I know it is not quince season yet. I must confess that I began this article in late October and, for various reasons, it was never published until now. And although there are no quinces at this time of the year, we are lucky enough to have quince marmalade all year round.

The quince tree is not big, but it produces a truly wondrous fruit. I can clearly remember quinces arriving at home, and the ensuing hustle and bustle to make clear marmalade, dark marmalade and jelly. Nature produced this fruit relatively quickly, and so it was necessary to use the quinces up as fast as possible. Nevertheless, there were some quinces that fell on the floor. These were dutifully picked up for a special purpose: to help fatten up the little pigs before they were slaughtered.

Another valuable food that contributed to the quality of the meat and guaranteed a good-sized pig. The quince is one of those products that continue to be seasonal, and I am not aware of its production on a global level or outside of Nature’s cycles. It is thought that it originated in the Middle East, but it was the Greeks that distinguished it by calling it the “golden apple”, a symbol of female fertility, which they also offered to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It might be for this reason that marmelo (the Portuguese word for quince) is used to refer to the female breast in colloquial Portuguese. It is said that in Ancient Greece a bride was supposed to eat a quince on her wedding day, but that the groom was to abstain from doing so. Today, it is claimed that quinces have a high content of tannins and pectin, as well as anti-inflammatory qualities.

In Portugal, there are many quince trees in Ribatejo, Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta, and they can also be found in Minho and Beira Litoral. In Brazil, it is thought that the quince tree was introduced to Bahia in 1530 by Martin Afonso de Sousa, and that the first safe production sites were in the Captaincy of São Vicente and in Serra de Mantiqueira. Currently, the largest production of quinces is in Minas Gerais, and this fruit is used almost exclusively for industrial production. The habit of making quince marmalade at home is beginning to disappear. In Portugal, this tradition is still alive, although it is rather different from what it was in the days when I was a boy in Trás-os-Montes. It was customary to offer a bowl of quince marmalade to the neighbours or when you visited friends and family – a practice my sister Lina carries out to this day. And then there was the wonderful feeling of feasting our eyes on the unmolded marmalade with its mouth-watering glow. Very often, a piece of marmalade was all that stood between you and a rumbling stomach.

When they are ripe, quinces have a very strong smell and are thus used for aromatic purposes before making their way to the pots for marmalade-making. But quinces can also be cooked with sugar and cinnamon and served as a dessert, or roasted in the oven in the same way that apples are. Then there are quinces in syrup – a sweet snack that I still enjoy at the Académico and Geadas restaurants in Bragança. The D. Roberto restaurant in Gimonde, Bragança, goes one step further and makes an unforgettable quince ice cream. But quinces are also used to accompany roast meat, giving it a wonderful bittersweet flavour. This fruit is also important in the Maghreb where they serve various meat tajines, namely lamb, with quince. But making marmalade, followed by jelly, are the most important uses quinces are put to.

According to my friend Armando Fernandes, the term “marmelada” is of Portuguese origin, and I believe him. Apparently, the English adopted the word “marmalade” from the Portuguese, and it usually refers to a citrus fruit jelly. They also have a “marmalade sauce” that is made with citrus and other fruits and is usually served with meat. Today, the term has become more widespread and it is used to refer to other jams with fruit. The French use the term “marmelade”, which is a type of sweet fruit purée similar to our (Portuguese) marmeladas, but not as firm.

Let’s take a look then at how quinces are used to make quince marmalade. References to marmalade-making go far back in time, and there are accounts of various jams with fruits from the Middle Ages onwards. The jams would acquire their names directly from the fruits, and so we have pear jam, peach jam and obviously quince jam. And, naturally, the first written accounts were recorded in convents. The most romanticised is the Monastery of Odivelas as it was often visited by royals, and to this day the famous white quince marmalade is still produced there. Then we also have records from the convents in Coimbra, the Santa Clara Monastery, the Celas Monastery, the Sant’Ana Convent and the Sandelgas Convent. References are also to be found in Trancoso Convent and, interestingly, in the book Receitas da Casa do Mosteiro de Landim (House Recipes of Landim Monastery), where a recipe for “Quince and Apple Marmalade” appears.

