will take between two and five days, depending on where on earth you live.
If you want the paste for sweetmeats, cube them, or cut them into lozenges, or use a small fancy cutter (such as a heart shape) to cut them up, and roll them in white granulated sugar. Stack the pieces between sheets of greaseproof or parchment paper, in a cardboard box, and store in a cool place. If you'd like to use the paste for serving with cheese, cut it into big chunks and allow to dry out completely (ie, it should have no trace of surface stickiness) before wrapping it in parchment paper.