Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ancient, inedible fruit...

“There’s a common theme to these endeavours”, I said to my husband as we were both working at the kitchen counter. I was stirring a pot full of thick and potentially hazardous quince, destined for paste. Sandy was dealing to the olives he’d just picked from our trees, bashing each one with a hammer before immersing them in salted water. The theme was not ‘labours of love’, although they are, clearly, since the effort vs. reward equation in both cases is seriously questionable. No, the theme is actually ‘things you can’t eat raw’. Or to be more detailed about it, ‘things you can’t eat raw, and have to spend hours/days rendering them edible’.

This can’t help but make me wonder about who the brave people were who ever found this out.
Somewhere in the ancient past, someone picked a quince, gave it a gnaw and went ‘yuk!’. Probably more than one person. But somewhere along the line, someone said ‘Hang on, maybe we can cook this?’ and gave it a try.
I wonder if they were shocked when the pale quinces turned rosy and then ruby red? I wonder if they were even more shocked when they turned out to taste quite nice? One thing’s for sure, it was a long time ago – quince are mentioned in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome; where recipes for stewing quince with honey can be found. Olives are equally ancient – they’re all over the Bible, and pickled olives have been found among the buried wreckage of Pompeii.
Our olives are still on their way to becoming edible, soaking in their salted water. But after several days of effort I now have enough quince paste to last me for quite some time, even given the amount of cheese I eat. It turned out really well, and is a lovely red colour – something which varies, I understand, from crop to crop. I used Stephanie Alexander’s guidance in the Cook’s Companion to make it – basically cook up the quinces with water until soft, puree them, weigh and add the same quantity of sugar. Then the fun bit starts – simmering that mixture while it bubbles volcanically, until it goes ruby red and thick.
This is the stage at which you risk serious burns every time you open the pot to stir – I could have done with some of those long gloves farmers use when they want to do unmentionable things to the back end of cows (must look into that for next year).
And if someone can tell me how to get the concrete-hard quince paste off my stainless steel cooktop without gouging it, I’d be really happy. Anyway, once it’s ready it goes into trays to set, or - my innovation this year – muffin tins, to make cute little puddings. Then it’s a couple of days in a warm place (low oven for me) to dry. Then it’s sliced, wrapped, and ready to eat. Phew!
At this stage you really need a sit down, a glass of wine and a piece of cheese, served with a sliver of quince paste on the side, and a few minutes to feel self-satisfied. Before you figure out that the cost to buy that much quince paste in a shop, divided by the hours you’ve spent making yours, means you’ve probably got paste that’s worth about $30 a block.

But it’s made with love, right?

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