Rich pickings

About to plant a boring apple tree in your garden? Don't. Join the jam and jelly fanatics campaigning for a revival of the quince, medlar and mulberry
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Dan Neuteboom is a campaigning fruit-grower who, in spite of his Dutch name, champions British fruit. Now he's putting his efforts into backing the quince, one of the oldest English fruits.

Dan Neuteboom is a campaigning fruit-grower who, in spite of his Dutch name, champions British fruit. Now he's putting his efforts into backing the quince, one of the oldest English fruits.

Neuteboom is a rare character whose family settled in Norfolk where he now grows 40 different varieties of English apples. He is endlessly putting pressure on our supermarkets to sell home-grown produce and has even created his own apple, Winter Wonder, which he sells through Sainsbury's. Now, although retirement calls, he has started growing quinces, a fruit which fell out of fashion in the middle of the 19th century. "I was selling my apples at local farmers' markets," he says, "and often people asked me if I grew quinces. Farmers' markets have opened up new outlets – supermarkets are resistent to anything not making huge returns."

The quince, a hard fruit like a large pear, gives off a rich perfume when cooked and turns the cooking liquid an agreeable pink. Raw, they are inedible. The skin and pips contain a great deal of pectin which is good for making jelly. They go well with game. The juice, cooked with sugar and water, can be strained to make a cordial (bottle it and store in the freezer for summer drinks).

Neuteboom is not alone in rediscovering the quince. Stephen Read, sixth-generation nurseryman in Loddon, Norfolk, says that he has had a run on the plants. And he knows a farmer in Essex who has planted several acres to sell the fruit commercially.

The quince, says Read, is like other 19th-century fruits which fell out of fashion, the mulberry and the medlar (which he also grows and sells). They vanished after Victorian horticulture increased the yields and shelf-life for ready-to-eat fruits: apples, pears and so on. The quince, with its short-shelf life, couldn't compete any more than the mulberry with it's juicy berries which turn to a sticky mess once picked. But its sweet-sour juice had been prized for jams, jellies and cordials.

The medlar was something else. This walnut-sized fruit, hard and green when picked in November, is also inedible raw. It must be ripened off the tree and laid in trays in a dark place – a process called bletting. Within weeks it turns soft and brown, smelling slightly fusty. The Victorians ate them at Christmas served with cream. Medlars also make delicious jellies and, to this day, the jam-maker Wilkins and Sons of Tiptree in Essex keeps the tradition alive, as it has done since 1885. It also makes quince jelly and mulberry jam.

You can visit its extensive fruit farms, 15 minutes out of Colchester, where it maintains several hundred quince trees, two dozen huge mulberries over 150 years old, and numerous medlars, a harvest boosted by local gardeners (visitor centre, tel: 016321 814 524). Sel-fridges and other top stores sell the quince and medlar jellies (£1.75 for 340g) and mulberry jam (£2.65 for 225g).

Also visit Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Faversham, Kent (tel: 01795 535 286), a 30-acre site of the national fruit collection, where 4,000 varieties, including quinces, mulberries and medlars are grown. It sells fruit in season.

But why don't you help? This is the time to plant the trees. Mulberries grow rather big, so plant them in a sack to restrict root growth. Details from Ken Muir, tel: 0870 747 9111, www.kenmuir.co.uk. Quince, mulberry and medlar trees are also available from Reads in Norfolk, tel: 01508 548 395, www.readsnur sery.co.uk. Without your help, there'll be no more dancing round the mulberry bush.

Mrs Beeton's mulberry conserve

Makes about 1.8kg/4lb

Unlike many jams, this should not boil rapidly, the object being to keep the fruit as whole as possible.

1kg/2lb 4oz mulberries
1kg/2lb 4oz mulberries, liquidised and strained to make 600ml/20fl oz mulberry juice
1.5kg/3lb 4oz sugar
In a preserving pan, heat juice and sugar until dissolved. Remove from heat, add fruit, stir. Leave 15 minutes until warmed through. Return to stove, bring to boil, lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove to a large bowl and leave overnight.
Return to pan, bring to boil and simmer for 15 minutes, until setting point. Test by putting a teaspoonful on a chilled saucer and prodding it with your finger. If it wrinkles it is ready. Remove from heat and, after 10 minutes, stir again and transfer to sterilised jars.

Medlar jelly

Makes four small jars

1kg/2lb 4oz medlars (soft, not freshly picked)
1 litre/13/4 pints water
800g/1lb 8oz sugar

Chop medlars into four and cover with water. Bring to boil and simmer until fruit is soft, about 20 minutes. Strain through muslin or cloth laid on to a sieve. Discard the flesh and measure liquid. For 500ml (16fl oz) juice, add 400g (14fl oz) sugar. Bring to boil and cook for around 15 minutes or until setting point. Transfer to sterilised jars.

Membrillo

Jellied quince preserve

In Spain this firm jelly would be spread into small, shallow wooden boxes lined with greaseproof paper for storage. But you can use small jars. Eat sliced as a teatime treat, or with Spanish cheese at breakfast.

1.5kg/3lb 8oz quinces
250ml/8fl oz water
400g/14oz sugar

Scrub skins of quinces, removing the fine down. Cover with water, bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove quinces, reserving cooking liquid.

When cool enough to handle, peel, quarter and remove cores and pips. Chop and sieve the cooked fruit (use a food mill) into a purée. Weigh the fruit pulp, adding an equal weight of sugar. Put into a pan with a little of the reserved cooking liquid and simmer until thick, stirring carefully to avoid burning. Pour into shallow moulds to set.

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