Wild Food (part 3)


As we drive around the gorgeous countryside that surrounds Camon I find I am almost constantly looking at trees and hedgerows for wild food. Several weeks ago when we were actively picking wild plums and damsons I spied a solitary quince tree (Cydonia) growing beside the road and made a mental note to revisit it. When I did eventually recall where this tree was located I hurried back only to find most of the fruit had fallen, leaving only two tantalizing specimens at the very top of the tree (well out of arms reach and out of very long stick range). Standing below it I gave it a shake to see if I could dislodge the final fruits before realizing that I was being scrutinized by an elderly French lady who was seated on a bench outside a not-too-distant house. Bidding her “bonjour” I sloped away without any fruit thinking that I had missed the opportunity to be making gelée de coings (quince jelly) and pâte de coings (quince paste) this year.

Today, however, I decided to deviate from the footpath that hugs the opposite bank of the river l'hers outside Camon to walk up a woodland path in search of noisettes (hazelnuts) and marrons (chestnuts). I found neither of these but did find a quince tree laden with fruit. The scent of the rotting windfalls and the huge, firm, ripe fruit still on the tree was simply amazing: a clean fresh citrus fragrance with hints of rich sweet honey. As before the fruit at the top of the tree were well beyond my reach but there were many smaller ripe fruits lower down. Initially I tried tugging on dead brambles which had been growing through the tree only succeeding in bombarding myself with a barrage of semi-rotten fruits which were still attached to the tree. So time for Plan B - find a long, long stick and try to dislodge them. This proved to be a more satisfactory technique and I was rewarded with this amazing fruit.

The quince belongs to the same family as apples and pears but is generally larger than either. These fruits looked like a cross between the two and were covered with soft down.

I must admit that I have never collected and cooked quinces before. This could be because they appear to have fallen out of favour in the UK, possibly because they cannot be eaten raw and consequently they rarely feature in current recipe books. According to Carol Klein there is a long history of using pectin-rich quinces to make jelly in England and she attributes this to the jelly's ability to hold highly detailed shapes. The quince seems to have retained its popularity in the Middle East and in Mediterranean countries and Dulce de membrillo (quince paste made in Spain which is usually served with cheese) is exported worldwide. The French bi-weekly cookery magazine Vie pratique Gourmande (7-20 October 2010) describes quince as “the king of the jellies” and suggests alternative rather more imaginative uses for the fruit, including in eau-de-vie (popular in Alsace), baked with apples, or served with game or a tajine. I am quite fascinated by the strange, bulgy fruit and am quite determined to produce something edible from them.

I gathered over two kilos of fruit of varying sizes, shapes and colours and was carrying my booty back through the village when I spotted Juliette. Juliette is 83 years old and appears to be directly related to most of the population of Camon. She was born in the village and although now increasingly frail she is resisting the pressure to go into a maison de retraite, preferring to remain in the house she has lived in all her life. After the obligatory kiss on both cheeks she asked me what I have in my carrier bag and I proudly show her my coings (pronouned “kwan”). At this point the deep-seated French passion for food takes over. A glint came into her eyes and she told me exactly how to prepare quince jelly and how to use the left-over fruit pulp to make sugary quince paste sweets. Just to make sure I have grasped the finer details (such as there is no need to peel the fruit, use a moulis-legumes to pulp the cooked fruit and to make sure the paste is cooked until it is dark brown) she repeats the instructions. Then she repeats both recipes again. By now I feel I will be able to sit and pass the exam in quince preparation.

The monster quince in the photo above is the fruit on the scales in the photo below and, no your eyes are not deceiving you, it really did weigh 434 grammes. Should you wish to try making quince jelly and paste I've put Juliette's instructions at the end.

It's a biggie

Juliette's gelée de coings

  • Ripe quinces, unpeeled

  • Granulated or preserving sugar with added pectin (approximately 500g to every 500ml of strained juice)

  • Lemon rind and juice

Wash the quinces well and cut into chunks, removing any blemished or rotten parts. There is no need to peel the fruit. Put in a large heavy pan and pour over enough water to just cover the fruit. Simmer until soft and pulpy (this could take 1-2 hours)

Strain the pulp through a muslin cloth for at least 4 hours (or overnight).

Measure the juice to calculate the amount of sugar required. Add the lemon juice and rind and heat slowly in a preserving pan until the sugar is dissolved. Bring it to the boil until it reaches setting point.

Juliette's pâte de coings

  • Leftover quince pulp from Juliette's quince jelly recipe

  • Granulated or preserving sugar with added pectin

Pass the pulp through a mouli-legumes using the finest blade. Measure the volume of the pulp and add the same volume of sugar. Cook very slowly on a low heat allowing as much moisture to evaporate as possible. It should be almost dry and dark red in colour. Place into flat ceramic dish and even the top with a spatula. Allow to dry and cut into cubes. The cubes can be rolled in sugar and then wrapped in wax paper.

Note: pâte de coings is one of the traditional thirteen desserts of a Provencal Christmas.

And additional quince recipe taken from “the World's greatest cookbook” Mrs. Beeton's Cookery and Household Management (my edition is an unabridged version published in 1960)

Quince Sauce

½ lb quinces

½ pt. water or water in which carrots have been cooked

Ground nutmeg


Ground clove

Lemon juice

1/8 pt. red wine (optional)

Stew the quinces very gently in the water until pulpy. Beat them quite smooth or rub them through a hair or nylon seive. Reheat the sauce, add nutmeg, sugar, clove and lemon juice to taste. Stir in the red wine if used.