I popped passed my sister-in-law Ellen’s place last Sunday to go for a bike ride with my brother-in-law John. I was pleasantly surprised to see a very small quince tree in her front yard with some rather large quinces growing. I was excited and immediately got out my phone to take a photo! I just love quinces!
Ellen is such a beautiful soul. She is someone I admire and love spending time with. The words that immediately come to mind are authentic, soulful , earthy and lives each day in a state of flow that is true to her values and passions.
Her very humble desires and nurturing manner are relaxing to be around. The conversations are considerate, inquisitive and very intellectual. She is a mother and friend that you would want to have in your house. For me, she is truly an inspiration.
Ellen’s garden is adorned with incredible edible produce, plants, chickens and a glorious wood fire oven and fire pit where we have enjoyed many nights cooking home made pizzas and toasting marshmallows.
There are old fashioned wooden toys from bygone years, lots of craft to do and potatoes to dig out of the ground if you so desire. It is always so earthy, memorable and fun with my children developing fond memories that will last them a lifetime.
As I walked up her driveway that day I was so was excited to see this quince tree as it immediately transported me back to my childhood where I enjoyed Cotognata (Sicilian Quince Jam) and Mostarda (Sicilian Sweets in Moulds).
The quince is the sole member of the genus Bydonia – in the family Rosaceae. This family also contains apples and pears, among other fruits. It is a deciduous tree that bears a pome fruit, in similar appearance to a pear.
Ellen mentioned to me that she was waiting in anticipation to decide when the fruit was ready to pick. It was discussed that one has to wait until the quince turns a bright golden-yellow with the fruit also developing a sweet fragrance. It will easily snap off the tree when fully ripe.
My niece Bronte mentioned to her mum, Ellen, that she could share the quinces with me when they were ready. My first reaction was ‘but there are only four’! And I said: “I think your mum should have them first”. Ellen was immediately relieved – as I would be too. It is always nice to enjoy and experiment with your first real crop.
The quince tastes like a cross between apples and pears. Their raw flesh is dry and hard with a very tart flavour.
My dear friend Joyce, will eat them raw. When I was young, I would watch her slowly eat her quince over many days by taking one small slice after another. It would stay out of the fridge on her bench tucked away in a corner.
I much prefer to cook quinces as they turn into the most delectable slow cooked ruby coloured fruit, jams, sweets and desserts. This is when the quince truly comes alive!
My earliest childhood memory was discovering my Nonna’s Mostarda (Sicilian Sweets in Moulds) tucked away in her spare bedroom covered in a tea towel to dry slowly. They were all in pretty shapes made from various tiny moulds that were the size of small lollies. I didn’t know what they were at the time – but I took one and put it in my mouth to try (rather sneakily!).
I can still remember to this day the tray of mostarda gently covered in a blue tea towel of yellow flowers, the spot that I was standing in Nonna’s spare room, the first sweet bite, the crunch of the sugar coating and its wonderful flavour – it was so different to what I had ever tried before.
I was transported back to this childhood memory a little over a year ago when I visited my godmother Zia Maria in Altona one day for lunch. And there they were again – those beautiful mostarda ready to be eaten after a sumptuous Sicilian meal with an espresso coffee.
When I traveled to Sicily many years ago I visited a local market in Vizzini where my parents were born. I stumbled across these beautiful hand-made ceramic moulds which I thought were little bowls for snacks.
But my Aunty Rosa said to me that they are the moulds that they used to make the larger Mostarda from – ready to be sliced and eaten on its own, with some hard salty cheese like pecorino or ricotta salata served with fresh bread. It all made sense!
Cotognata (Sicilian Quince Jam) preserved in beautiful jars (da mettere nei barottoli) is also one of my most treasured delights. It is a similar consistency to apricot jam (if you don’t overcook it).
Cotognata is used as a spread, to make desserts such as crostata di frutta or lovingly piped into various Sicilian pastries (pastinccini) or biscuits (biscotti).
There is just something so special about the link between being a child and the food that you discover and eat at that age. The smells, the tastes, the places and the people who made them.
When you enjoy that food as you get older it automatically transports you back to so many memories which we cling on to and share with others over our entire lifetimes.
As you head towards the final years of life – you tend to crave those dishes that you experienced growing up because they represent comfort, happiness and nourishment of the mind and soul.
Even though I am not so ‘old’ yet – I am very confident that the quince will certainly be one of those for me.
I will close by sharing two of my most treasured recipes for “Cotognata” and “Crostata di Frutta” for you to try over Autumn.
Until next time.
Cotognata “Sicilian Quince Jam”
Ingredients and utensils
- A big saucepan
- Wooden spoon
- Stick blender
- A small plate sitting in the freezer
- Get the quinces – peel them, take out the core and chop into medium pieces
- Weigh the chopped fruit
- Add fifty percent sugar. So, if the chopped fruit weighs 1kg, add 500g sugar
- Place the fruit and quinces in a big saucepan and cook, stirring periodically, so it doesn’t burn the bottom of the pan
- Cook until the fruit is soft and the colour deepens to a light orange (usually for about 15 – 25 minutes) on a slow simmer (make sure the fruit is soft)
- Turn off the heat
- With a stick blender, blend the mixture until it forms a smooth paste (be careful not to burn yourself as the fruit and liquid can spray a little if you’re not careful)
- Get the plate out of the freezer and place a small amount of jam on to the plate and run your finger through it
- If the jam doesn’t run through the middle and ‘holds up well’ then it is ready
- If it is still very runny – cook for a little longer and repeat the process
- Ladle the hot jam into sterilised jars, place the lid on immediately and allow the jars to cool down upside down
*I typically put in 50% of sugar (rather than the recommended 75%) required because I like the flavour of the fruit to come through and prefer it not so sweet
Crostata di Frutta
I learned this recipe when I was in Tuscany many years ago by a Nonna who was over 90 years old. Her name was Giovanna. It is delicious! We ate it as a breakfast cake for the next morning.
200g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
100g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
100g butter (at room temperature)
Quince jam (or your jam of choice)
Thinly sliced fruit (pears go really well with quince jam)
1. Pre-heat a fan forced oven to 160 degrees Celsius
2. In a bowl mix all dry ingredients
3. Add the butter and mix with your fingertips until breadcrumbs form
4. Add the wet ingredients. Mix well with your hands until a smooth dough is formed
5. Butter and line with baking paper a 20cm spring based pan
6. With a rolling-pin, roll out ¾ of the pastry and place in the base. Prick the base with a fork
7. Use the remaining dough to make the sides of the pastry case (using your fingers to attach and shape the dough)
8. Liberally spread the base with quince jam (about 1 cup)
9. Add thinly sliced fruit on the top (not too much – don’t double stack the fruit)
10. Sprinkle fruit lightly with brown sugar and a little bit of lemon juice
11. Cook in the oven for approximately 40 – 50 minutes (until the pastry is cooked)
12. Let the cake rest for at least ½ hour before serving
13. Serve as a breakfast cake with coffee or a lovely mid-morning or afternoon tea with a dollop of thick cream for something extra special
*The base pastry also makes beautiful butter biscuits. You can alter the pastry recipe to make chocolate biscuits by combining 150g flour and 50g cocoa (instead of the 200g of flour).
I found a photo last night of the time that I made these chocolate biscuits in Tuscany with Giovanna. Such fond memories.