For this post I am going to break my rule of literary chronology, leaving the early 18th century novel for the time being in order to revisit the late 16th century and an author who has featured frequently in this blog, namely Mr William Shakespeare. And the cause of this literary rewind is the quince, the strange, knobbly pear-like fruit which, as the Observer food writer Nigel Slater says, “can’t be eaten raw” and is “a devil to peel”. We have a quince tree in the garden and about a month ago my landlady challenged me to find some literary/culinary uses for the plethora of fruit that ripen and rot very quickly if not picked and made good use of; I like a challenge, so the research began.
Quinces come from the same family as apples and pears. They are thought to have originated in parts of Asia, including Armenia, Georgia, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, and were subsequently introduced to parts of the Middle East and eastern and central Europe, including Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. The quince’s early arrival in the countries of the Middle East has led to speculation that references to fruit in the Bible which have often been translated as “apple” may in fact be references to quince: examples include The Song of Solomon 2:3 “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men” and most famously the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3 with which the snake tempts Eve, and Eve then seduces Adam. Though were the snake to have tempted Eve with a quince, we have to assume he would have cooked it first as it’s impossible to believe that Eve would have succumbed to the sour inedible raw fruit! Once cooked though, with the addition of sugar or honey, the quince softens and becomes far more appetising.
The quince is first recorded in England in 1275 when Edward I had some planted at the Tower of London. In a medieval poem (probably incorrectly) attributed to Chaucer, the quince is described as left hanging on the tree like “a thyng that all men have forgotyn”; grown “so rype” it is “almost rotyn”. In Shakespeare’s tragedy of young love-lorn lovers Romeo and Juliet – first performed in 1597 – quinces are not abandoned on the tree, but are instead used for culinary purposes. Romeo and Juliet have secretly married, Romeo has been exiled to Mantua after having killed Tybalt in a fight and Juliet, to avoid having to marry her parents’ chosen husband for her – Paris – has taken a sleeping draught which makes her appear to be dead. It is the morning of the Juliet – Paris wedding and the household is busy preparing the wedding feast, not knowing that the bride-to-be is lying, to all intents and purposes, dead in her bedroom. Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, and her nurse bustle around issuing orders:
LADY CAPULET: Hold, take these keys and fetch more spices, nurse.
NURSE: They call for dates and quinces in the pastry. (IV, 4, 1-3)
The “pastry” probably means the pastry kitchen, so presumably the quinces and dates are to be used in some form of pie or tart. Well, obviously, with all the tragic events that subsequently befall the Capulet household, nobody gets to eat the concoction, but that didn’t stop me making it. Inspired by a recipe in Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II for a quince and apple tart, I devised my version for the marriage feast that was never meant to be.
QUINCE AND DATE TART
For the pastry crust:
100g butter at room temperature, diced
80g caster sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
200g plain flour
For the fruit filling:
3 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons honey
12 stoned dates
750g eating apples
For the topping:
150g plain flour
75g demerara sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
Pastry crust: cream together the butter and sugar, either by hand on in a food mixer or processor, until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix thoroughly. Then add the flour and bring the mixture together into a soft ball. Knead briefly on a floured surface, and then roll out to fit a 22cm greased tart tin, pushing it carefully into the corners and up the sides, patching any tears. Place in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/Gas 6, and put a baking sheet in the oven.
Fruit filling: Squeeze the lemon into a mixing bowl. Wash and core the quinces, then chop them into small pieces, tossing them in the lemon juice as you go to stop them browning. Place them in a deep saucepan, add the sugar and honey, cover with a lid and leave over a low heat for 15 minutes, until just tender. Meanwhile core and dice the apples - there is no need to peel them. Stir them into the quinces and continue cooking, covered, for 5 - 10 minutes unti the apples are just soft. Chop up the dates (each date into approximately 4 pieces) and stir into the cooked fruit mixture.
Topping: Put the flour and butter into a food processor and blitz until they resemble fine breadcrumbs; alternatively rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips. Add the sugar and egg and mix briefly to a moist, crumbly texture.
Making the tart: Fill the uncooked pastry case with the fruit mixture, setting aside any juice. Scatter the topping mixture over, leaving some of the fruit showing through. Place on the heated baking sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes until the crust and pastry are golden brown. Cool slightly before serving.
 Other possible contenders for the fruit include the apricot, fig, grape and pomegranate – see http://pagetoplate.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/forbidden-fruit.html#more