The term ‘foraging’ can be a loose one. The Oxford English Dictionary says (of a person or animal) search widely for food or provisions. But you needn’t hike for miles in the wilderness in search of your ingredients. That wide search can begin on your doorstep; in your own garden, in parks, on waste ground, or local allotments (who’s owners may be happy for you to eat the ‘weeds’ they so determinedly try to eradicate – with permission of course).
Another term that has entered the lexicon recently is ‘gleaning’. Again, the Oxford English Dictionary gives one definition as (historical) gather (leftover grain) after a harvest. There are now many groups within the UK and further afield who gather leftover, forgotten, or unneeded fruits and vegetables from fields and orchards, often to utilise them in providing food for people who are in difficult circumstances.
If you take a stroll around your neighbourhood, you may well come across fruit trees that are unloved and unharvested. When I lived in Bristol, for instance, there was an abandoned orchard in the corner of a municipal park where I would pick apples and the odd pear. My parents have a quince tree that produces far more than they can cope with, and would supply me each year with ten or so kilos of these hard, slightly hairy, fruit.
Quince (Cydonia oblonga) is the only member of the genus Cydonia, and is another of the Rosaceae family, which gives us apples, rose hips, and much much more. Native to South West Asia and the Middle East, it nevertheless grows successfully anywhere that has at least a few warm days. A quince tree may often be found in the corner of a larger collection of apple trees. You will also see quinces in the shops from late autumn.
In spring, the quince tree – often small, more of a shrub really, and prone to disease – produces attractive pink and white blossoms which have five petals. The leaves are alternate on the stem, have straight edges and are slightly furry. The fruit are green when unripe, and covered in a fine whiteish fluff that rubs off easily. As the quinces ripen towards the end of autumn they become a golden yellow, with less of the white fur.
‘Ripe’ here is a relative term; most varieties of quince, even when fully matured, are hard and fibrous and unpleasantly tart. This can be countered by bletting – allowing them to decay a little after a hard frost – or by cooking. When cooked, the flesh of the fruit is powerfully aromatic and delicious, delicately pink, and may be utilised in many ways.
A few slices of poached quince go well with game birds such as pigeon. As a crumble with some ice cream they make an excellent dessert. Quince wine can be wonderful, but equally can be awful depending on how lucky/good at wine making you are. Some quince added to apple sauce when cooking is a good idea, adding a perfume to the finished product; an excellent accompaniment to roast pork. Raw quince, grated, can be infused into gin with a little sugar for a fruity aperitif. My favourite way to use a good haul is to make quince cheese.
A fruit cheese is fruit that has been cooked with sugar and allowed to set into a cake or block. This can then be sliced and served with cheeses, charcuterie, or roasted meats. Quince works well here, as it has a lovely texture when cooked and is high in pectin, the setting agent found in apples and other fruits of the same family. Quince cheese is common is Spain, where it is known as membrillo and often served with manchego cheese or used in pastries.
The recipe is simple, the method less so. Be prepared for bubbles of hot molten fruit, mess, and steam. It is, however, more than worth it.
The amount of sugar you need will depend on the weight of the quinces you have. As a rough guide, if you have 1kg of quinces you will need around 750g of sugar.
Wash and chop the quinces (don’t worry about peeling or coring). They are invariably rock hard, and this job is invariably time consuming. The flesh of the quince will start to brown almost immediately, but this does not matter.
Place your chopped quince in a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook the fruit until it is very soft, then remove from the heat and let it sit for a few hours.
Push the resulting pulp through a fine sieve using the back of a wooden spoon. Weigh this puree, and pop back in a saucepan along with an equal weight of sugar. Bring this to a simmer and cook for an hour or so, stirring regularly to prevent it from catching. This is the part where you need to beware of spitting and bubbling hot fruit.
Once it is smooth and shiny (it will also have taken on a lovely pinky colour), transfer into containers for setting. I have found that those plastic containers you get noodles in from the Chinese takeaway are ideal – just cover the bottom with some greaseproof paper to aid removal.
Allow to cool and then place in the fridge to set fully. I’ve been known to resort to getting the hair dryer out, on its coolest setting, if there are spots that do not set properly, which makes you look strange but does seem to work.
Leave to mature for a month or so before eating. Kept covered in the fridge it will last for up to a year. Made now, quince cheese is an excellent present for next Christmas.