A friend emails: "Would you like some quinces?" Well of course I would. They have been sitting in an old grey dish on the hall table for a fortnight now, perfuming the room, greeting me in a quiet, fragrant whisper when I come home. It's a soft perfume, rose-like, a little sickly but reminiscent of honey, too. A scent that marks the start of winter cooking like a tomcat marks his territory.
The quince is the fruit of frosty mornings and blackened leaves, keeping in sound condition through the cold months. I sometimes bake a few in a low oven with a glass of Marsala and a thick trickle of maple syrup or honey. They emerge, a good couple of hours after you put them in, a translucent glowing amber. They never fluff up like an apple, but take on the texture of melting fudge. Cream is called for, though only a little.
You cannot hurry a cooking quince. They are ready when they feel like it. I have known them to take half an hour or more to poach to tenderness in a sugar syrup. But the scent of them cooking fills the house with a rich, mellow sweetness, especially if I have used a glass or two of wine in the poaching liquid.
Quinces love a glass or two of something alcoholic and sugary. Even so, a little extra sugar is also needed, and some water, and more than a little patience. Once cooked they will keep in the syrup for a few days. Lower one into a dish of baked rice pudding or eat with thick yogurt for a hedonistic breakfast.
I love the quince's shape, its generous curves and bulges. It is a voluptuous, even magnificent fruit to look at, like a Rubens bottom. (There is one in my dish right now that is the spitting image of his Bacchus.) And yet for all its beauty and generous proportions, the quince must be one of our most underused fruits – I suspect for the simple reason that it is impossible to eat in its raw state.
The quince can be made into a smashing and easily accomplished pickle. I use white wine vinegar, cloves, juniper berries, soft brown sugar and sometimes cinnamon. After a long, slow simmering, the result is something you can pass round with wafer-thin slices of cold roast pork and strips of its crackling, or some pomegranate-pink beef or perhaps with a pork chop or venison steak. I ate it with a lump of rust-coloured Cheshire the other day, and very good it was.
The odd quince secretly added to an apple pie will impart a curious fragrance. Just one is enough to send a subtle perfume throughout the filling. A few chunks in a dish of stewed apple can charm, too, though I tend to put it in first, adding the apple only when the quince is starting to soften.
A box of quinces is hardly something you find down the corner shop. They turn up as soon as the clocks go back, in farmers' markets, Cypriot and Turkish grocers, Middle Eastern stores and occasionally greengrocers. The trees do well in our gardens, especially if your soil is damp, and their blossom is as delicate as a butterfly. And then there is the downy bum-fluff that covers their skin when they are young, like a peach, only heavier. It protects the young fruit. You should wipe it away before you cook them, or you can peel them if you wish.
A quince takes some chopping. They can be hard to slice in half and even worse to core. A heavy kitchen knife is probably best. Even then, caution is needed. And the peel has an annoying habit of sticking to the fruit as you pare it. But once you are in, there is much treasure to play with.
The fruit is best known in the jelly-like guise of membrillo, the thick paste that is served with Spanish cheeses such as Manchego. I use it with any firm cheese, especially those with a dryish texture. Quince paste makes an excellent coating for a roast ham instead of the more traditional marmalade. It lacks the citrus rasp of the marmalade, but a little of the fruity quality that is so flattering with the pink and salty ham. You can make your own by simmering quinces, puréeing them and then boiling the result up with sugar until you have a thick, opaque and fragrantly fruity paste. A job for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
A razor-sharp and lip-smarting pickle is a permanent fixture of any meal I throw together involving the remains of Sunday's roast. Quinces, shining amber and gold in their pickling liquor, are unusual, offering a pleasing change from the icy crunch of the more usual pickled onion. Enough for 2 medium-sized storage jars.
750ml cider vinegar
400g golden granulated sugar
3 medium-sized quinces or 4 smaller ones
12 juniper berries
8 black peppercorns
a bay leaf
Pour the vinegar into a stainless-steel pan. Add the golden sugar, juniper berries, black peppercorns and bay leaf and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a merry simmer.
Peel, halve and core the quinces, cutting them into six lengthways. Lower the quince into the simmering vinegar and leave the fruit to cook for 15-25 minutes, until it is soft enough to pierce effortlessly with a skewer.
Lift the soft fruits out with a draining spoon and lower them into clean storage jars. Pour over the liquor, then seal and leave to cool. They will keep for several weeks.
You can cut a quince in half and bake it like an apple, but I prefer to poach them first so that their flesh becomes melting and almost transparent. Maple syrup offers a deep, almost caramel-like autumnal warmth, but you could use honey if you prefer. Cream would be no bad thing here. This is a dessert to me, but I wouldn't mind trying it with some slices of grilled gammon – a contemporary take on the 60s gammon and pineapple idea. Serves 4.
4 heaped tbsp sugar
2 star anise
4 smallish quinces
½ a lemon
4 tbsp maple syrup
Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the cloves and star anise. Peel and halve the quinces and rub them with lemon to stop them browning.
Lower the quinces into the sugar syrup and let them simmer till tender. They may be ready in 25 minutes or perhaps take a little longer, depending on their size and ripeness.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 5. When they are tender to the point of a knife, lift the quinces out and put them in a shallow baking dish or roasting tin. Take150ml of the cooking liquid, add the maple syrup and, together with the aromatics, pour over the quinces.
Bake for 30 minute or so till very soft and tender. Serve with their cooking juices.★