A towering Thomas of Quinces

Anita Stewart dropped by after Soupstock and gave me a gift of quinces – October’s fruit – gathered from under the tree of a farmer friend of hers. It was a most resonant gift. There used to be a quince tree in the feral garden next to our once-tended-now-equally-feral garden on Corfu. Every October we would pick the golden, downy, rock-hard quinces and bring them home, piling them in a bowl, letting them perfume the house with their un-European, tropical fragrance. You can’t eat a quince from the tree – any more than you can eat an olive. Quinces are as astringent as an unripe persimmon or a too-young Cabernet Sauvignon. They fill your mouth with cotton wool. But roast them in the oven or turn them into a compote, as our neighbours did, and they are heaven itself – luxe, aromatic, like a cross between an apple and a guava. The Portuguese make them into a stiff jelly which they carve into slices to eat with pungent cheese. The Greeks prefer them soft and submissive on the tongue.

Quinces were the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, according to Palinurus. These were the three “apples” that Aphrodite gave to Melanion when he entered the foot-race against Atalanta, the dazzling athlete of her day. The race was a test: win and you won Atalanta’s hand in marriage; lose and you lost your head. Melanion knew he couldn’t beat her but he used the apples as a distraction, tossing one to the side of the track each time the fleet Atalanta caught up with him. I can’t see a regular apple holding that much appeal, but a quince… She retrieves the rolling fruit, lifts it carefully to her nose, closes her eyes, inhales the heady scent… Comes to her senses, sees the cheat has taken the lead and leaps forward again… Melanion won the race – but the marriage, though lusty, was short-lived. While on holiday, the couple felt compelled to have sex in a temple of Zeus and were promptly turned into lions.

Ay me, the quince… the coing, membrillo, marmelata, pyrus cydonia… Set it up with its potently aromatic equals, as Palinurus does – the truffle, the opium poppy, the peyotl bud. He claimed “it only ripens in the south” but these Ontario quinces will make a fine jam, cooked in the way our neighbours on Corfu used to do, back in the day, when the old ways were still remembered. Nitsa had the technique down pat, learned from her grandmother.

To make Nitsa’s Kithoni Gliko, you’ll need 1 kilo sugar and 300 mL water for every kilo of quinces. Also two large lemons and 4 sprigs of arbaroriza (a common herb on the Ionian islands that is only used in this recipe, imparting a flavour somewhere between vanilla and angelica – you could use a few drops of vanilla essence instead. Maybe).

Rub the down off the quinces. Peel and dice them and put them in a bowl with the water. Cut one lemon in half, squeeze it into the water, flick out the pips with the point of a knife then add the squeezed lemon halves to the quince mixture. Let it all soak for half an hour then remove the lemon halves. Tip the quince and the liquid into a heavy pan and boil vigorously for 30 minutes. Stir in the sugar until it’s dissolved and boil for a further 15 minutes. Add the juice of the second lemon and the sprigs of arbaroriza. Boil five minutes more. Remove the arbaroriza. Quinces are very rich in pectin (maybe that’s why the ancestors of Anita’s farmer-friend planted the tree on their land, 100 years ago – to make sure their strawberry or blueberry jam set properly) so this jam will surely set at this point. Nitsa waits for the jam to cool before bottling it. She eats it on bread. I used to stir it into strained yoghurt for a particularly indulgent breakfast in the cool autumn months when the peaches and stone fruits were long gone. We used to swap a jar of our damson jam for a jar of her quince jam, because she had a quince tree and we had damsons. That was the way the world worked in the Ionian islands before Brussels introduced notions of profit and speculation and debt and despair.



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