All is quietening down in The Mother-in-Law’s House. After the summer’s beavering away, we are all turning in like a family of mice bedding down for the winter in an old boot. We have yet to replace the light bulbs which are blowing daily, one by one, leaving an atmospheric chiaroscuro falling upon the rooms, and The Mother-in-Law struggling to read her post.
The Secret Garden is bare, bar the rusty blanket of maple, apple and bay leaves covering the raised beds. And Mr Dan, the scarecrow, looks as though he’s turning in too.
Whilst surveying the garden last week, I noticed the last two fruiting trees amongst the maple, Judas, holly and medlar in The Mother-in-Law’s Garden. Providing inspiration for an autumnal chutney-of-sort, this was, alas, all that they provided as the pair of squat Japanese quince trees propping up a boundary wall produced five – yes, a MASSIVE FIVE – fruit. What was I expecting from the wrong sort of quince tree? (Chaenomeles japonica or Japanese quince produce smaller, harder, less flavourful fruit than its cousin, Cydonia oblonga.)
Luckily a box of perfectly mythical-looking, furry, golden fruit was bestowed upon me by Ian, the grocer-from-the-gods. And so began the process – and yes, it is a process but a very worthy one – to make membrillo.
Not to be confused with quince jelly, as the process to make each is very different, quince cheese, quince paste or membrillo – or, more accurately, dulce de membrillo as it is known in its native Spain – is a sort of solid jam (think Turkish delight) traditionally served in slices or cubes with manchego, my absolute most favourite of all the world’s cheese.
Originating from Spain, Italy, and Portugal – where the word for quince and quince jam, ‘marmelo’, has travelled to bestow its title upon our very British ‘marmalade’ – membrillo is also popular amongst Sephardi Jews and is served on Christmas Eve in the Philippines where it is made with guavas.
Available on trees and in all good greengrocers, middle eastern stores and farmers markets from mid-October in the UK, quince are golden, firm, pear-like fruit. Unless ‘bletted’ (left to rot in the frost), they are not usually eaten raw as their flesh is astringent and unpleasant. However, cooked, this highly perfumed fruit enhances the flavours of other ingredients – turning red as it goes – and being high in pectin, it’s the perfect jam-maker.
I use half the oft-recommended quantity of sugar for my recipe, blending caster sugar with demerara for a deeper, more caramel flavour, which still results in a sweetness that tickles the tongue but allows the rose-perfumed flavour of the quince to come through. Stirred into stews and tagines, spread on toast or stuffed into pastries, membrillo is a versatile condiment. But however you use it, please eat it first with manchego and a loved one (quince is an historic fruit of poetry, legend, love and art, often mistaken for an apple), as the Husband and I did last night with a glass of Pedro Ximenez.
“As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – Song of Songs
500g unrefined caster sugar
500g demerrera sugar
Juice of a lemon
Wash and roughly chop your quince. (Don’t bother peeling or coring as it all enhances the final result.)
Place the chopped quince in a large jam-making or heavy-bottomed pan, and add just enough cold water to cover the fruit.
Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is soft and falling apart. This takes around 1 and 1/2 hours.
Remove from heat and blend to a pulp, as you would a soup, using a hand-held or freestanding blender or food processor. Pass this through a sieve or jam strainer. Wash your pan and put the strained puree back into the clean pan.
Add the lemon juice and sugar, and return to the heat, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Bring back to the boil and simmer, stirring frequently, for at least another hour and a half until very, very thick and glossy.
BEWARE: the paste will erupt (like polenta) so wear oven gloves and long sleeves or you risk burning yourself as I did when I first made membrillo.
Don’t get downhearted if your membrillo doesn’t thicken quickly – it will, just keep at it! (I’ve even stopped over night and brought back to the boil the following day!)
Remove from the heat when you have a very dense paste that is a shiny, deep red.
Using a mild-flavoured oil like sunflower, oil and then line a largish baking tray (I use a brownie tray) with baking parchment. Pour the quince paste into the tray and flatten the sticky surface using a palette knife or spatula as best you can.
Leave to cool and dry out for a day, and then flip out onto another sheet of baking parchment so the sticky bottom is now the top. Leave this out for another day to dry out.
Cut up into large squares and wrap individually in baking parchment, which you can secure with a sticky label or string, or place in a large tupperware container. These will keep for 12 months in the fridge.
Tip: Wrapped in baking parchment and then a little brown paper, membrillo makes the perfect gift for friends and family, and their festive cheese boards!