Friday 25 April 2008

Quince Jelly: how to make a delightful old-fashioned preserve

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Do you remember all those juicy ripe quinces you ate as a child? Me neither! The first time I held a quince in my hand was in my twenties, on lovely weekends away in the historic Cape village of McGregor, where the dusty streets, with their burbling water-furrows, are lined with many ancient quince trees.

Although the fruit has fallen out of favour in the last hundred years in South Africa, many old quince trees still flourish on Cape farms: judging from the number of fresh quinces I've seen in greengrocers over the past few years, it's still considered viable as a speciality fruit.

You can't easily eat a ripe, furry yellow quince; it's too hard and too tart. A quince needs to be gently stewed or jellied before it reveals its rosy and perfumed soul.

Beautiful clear quince jelly
This is an old-fashioned fruit with a long and noble pedigree, and it makes a most delicous preserve. (I hesitate to use the word 'jelly', because that word means different things in different parts of the world. This recipe is for jelly in the British sense - a crystal-clear, wobbling gel.)

It's excellent with ham, turkey or venison, stirred into a gravy, or melted and brushed over the top of a fruit tart. Or try blobbing the jelly onto a piece of sharp Cheddar or a wedge of oozing camembert or brie (see Cook's Notes, below).

Quince Jelly
6 large, ripe quinces water
white sugar
juice of 2 lemons, strained to remove pips and bits

Rub the quinces with a tea towel to remove excess fluff, and then, using a cleaver or heavy knife, chop them roughly (and I mean roughly - they can be rock-hard) into pieces. Put the chunks, peel, pips and all, into a large saucepan and add enough water to cover. Set over a high heat and bring to the boil.

Turn down the heat and allow to cook at a gentle rolling boil for an hour or so, or until the fruit begins to break up and is softened and mushy. Top up with more water every now and then so that the fruit is always covered.

Get a large basin or bowl ready. Place a jelly bag (I use an old, clean, cut-down pillowcase) into the bowl, and ladle the hot fruit and liquid into the opening of the bag.

Tie the mouth of the bag closed with an elastic band or a piece of string, then lift up the bag and suspend it above the bowl, so the liquid can drip downwards. (Tie the twisted mouth of the bag to the knob of a top kitchen cupboard, or turn a chair upside down and suspend the bag between its legs, with the bowl place below).

Leave to drain for at least six hours, or overnight. Don't be tempted to squeeze the bag - you might end up with a cloudy jelly.

Untie the bag, toss the quince pulp into the bin (or on the compost heap) and rinse out the bag for future use.

Measure the quince liquid using a jug or cup measure, and strain it, using a kitchen sieve, into a large, clean saucepan. Add an equal quantity of white sugar. (ie, if you have 500 ml of quince juice, add 500 ml of sugar). Stir in the lemon juice. Set over a high heat and bring to the boil, stirring gently now and then so that the sugar dissolves. Boil briskly for 30-40 minutes, using a flat spoon or skimmer to remove any grey scum that rises to the top of the pan.

The mixture will look dull and cloudy at first, but after a while will clarify into a beautiful pinky-amber colour. If you have a sugar thermometer, bring the mixture up to a few degrees below jam point. Or, much easier, take an ice cube from the freezer and drop a large blob of the mixture on to it. If the mixture, once it's cooled for 20 seconds, slides enthusiastically off the ice cube, you're not there yet - carry on boiling it for a little longer. If the sauce sets to a wobbly, trembling gel within 20 seconds of hitting the ice cube, it's ready.

Skim off any remaining foam and ladle into hot, sterilised jars. Screw on the lids tightly.

Keeps for up to a year; opened jars should be kept in the fridge.

Makes 3 jars.

Postscript: I've used a teaspoon of this jelly in all sorts of gravies, and it makes such a difference to the taste (don't use more than a teaspoon, though: it's very sweet.) It is also makes a delicious base for a mint jelly: finely chop and handful of fresh mint. Melt a big blob of quince jelly in a saucepan, stir in the fresh mint, and add a little squeeze of lemon juice. Good with roast lamb.

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