A Question of Quinces

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A Question of Quinces

The Christmas dish known as 'Les Treize'

We arrived at our our old French house in the evening. As always, we looked for the church on the hill as the first sight of the village. At last, we turned a corner past a plum orchard and saw the house and garden. One of our fruit trees had collapsed. We have the remnants of an orchard: three kinds of plum, cherries, apples, apricots, a pear, a peach and a quince tree. Most of the trees are old, with broken branches and fungi growing out of them, but they still bear fruit.

Next morning, we surveyed the damage. The quince tree had split into three. The central trunk still stood, but two big branches had broken and lay draped on the grass. It was a sad sight, because the tree was beautiful in the spring, with its white and pink flowers. The branches were still attached to the trunk, but wood and bark had been torn off, leaving a big gash. There were quinces everywhere – yellow and green globes in the long grass. As we walked they crunched under our feet.

We spent a day clearing up. My husband sawed through the big branches and saved them for firewood. I cut the smaller ones and carried armfuls of twigs to a space on the lawn, where they could form the basis of our next bonfire. We collected quinces and piled the sound ones in a big box. The rotten ones I tipped onto the compost heap. We ended up with kilos of sound quinces.

The problem with quinces is that you can’t eat them raw. They can be used in a range of jams, marmalades and jellies, or in cakes and pies. We gave some away to neighbours and when we left, we put a box outside the gate with the message 'Servez vous' – help yourself. When we stopped at a bed and breakfast on the way home, we gave the proprietess a bag of quinces. (Many French bed and breakfast houses offer home made jams. Not like the plastic packs you get in England.)

When we arrived home, I turned to Google for recipes for quince cakes and pies. I found two recipes describing how to poach quinces in water, with sugar and vanilla pods. One recipe also included a halved lemon. The quinces need to be peeled, cored and cut up, then simmered. The recipes suggested they might take as much as two hours to soften, but mine took half this time. When cooked, they turn a pretty pink colour.

As for the recipes for quince cake, some of them seemed excessively sweet for us. We’re always trying, rather unsuccessfully, to keep our weight down. In the end, I chose a recipe for a quince and almond cake by Clotilde Dusoulier. The result was pleasant: moist with a distinctive taste. We offered slices to the French conversation group we were hosting and members seemed to like it. I still have boxes of poached quinces in my fridge and freezer. Anyone want a few quinces?

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