The quince is the trickster of the fruit kingdom. The scent and colour of these deeply aromatic golden globes hints at a succulent, honeyed interior. Yet bite into a raw quince (if your teeth are strong enough to permit it) and you will be rewarded with a mouthful of hard, sour flesh. ‘It has the perfume of a loved woman and the same hardness of heart,’ wrote 10th century poet Shafer ben Utman al-Mushafi. He wasn’t wrong.
Although we now associate the apple with Adam and Eve’s downfall in the Garden of Eden it is widely believed the original sinful fruit was in fact a quince (presumably they both had a good set of gnashers). The quince’s somewhat nefarious reputation extends beyond the orchard and into the bedroom. In ancient Greece it was known as the fruit of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, fertility and marriage. This undoubtedly led to the belief that the quince is a powerful aphrodisiac. In The Good Housewife’s Jewel (1595) Thomas Dawson provides a recipe for A Tart That is Courage to a Man or Woman which instructs the reader to boil quince with sweet potato, burdock root, sugar and cock sparrow brains along with spices and rose water ‘till it be something big’ (one assumes Dawson is referring to the tart rather than anything else).
Sugar is the key to unlocking quince’s delectability although it is used with success in some savoury Persian dishes. Today you are more likely to find quince in the form of a paste called membrillo served alongside cheese. In Tudor times many fruits were preserved like this and were known as marmalades. These solid pastes would be served at a sugar fuelled banquet at the end of the meal in wealthy households, often in a special room or location. The banquet was quite a decadent affair and attendance was strictly by invitation. They quickly gained a louche reputation as sugar was believed to stimulate lustful urges. Combine copious amounts of sugar with quince and you would have been asking for trouble.
Ingredients (Serves 8)
25g unsalted butter
50g golden caster sugar
Pinch ground cinnamon
2 quinces, peeled, cored and quartered*
60g shelled cobnuts or hazelnuts
125g soft unsalted butter
125g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
½ vanilla extract
110g self raising flour
15g ground hazelnuts
½ tsp baking powder
*Put the peeled and cored quarters into a bowl of salted water to stop them from browning.
Grease and line an 18cm solid sandwich tin i.e. not a loose bottomed tin or a springform tin. Preheat the oven to 170℃.
Melt 25g butter in a frying pan. Add and 50g caster sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and the quince quarters. Cook over a gentle heat turning the fruit frequently until the quince is just starting to soften and the sugar begins to caramelise.
Remove the quince pieces from the butter and sugar. Pour the caramel into the base of the pan. Arrange the quince pieces on top of the caramel then scatter around 10g of the nuts in the centre of the quince circle.
Beat the remaining butter and sugar together. Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract then fold in the flour, ground hazelnuts and baking powder.
Pour over the quince and cobnuts. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cake is cooked. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out. Serve warm or cold.