Last month, I saw quinces growing in an orchard in Alonissos – I mistook them, at first, for pears, but pears are not lumpy, run-to-fat and matronly like quinces. Then, out driving the other day, I saw a sign by someone’s gateway – Help yourself to quinces – alongside hefty bags of yellow fruit. How could I resist?
Greek mythology tells us the quince – kidoni in Greek – originated in the ancient city of Kydonia, now Chania in Crete. The fruit was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite and was presented to brides on their wedding day as a charm to promote fertility. The bride was also given a dish of quince to eat, as the fruit is said to perfume the breath. In parts of Thrace it is still the tradition for bride and groom to eat a dish of quince as part of the wedding ceremony.
My quinces seemed far too ugly to be food for love, and to present them as a wedding gift would be an insult. Unlike the golden fruit on the tree above, I have a bag full of windfalls, black-blotched and blemished, mis-shapen and rotten in parts. But ah, the perfume! On the journey home, they scented the car with a sweetness which is hard to describe – somewhere between figs and pears, with an elusive nuance of French boudoir. No surprise that the Romans used them as air-fresheners.
Unsure how to deal with my ugly fruit, I referred to chef Nigel Slater, whose praise of quinces was inspiring, even if his warnings of the difficulties of preparing them was daunting. First and foremost, quinces cannot be eaten raw; like olives fresh from the tree, they are mouth-puckeringly bitter and sour. Secondly, the skin is tough and the flesh is hard, so a good, sharp knife and a strong wrist are essential. I tackled the first half-dozen, alarmed that there seemed to be more for the compost-bin than for the pot, and dropped the uninspiring lumps of browning, pear-like fruit into the pan. Long, slow cooking is the key. I added a little water and a generous amount of Greek honey and set the pan on a low heat.
The first sign that things were happening was that perfume – much more potent as the fruit cooked, sweet with a touch of rose and deliciously sensual. And a peep at what was happening in the pot revealed a dramatic transformation: the quince was fiery orange with tints of ruby red. A food of love? Quite possibly, yes. Now my quinces looked – and tasted – like something you might spoon-feed to your lover, all succulent sweetness and melting in the mouth.
In Greece quinces make a popular ‘spoon sweet’ to serve to guests, but it’s used too in seasonal dishes. In Pelion, quince is eaten with octopus (hmm… not sure), and in Lefkada stewed with beef, rosemary, potatoes and petimezi (grape-must) as a sweetener. What did I do with them? Unsurprisingly they make a wonderful breakfast with Greek honey, and I intend to try a recipe I’ve found for quinces with pork. And I was inspired to try quince as a substitute for apricots in an oatmeal crumble slice I sometimes make. I wish you could taste the result, which was amazing.
If anyone offers you a bag of quinces, be good to yourself and your loved ones and take them. They may be time consuming to prepare, but they’re food fit for the gods.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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