Broadly speaking, quince marmalade is made by cooking quinces in a sugar syrup – but with a few variations that will provide us with the two main quince marmalades: the white one, and the common or raw marmalade, which is red. Then there is also the extraordinary jelly to be made.

The rules for making white or red quince marmalade are not clear. According to the recipe from the Odivelas Monastery, in order to achieve a white quince marmalade, peeled quinces are placed in cold water, brought to the boil, and left to cook. They are then strained through a fine sieve. Measure out double the amount of sugar (vis-à-vis the amount of strained quinces), and when it has reached setting point remove it from the heat. Add the strained quinces to the sugar syrup, mix well, and place it on the heat once more until it starts bubbling. Remove the mixture from the heat, pour it into bowls and leave to dry. However, in 1982, Maria Emília Cancella de Abreu proposed boiling the quinces first, and peeling them only once they have been cooked. It is important that the sugar reach caramel point and that after it has been well mixed together with the quinces, off the heat, you continue to stir the mixture until it cools. Only then do you pour this cream into recipients and leave it to dry in the sun. Once it has dried, it is covered with wax paper soaked in aguardente (fire-water). This is also the way the recipe for white quince marmalade is presented in the “Dicionário do Doceiro Brasileiro” (Dictionary of the Brazilian Confectioner) by António José de Sousa Rego, 1892. The same book also has recipes for quince marmalades with plums, with peaches, with apricots and with apples. Also, there is a marmalade recipe called “sumo” (juice), and a fantastic “de Lisboa” (from Lisbon) recipe, which I suggest you read. I am not including it here as it is too long. At home, my sister Lina continues to make clear quince marmalade in the same, successful way: “with peeled quinces that are not ripe; and once they’re cooked they are put through the finest food-mill. The sugar must reach caramel point and you mix in the strained quinces; the mixture is stirred and not boiled.”

Let’s now look at the difference when it comes to red quince marmalade. According to Maria Emília Cancella de Abreu, the difference has to do with the way in which the sugar is mixed in. Here, you do not make a sugar syrup into which you then mix the strained quinces. Instead, you add the sugar to the strained quinces, without removing them from the heat, and you keep on stirring. However, at Odivelas Monastery the difference lies in not straining the quinces through a sieve. They are mashed with a spoon, and without letting them cool, you add the sugar, stirring all the while. Going back to my family’s recipes, “dark quince marmalade was made with ripe quinces that were cooked whole. Once cooked, they were peeled and strained through a sieve. The sugar must reach caramel point, you mix in the strained quinces and bring it to the boil, always stirring as it boils.” At home, there was always quince marmalade that was also eaten as a dessert with cheese. This tradition is very common in the north of Portugal, and the combination of cheese and quince marmalade is affectionately referred to as “Romeo and Juliet”. And in Lisbon, there is still the practice of wrapping cubes of quince marmalade in cellophane (the Confeitaria da Ajuda comes to mind).

As can be seen, Portuguese quince marmalade made its way over the Atlantic and became popular in Brazil. In his recent book, “Vocabulário do Açúcar” (The Vocabulary of Sugar), Raul Lody defines marmalade as a “Jam made of quinces (Cydonia Oblonga). It is also the term for jams made of different fruits in the form of paste.” This is the perfect definition for more than one example of “true fusion cuisine”. I insist on writing that fusion cuisine only truly exists when a recipe becomes perennial. Merely trying it out is not enough! Goiabada (guava jam) is the prime example. It is so important, that there are goiabada contests every year. My friend Dias Lopes has already offered me some excellent goiabadas that are finger-licking good!

And now, to end off, a brief note on one more quince derivative: jelly. It’s sweet, very sweet, and can be used in a variety of ways, including as a filling for cakes or simply as a stuffing for boiled or roasted chestnuts. To make “the jelly, use the peels and pips of the quinces, and the same amount of sugar. The water used to dissolve the sugar is the one that was used to cook the quinces. Let everything boil until setting point (I eyeball it) and then filter it all. The jelly is then immediately poured into the jars since it solidifies on cooling.” Little precision for those not in the habit of making preserves. Skilled hands and the confectioner’s gut feeling are fundamental!

Long live quince marmalade. And now, set off and discover a good wine to accompany the marmalade as it will make the dessert even tastier.

(C) Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes

(Quince marmelade)