December 22, 2008

Quince 'Cheese'

The more I learn about the quince fruit the more fascinated I become. I was first introduced to the quince in London when I came across an article from my favourite market's
(Borough market) magazine that highlighted local artisans. Two women had started a line of preserves which was being sold in high end bakeries like Konditor and Cook and high-end delicatessens, but in addition to the amazing jams with flavour combinations like vanilla bean and strawberry, they made a traditional recipe of quince cheese. This raised some questions in my head. Like how do you get the quince in the cheese??

It turned out that quince cheese is a hardened jelly made with equal quantities of sugar and fruit (you can use any kind of fruit to make any type of cheese) cooked for several hours until turning a deep red colour which looks stunningly jewel-like. The grainy quality of the quince produces a wonderful texture, and when left to 'cure' for 1-2 months in a cool place the cheese becomes perfectly sliceable- great for cutting into cubes, eating as a sweet meat or powdered with sugar like Turkish delight, and for bolstering your rich meat dishes or gravy with a little je ne sais quoi.

The article mentioned that I could find the quince cheese in the market at Neal's Yard dairy- THE best place in England to buy (and taste) hundreds of artisan produced British cheeses. It was already one of my favourite places in the market, but it just got extra points. We stood in the long queue and bought some infamous quince cheese. We were instantly hooked.

History tells us that quinces have been used for cooking for possibly thousands of years originating in Asia Minor. They migrated to the Mediterranean where the Romans often served them stewed with honey. Today, especially in Spain, you will find that quince 'cheese' is regularly cut and served with a cheese platter, or sliced to accompany a lovely aged Manchego cheese, sometimes for breakfast.

When I discovered this autumn that quinces were growing in peoples' yards in our neighbourhood all I could think about was making quince cheese. My Eastern European neighbour is friendly with one of the households who lets the supposedly troublesome quince fall to the ground, and takes it upon himself to (I quote) "give them to the people".

Lucky me! The recipe for quince cheese seemed very secretive at first - I only knew that the ladies in London were using a traditional Spanish recipe that was completely natural using no artificial preservatives. With luck this summer I acquired two excellent books on preserves that had two differing recipes for quince cheese. Because only one recipe had a photo of the finished product I decided to go with that one, but it became an incredibly labour intensive process taking around 5-6 hours to complete. Possibly the method in the other book is less time consuming. The rewards of slaving away- battling the fibrous quinces- have certainly been great. The recipe made enough that we can enjoy it throughout the winter and still have enough to cut into 'cheeses' or coat in powdered sugar for Christmas gifts.

Give quinces a try - their fragrance alone is enough of a reason to experiment. They can be turned to fragrant jellies, cheeses, compotes, sauces and more to have with any food from a piece of toast to a richly flavoured roast dinner.

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