They dined on mince and quince using a ‘runcible spoon’ then danced hand in hand on the sand in the moonlight. – The Owl and the Pussycat
A few weeks ago, whilst visiting one of my favourite places, Babylonstoren in Simondium, I saw how beautiful the quince trees were, lining the pathways, full of fruit. Quince is a fruit that inspires me and makes me happy. Maybe it’s got something to do with fond memories of farm kitchen pantries stocked with huge jars of preserve, waiting to be served with custard or alongside sago pudding, which is how I fondly remember eating quinces as a kid. I see them as a medieval kind of forgotten fruit that reminds me of painted still lifes overflowing from silver urns and tumbling down over jet-black velvet.
They excite me, as they can turn from a pear colour when roasted into a crimson red. Slowly baked for five hours with a few fresh bay leaves, star anise, honey and verjuice is ideal. This way there is no need to hassle with peeling them as the soft skin just melts away. I love their crunchy tart apple-pear sort of taste, with its slightly chalky texture – not only cooked, but very thinly sliced with trout and an Asian soya dressing.
Membrillo, better known as quince paste, cooked up with lots of sugar and lemon juice, also inspires me: in Spain, the markets and delis have huge slabs of this glistening fudge-like pureed fruit that you cut off in squares to eat with cheese or with roasted pork. The first time I ate it, though, was before I went to Spain. It was in the Barossa Valley in Australia, where I visited The Australian doyenne of food writing and good down-to-earth cooking, Maggie Beer, at her farm shop and restaurant. She is well known and prides herself on her fruit pastes from plum, blood orange and, of course, quince. We ate smudges of it with artisan cheeses and honey infused with truffles after a moonlit dinner.
Prins Albert in the Karoo is also a magical place that has left me with great memories of quince cheese, another name for traditional membrillo. After a morning walking around the incredible veggie garden of the local vet, Bret, and going for a puppy cuddle, my eyes went straight to enormous wax paper-lined trays spread with just-setting quince paste ready for the next Saturday morning market. I left with a tray of the fruit, which I piled up on my dining room table to enjoy having for a week before I turned out my own paste.
These are just a few good reasons why my heart skips a beat and gives a flutter when I have the luxury of seeing rows and rows of the mysterious quince on trees.