Just when you think long hours standing stirring over a hot stove are over, autumn fruits begin to come on tap. What order you get them in depends on the weather. Medlars, for example, need a couple of severe frosts before they’re much good for anything. Crab apples should just be swept up the moment they start falling off the tree – and/or the birds begin snatching more than their fair share.
Quinces, on the other hand, are more problematic. I still don’t know whether I can really identify a perfect jam-ready quince. So I start using these glorious, bulbous, contorted yellow-verging-on-green fruits the moment they fall from the trees, or come off their branch in my hand with just the hint of a twist from me.
This year my tiny quince tree was laden with potential in spring. But it ended the season with just one, immense fruit, which went into my first batch of jelly along with the first-ever harvest from three little trees of friends on the other side of town. For the second lot, I snatched up 15 kilos of the things from the orchard at San Giuseppe one day as nurserymen were busy planting yet another section of that garden. My preserving pan (and patience) couldn’t cope with those quantities, so I used ten kilos for jelly and kept back five for further quince experiments. Maybe, if I can resist them for a while, this will be my opportunity to find out what happens if you leave quinces for a few weeks to mature properly.
Quinces – all you can procure/handle
Sugar – half the quantity of the liquid from your cooked quinces
Lemon – one for every 2 lt of quince liquid
Wash your quinces well, scrubbing off the brown velvety fur which clings to the ripe fruit. Cut them into chunks. If you’re planning to use the pulp for pie fillings, or quince paste or butter, it’s worth taking the time at this point to remove any blemishes and the core. If not, leave them. There’s no point at all in wasting time peeling them.
Place the quince pieces in a maslin pan and barely cover them with water. Gently bring the pan’s contents to the boil and simmer them until the fruit is soft and mushy. Pour the fruit into a jelly bag and leave it to drip for three or four hours or – even better – overnight. Squeezing the jelly bag to get maximum liquid from the fruit, experts will tell you, produces a cloudy jelly. Well: I do, and mine isn’t. I don’t squeeze very hard. And I end up very sticky for very little extra liquid. But I just can’t resist the temptation.
Measure your liquid, put in back into the well-washed maslin pan and heat it. When the liquid is very hot but not quite boiling, slowly pour in the sugar. If you have one litre of liquid, you should use 500g of sugar; for two litres of liquid, one kilo of sugar and so on. Stir gently but constantly as you add the sugar: you don’t want to bring the temperature down too much. Chop the lemon into eighths and throw the pieces in with the juice.
Now bring the mixture to the boil and keep it there, letting it bubble as hard as you can without making it boil over. You’ll need to stir from time to time to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. When your jelly reaches the low 90°s, you’ll notice the colour changing to a beautiful clear agate. As the liquid nears jelling point (105°C at sea level, less at higher altitudes), the top will be completely covered with frothy bubbles: watch carefully at this point because you don’t want to overcook it and end up with toffee. Even if you use a jam thermometre, it’s worth testing the jelly for readiness frequently by dropping blobs on to a cold plate: let it cool then run a finger through it. When the gap in the middle no longer closes, your jelly is ready. Infuriatingly, this is often well before the supposed optimum temperature is reached.
Pour the hot jelly into sterilised glass jars, removing the lemon pieces as you do. Close the jars tightly and store the jelly in a cool dark place.
If you can’t bear to throw away the quince pulp left in the jelly bag after the liquid has drained off, try using some for cotognata. The recipe is here.
© Anne Hanley, 2011