Beloved in Spain, where it’s known as membrillo, quince paste is one of the most delicious things to pair with cheese. You can often find it at good cheese shops, but the commercially made stuff is awfully sweet. It’s very easy to make at home, and a great thing to share with neighbours or bring to parties.
September 2nd, 2015 | Text: David Rollins Photography: Rob Lee
It’s always such a surprise to see quinces suddenly appear in late fall. They’re that same electric yellow-green of those first young buds of spring – a vibrant hue entirely at odds with the bleak November landscape, and the earth-clad roots sitting next to them at the vegetable market. I can never walk past a display of them without stopping to search for a ripe one – a ripe quince smells like love. Or like a pear wearing expensive French perfume.
It’s a floral scent, with a delicate muskiness, and faint spice. In fragrance and appearance, a quince is both virtuous and carnal. You may find specimens dusted with a fine coating of white hairs called a pubescence. More and more it seems this is rubbed off before they’re displayed, but you can usually still see a little of it around the flower end of the fruit. This is where that maddening perfume is strongest.
a quince is
The raw flesh of a quince is inedible – astringent, chalky, the sort of thing you suspect could be poisonous. This is another wonder of the fruit. This unpalatable flavour and texture is transformed by cooking into something just the opposite: the fruit becomes almost silky in texture, and develops a creamy, honeyed flavour that will remind you of pears or apples. But again, there’s deep mystery in the flavour. Something ancient, mythic.
It’s one of the oldest known fruits in the world, with origins running deep into history. Cultivation began in Mesopotamia, and the quince today is native to most countries in the mountainous swath between the Middle East and Pakistan. In some regions it still grows wild. It enjoyed special vogue in ancient Greece, where it was offered at weddings, as the fruit was emblematic of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. David Lebovitz makes a quince tarte tatin that I think would have pleased the goddess, as well.
One recent Christmas, we made a big batch of preserved spiced quinces to give as gifts in handsome Weck jars – the star anise, clove, and black pepper floating around in the syrup looked very festive. They were delicious with fruit cake and ice cream, with roast duck, and really nice for breakfast with cottage cheese. But from what we heard, the thing they were most eaten with was hands, directly from the jar.
In Spain, quince is enjoyed in concentrated form as a fruit paste that’s considered a kind of mandatory accompaniment to Manchego cheese. Unlike the French pâte de fruit, which requires a confectioner’s patience and precision, membrillo is very easy to make – about as hard as making applesauce. It’s really good with just about any kind of cheese, and given that it’s official cheese platter season, membrillo also makes a very unique and useful host or hostess gift. And even if you’re just too busy to buy and take some home, when you see them, remember to stop and smell the quinces.
Quince paste (membrillo)
- 4 lbs. quince, peeled, cored and chopped
- ½ a vanilla pod, split (Tahitian is best)
- the zest and juice of a lemon
- 3 cups sugar
In a large saucepan, cover the quinces with water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the vanilla pod and lemon zest and simmer, partially covered, until the flesh is easily pierced with the tip of a knife – about 35 minutes. Strain and cool the quince, discarding the zest and vanilla.
Purée the quince in a food processor (or with an immersion blender) until it’s completely smooth. Return it to the pan, add the sugar and cook over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the lemon juice. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the paste has thickened and darkened, about 90 minutes.
Pour the paste into an 8×8 baking pan lined with greased parchment, and shake the pan to even out the paste. Bake in a very low oven (130°F, or the lowest setting of your oven) for about 75 minutes, or until the paste is the consistency of soft gumdrops. Allow to cool and cut into pieces. If you find the paste is too soft, allow it dry out and firm up, uncovered, at room temperature for a day or two.