Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Autumn at last: Quince jelly and old medlars

Autumn took a long time to get here this year, with much of October thinking it was August, but with the clocks going back a couple of weekends ago, the weather finally remembered what it was meant to be doing.  At least approximately.  It’s still been remarkably warm for the most part, round our way at least, and dry, but there’s been plenty of the mists and mellow fruitfulness that Autumn is poetically associated with.

Mists, mellow fruitfulness and game birds, which I get the impression seem to be particularly abundant and cheap this year – I came across partridges being sold in the Bloomsbury (of all places) farmers market for just £2.50 a bird last week.  Unfortunately just after I’d done my weekly meat shop (and with the freezer still chocker with Bert & Ernie).  I’ll make a point of going back this week and hope they’re still there at the same bargain price.  I’m guessing (and that’s all I’m doing) but it seems probable that a mild, damp summer followed by a warm, dry autumn is probably the ideal set of conditions for both the raising, and subsequent shooting of game birds.  Circumstances so far this year, however, have rather conspired against our cashing in on this seasonal bounty, but I fully intend to rectify that, and sooner rather than later.

In preparation for that, and cashing in, at least, on the mellow fruitfulness side of the autumnal equation, I’ve been making fruit jellies, which of course are the ideal accompaniment to all things gamey.  We returned home from a weekend trip to Becca’s familial home with a big bag of quinces, courtesy of her father, the eminent paleontologist, micologist, forager and, it must be said – on this occasion at least – scrumper.  In our defence, had we not liberated these particular quinces from the ground under their tree in a churchyard somewhere in the South of England, then they would, clearly, have done nothing more than rot on the ground, providing food only for slugs and centipedes (which had already made a fair start on them) and the raw material for drunk and disorderly behaviour in the local wasp population.

A fully ripe quince is a fine looking thing, in a jolie laide kind of way, somewhere in appearance between a large yellow apple and a squat, lumpy and very under-ripe pear.  Our quinces though, picked from the ground and out of the very mouths of the slugs, were borderline attractive at best, and by the time I had a chance to actually do anything with them, a full week later, that border itself had long been crossed.  Which is why I took a few pictures of quinces in my local Turkish supermarket to illustrate this post.  Nevertheless, assured by both Becca’s parents that a bit of browning of the flesh and a few hearty slug bites did nothing to diminish the quince’s cookability, I washed them, cut out and discarded their most well chomped bits then followed the recipe here to turn them into jelly (our quinces, incidentally, were nowhere near as unattractive as the one pictured at the top of that page…).

I see no point in writing up the recipe and attempting to pass it off as my own, as cottage smallholder seems to have done a pretty thorough job, complete with footnotes, and I didn’t deviate from it in any significant way.  One thing I would say is that it wasn’t immediately clear to me from that set of instructions  whether you should strain off any of the cooking water or not before pouring the cooked quinces into (and their cooking water and juices through) the jelly bag.  I figured not as that would clearly be a waste of lots of quinciness, but still felt there was probably too much fluid so turned the heat up at the end of cooking for ten minutes or so to reduce the volume of liquid.  Next time I wouldn’t do that, and just pour the lot through.  As it was, I ended up having to really squeeze the fruit through the bag to extract a decent quantity, and I feel that may - possibly – have had a knock on effect on the texture of the membrillo I would then go on to make with the pulp (I will write that up in my next post).

The other thing I can contribute that might be of use is my method of suspending the jelly bag from a couple of long kebab skewers laid diagonally across the right angle corner of my kitchen worktop, with a bowl (or pan) on the floor below to catch the dripping juice.  This seems a lot simpler than the upturned stool method referred to, though no more straightforward than the muslin lined sieve and bucket arrangement practiced by cottage smallholder themselves, as long as you have conveniently sized sieve and bucket. 

I developed my method of bag hanging when I made jelly from a harvest of medlars, kindly supplied by Becca’s mother on that occasion, last year.  I didn’t write it up at the time, because I felt that by the time I had the chance, medlar season would have been passed, and it would just have been annoying.  I rather fear I’ve left it a bit late this season, too, but anyway, here goes.  It wouldn’t have been much of a write up, anyway, to be fair.  As with the quinces it’s just a question of pointing you in the direction of someone else’s recipe, which in this case would have been this blog’s old mate Hugh Fearnely Whittingstall’s, that being the one I followed, but which now seems to have vanished from the interweb.  So here’s one from Nigel Slater instead.  But do check out Hugh’s recipe for making chutney out of the pulp left over from making your jelly.  I’ve had Becca’s mum’s and it was perhaps the finest chutney I’ve ever consumed.  I still have the pulp from my own medlar jelly in the freezer, awaiting conversion, and I’ll write that up at a later date, too.

Like the quince, only more so, the medlar is a fruit on the laide side of jolie.  Indeed one of its French names translates basically as 'dog's arse', and a look at the picture of the top of the page does rather suggest why.  Also like the quince it seems somehow archaic as a fruit, with inescapably medieval connotations, and yet, like the quince again, it does seem to be coming back in to fashion, at least with food writers, and also at garden centres.  Becca and I planted a medlar tree in the garden of her parent's house for her mother's birthday present this year.  Not that I'm claiming that this confers instant fashionability on the medlar, or on us.  

I note, incidentally, that Nigel Slater’s medlar jelly recipe was published in the Guardian on the 5th of December last year, which I see from the date stamps on my photos was the very same week I was making my own and deciding it was too late to be worth writing up.  So either I’m wrong about medlar season (and, while I’m wondering, is there a big enough medlar crop in this country these days for it to lend its name to a season at all?  Even though they do seem to be coming back into fashion, along with quinces, I have to admit that – unlike quinces, round here in Turkish Dalston at least – I don’t recall ever seeing a medlar in the shops), or Nigel Slater has fewer scruples about annoying his readers than I do.  I’ll leave that for you to decide…

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