At the municipal markets we are no longer allowed to serve ourselves and must wait for the stallholder to pick the fruit and veg we want. But at most supermarkets the fruit is displayed unpacked — and we always select the prettiest ones.
But not when we’re buying quince — there are no pretty quinces. The skin is tough and sometimes covered in down and it has bulges in the wrong places. It is most definitely the Quasimodo of the fruit world.
However, under the quince’s somewhat grotesque exterior there lie hidden beauties well worth discovering, and to reach their flavour we have to cook them.
Perhaps the quince’s greatest quality is its aroma which is very much to the forefront but at the same time delicate and with a touch of the exotic. Their dried cores were once hung in wardrobes and tucked into lingerie drawers, thus allowing their soft scents to permeate the clothes.
The natural colour of quince flesh is off-white, rather like that of some apples. But when cooked with sugar it takes on a delicate shade of pink — another of its inner beauties. The quince, whose botanical name is Cydonia vulgaris, is native to western Asia from where it spread throughout the Mediterranean countries. The Arabs brought it to Spain and the Normans took it to England where it was baked or roasted, turned into sweet pies and candied in honey.
Quinces were served at Henry IV’s 1399 coronation feast when they were on the menu as ‘quyneys in comfyte’. English cooks in stately homes boiled, strained and set quinces to soft jellies for serving with roast meats.
The English also made them into the first marmalades, a word that comes from ‘marmelo’, the Portuguese for quince. But jelly and marmalade made from quinces declined in popularity as locally grown strawberries and other soft fruits became more widely available all over the country and imported citrus fruits came down in price. That was when marmalade started to be made almost exclusively from oranges.
The quince, called ‘membrillo’ in Spanish, is not the most popular fruit at the Mercat d’Olivar. You will see them from the start of autumn and throughout the winter, but you will have to look hard: not every stall has them and the few that are on sale get slipped in at the back.
Not that huge amounts are needed, because young Spanish housewives, who don’t do a great deal of cooking, have little interest in them. However, there are still a few of the old school who carry on the culinary traditions of their mothers and grandmothers and it is thanks to them that quinces are still on sale at local markets. Some serious Spanish cooks turn quinces into compotes, jams and jellies and others do them in the oven, rather like baked apples, to have as dessert or to serve with roast pork.
Making a compote
To make a compote, cook the peeled, cored and sliced quinces in water flavoured with cinnamon. For a kilo of prepared quince slices, use 600 grs of sugar, a litre of water and a smallish stick of cinnamon. Simmer over a low heat until the quince slices are soft.
Transfer to a serving dish or individual plates and sprinkle with seedless raisins marinated for a couple of hours in a little brandy, grappa or other spirit. Cinnamon addicts can dust the surface with some of the ground spice.
Well-cored quinces can be stuffed with chopped walnuts, generously drizzled with honey and baked to make a dessert with a nice contrast of textures and flavours. The bigger quinces should be used for this dish.
Peel the quinces, core them and rub generously with lemon juice. This will keep them from discolouring when their high tannic acid content comes into contact with the air.
Put them into an oven dish and push the chopped walnuts into the core space. Drizzle the nuts with a little brandy and lots of honey, letting the honey cascade over the top of the quince and down the sides.
Pour a little water into the dish and add some short pieces of stick cinnamon. Bake in a medium oven until the quinces are soft and light brown in colour, basting them from time to time with the juices.
In Spain quinces are mainly used to make a sweetmeat called ‘membrillo’, the same name as the fruit. Its proper name is ‘dulce de membrillo’, but most people refer to it as ‘membrillo’. You may not have eaten it but you will certainly have seen it in pastry shops, colmados and supermarkets.
It can come in thick rectangular moulds of a soft orange-pink colour and sold by the slice, as well as in slabs wrapped in transparent plastic. Some manufacturers add edible dyes of the worst kind of artificial colouring that are best avoided, if only for aesthetic reasons.
Slices of ‘membrillo’ are sometimes cut into small squares and served at the end of a meal with coffee or liqueurs. Some people on the mainland nibble on it as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, sometimes with a glass of sweet sherry.
At some shops and supermarkets you will see thick soft-textured ‘membrillo’ that can be spread like jam on toast or biscuits. In some parts of the mainland this is a popular snack for children coming home from school and looking for something quick to eat.
This sweetmeat is loved by young and old, rich and poor, and is just as likely to served at the end of a banquet in a fine restaurant as on a slice of bread for a hungry schoolboy.
Few Spanish housewives make their own ‘membrillo’ because it is so readily available at shops and supermarkets. It is manufactured on the mainland starting in the middle of September and going on to the end of December. In that time enough slabs are made to meet the country’s needs until the following autumn.
The ‘membrillo’ is unusual among fruits in that it is as economically viable as the pig —there is absolutely no wastage. The thick skins are crushed, and the juices extracted are used as a medicine for upset stomachs. The seeds are dried and sent to various parts of the country where they are used in the making of medicines, glues and chemical products.
The flesh is cooked and made into slabs of ‘membrillo’ that will find their way into the tiniest of shops in the remotest parts of the mainland.
In Spanish convents and monasteries ‘membrillo’ has always been a favourite dessert and even today some convents are famous for the ‘membrillo’ they produce and sell to then public.
One of these is the convent of Santa Paula in Seville where the nuns make two tons of ‘membrillo’ during the short quince season. The usual way of making ‘membrillo’ is to peel, core and slice the fruit and then to cook it with sugar until the mixture is very thick.
But the Santa Paula nuns use a different method. The quinces are boiled whole and when they are soft the nuns peel them and take out the hearts and the seeds, which are kept aside for making jelly. The pulp of the fruit is sieved before being cooked with the same weight of sugar. This is a kitchen job on a commercial scale and just about every nun in the convent has to give a helping hand.
The places to buy the best ‘membrillo’ are the island’s top pastry shops and the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés, where you may see some made at convents or monasteries. If you do, grab a slab or two. It will cost a bit more but it will be the best of the lot.