There is something magical about quinces – the way they hang in a tree like golden orbs long after the leaves have fallen, and the way a bowl of them can perfume a room with the most exquisite fragrance redolent of Turkish Delight and guavas.
That said, the quince is a somewhat austere and forbidding fruit. The skin is covered with mouse-coloured fluff – though this often rubs off during transportation and handling – and the ivory-coloured flesh is hard and grainy, turns brown the minute it is exposed to the air and is so astringent that it cannot be eaten raw.
Preparation is a bit of a chore but, once cooked, quinces are sublime. A plus point is that the peelings and rock-hard cores aren't wasted. They can be turned into a sparkling rosy syrup that makes a delicious glaze for fruit tarts, or a sauce to trickle over ices and chilled desserts.
If you have not eaten quince before, a good way to get acquainted with them is to slice one into segments and add to an apple or pear compôte. If you like the flavour you can then experiment with dishes made entirely of quince, such as Quince Compôte, Spiced Roast Quince with Honey and Clotted Cream or Japonica Jelly. My all-time quince favourite is the divinely pretty Quince and Ginger Sorbet studded with zesty nuggets of stem ginger. Even if the weather is a bit nippy, this is a lovely dessert for an autumnal supper.
If you are lucky enough to have an excess of quinces, it's worth making Membrillo. This gorgeous dense paste is popular in Spain where it is served in thin slices with sheep's cheese and slivers of gherkin. It's easy to make and will keep in the fridge for months.
In season from October though to the winter, quinces have been remarkably prolific this autumn, judging by the generous barrows of windfalls I've received from friends. If you don't have access to a quince tree the best hunting grounds are farm shops, markets and traditional greengrocers. Look for large smooth quinces that smell fragrant – don't buy if they are bruised or have brown patches on the skin. Unripe quinces (with green skins) can be left to ripen at room temperature. Once ripe, store in the fridge or a cool dark place for up to two weeks.
© Christine McFadden, October 2020