Quince season means autumn has arrived

Russ Parsons: As an American it’s odd to me that quince seems so little known in Ireland

I cooked my first batch of quince this morning. Autumn is officially here.

Some people mark autumn’s start by the golden leaves on the trees. For others it’s that golden shade of late afternoon light. For me, it’s the golden fruit of the quince tree.

It’s odd to me that quince seems to be so little known in Ireland. It’s a close relative of the apple and the pear, both of which grow so well here and are consumed so avidly. But quince is so little known that I have to make a special request at my local Ardkeen Quality Food Store in Co Waterford for them to order it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that though I buy it for months, I might be the only customer who does.

Cook it, though, and quince becomes not only edible, but downright magical

Granted, quince is not an easy fruit to love. It looks like a pear carved by a caveman. Raw, the fruit is hard as wood and so tannic it will make your mouth pucker. You would not want to be sneaking one into your child’s lunch box.

READ MORE

Cook it, though, and quince becomes not only edible, but downright magical. Think of an apple or pear perfumed with warm winter spices such as cinnamon and cloves. You’re getting close. I can’t think of another fruit or vegetable that transforms so dramatically.

As much as I love quince and as much as I buy, I have to confess that most of it ends up being cooked the same way. It’s a recipe developed by my old friend Deborah Madison, one of the first to cook truly elegant vegetarian food in the US and a gifted cookbook writer (if you haven’t discovered her, start with the encyclopedic Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone).

She calls this Nearly Candied Quince and I call it nearly perfect. Make a simple spiced syrup using half as much sugar as liquid (either white wine, water or a combination thereof). Add cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and the peel of a tangerine and let it simmer. Put peeled, cored and cut-up quince in a baking dish and pour the syrup and spices over. Bake uncovered at 190 degrees for a couple of hours, stirring every once in a while — more often the closer you get to the end.

You’ll know the quince is done when it is tender enough to cut with a spoon and has turned the dusky pink of an autumn sunset. The syrup should have cooked down to a thick glaze. If it hasn’t, transfer the quince into a container with a slotted spoon and finish reducing the syrup over medium-high heat.

This can be used in so many ways, but I think its best use is as a breakfast accompaniment for unsweetened yogurt. It’s so good we’ll go months eating it almost every other morning.

In fact, during autumn we always have a big container of candied quince in the refrigerator, ready to go. It can be used in so many ways. The simplest is probably just stirring it into apple sauce. Or add it to dried fruits as they’re poaching. Or fold it in a crepe, topped with lightly sweetened yogurt or fromage blanc. Or bake it into a strudel mixed with dried cherries. You get the picture.

Because the flavour is only slightly sweet, it can work with savories as well. I prefer it to quince paste and add it to a cheese plate to accompany ripe buttery cheeses such as Gortnamona or heady blues like a fine mature Cashel Blue. Or serve it along with roast pork or sautéed duck breast.

A gentle word of warning about preparing quince: the raw fruit is as dense as wood. You know how even ripe pears have a slightly grainy texture? That comes from a substance called lignin and quince has it in spades. So be prepared with a sharp chef’s knife and a vegetable peeler.

Also have a bowl of lemon water at hand. The compounds, called phenols, that create quince’s perfume also lead to the flesh browning very quickly when exposed to the air.

All this may seem like a lot of bother, but one of the blessings of autumn is we have more time for cooking. Pick a lovely soggy morning, spend an hour or so getting everything ready and then enjoy the rest of the day with the lovely perfume of quince in the kitchen as this most inconvenient fruit transforms itself.