Skye Gyngell: Flash in the pan

Quince is a fragrant, underrated fruit, says Skye Gyngell. Cook it while you can: the golden season won't last.

I am always excited come early autumn when the first quince fruits appear on our gnarled little tree in the vegetable garden at Petersham. They begin to ripen in late September/early October, and have a beautiful, pale, limey-yellow complexion and the most wonderful fragrance - somewhere between ripe apples and pears yet somehow much more complex. A bowl full of quinces will perfume an entire room.

Quinces grow abundantly throughout Europe, most notably in Turkey and Morocco. Choose fragrant, organically grown quinces that have a clear, firm complexion and are without any bruises or discolouration. To prepare the fruit for cooking, simply rinse under cold water, dry with a towel, rubbing firmly to remove the fuzz. Do not bother to peel or core them as the colour and flavour is only improved by using them intact. Long, slow, gentle cooking transforms this pale fruit into the most beautifully burnt-coloured amber jewels.

Our little tree in the garden here is a bit unpredictable. This year, we only had 10 fruits, yet, two years ago, it was laden with them. So any more that we need, we buy from either Secretts farm in Surrey or Brogdale in Kent. Quinces' stay with us is short, they're not around for more than a couple of months, so enjoy them while they are around.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Secretts tel: 01483 520 535; Brogdale Farm tel: 01795 535 286

Quince cordial

This drink came about, like so many things at Petersham, quite by accident. It is actually made of leftovers - it's the resulting syrup from whole roasted quinces. You need quite a high proportion of quinces in order to achieve this lovely colour. It is simply delicious. We serve it as an aperitif with prosecco (the quantity is 50/50). I love it just topped with fizzy water and a generous scoop of ice.

Makes 6 jugs

12 whole quinces
11/2pints/900ml water
350g/111/2oz caster sugar

First heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas3. Wash and pat dry the quinces. Place in a baking tray and pour the water on top and sprinkle over the sugar.

Cover the tray loosely with aluminium foil and cook in the oven for around three hours. You will know it's ready when the quinces are tender and the cooking syrup is deep, pinky orange.

Take out of the oven, remove the cooked fruit and pour off the syrup into a jug or jar. Allow to cool completely before using. This will keep well in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks.

And the great thing about this recipe is that you are now left with the cooked fruit, which you can serve just as it is. It's particularly delicious for breakfast with thick, creamy Greek-style yoghurt and a drizzle or so of honey.

Roasted quince with verjuice

Serves 4

4 quinces (allow one per person)
250g/8oz sugar
2 fresh bay leaves
The peel of one unwaxed lemon
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise
120ml/4oz verjuice or water
1tbsp crème fraîche

Heat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas2. Rinse and wipe the quinces clean. Quarter them lengthways but don't bother to remove the pith or core. Place the quarters (cut side up) in a baking tray, sprinkle over the sugar, the bay leaves, lemon peel and vanilla, and add the verjuice.

Cover lightly with foil and bake for two and a half hours, turning the fruit a couple of times during cooking. When the quince are soft, sticky and a beautiful burnt-orange colour they are ready.

I like to serve these still warm, with a large dollop of good-quality crème fraîche.

Quince sherbet

This is a really lovely icey sherbet to serve at this time of year. Strange as it may seem, we do serve ice-creams and sorbets at Petersham all year round - even in the (omega) depths of the coldest, bleakest winter. l think they can actually be very warming. We like to lace them with firey eau de vies - as their icey consistency warms your chest on the way down. In this one, however, alcohol is absent, thus allowing the quince's fragrant, flavoured, perfumey taste to come through.

Serves 4-8

3 large quince, rinsed and wiped clean
180g/6oz caster sugar
220ml/71/2fl oz water
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise
1tbsp rose syrup
2tbsp double cream

Split the quince in half lengthwise and then again into quarters, followed by eights. Place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and then sprinkle over the caster sugar and pour in the water, finally adding the vanilla pod. Place over a medium heat and bring to a boil. Straight away, turn down the heat to its lowest setting and cook for around two-and-a-half hours, until the fruit is soft and deep orange in colour. The syrup should also be a wonderful, pinky-orange hue.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. When cold, pass both the fruit and the syrup through a colander. Pour this, along with the rose syrup and cream, into an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Serve immediately.

A rough type of quince paste

Quince paste is made throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The one we make here at Petersham is actually similar to Spanish membrillo, which is a much smoother type of paste, but the version we're doing here is a little bit coarser. We serve it with cheese - I think firm, slightly sharp flavours work wonderfully with it, in particular, a tasty aged pecorino. Here, I have used (omega) stagionato con vinacce, but it also goes very well with Spanish manchego.

Serves 4-6

11/2kg/3lb firm-fleshed, ripe quinces
200ml/7fl oz cold water
400g/13oz caster sugar
Juice of one lemon

Wash the quinces thoroughly under cold, running water. Cut each one into quarters and then again into rough pieces about an inch thick. Place them all in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, large enough to hold all the ingredients.

Pour over the water and place over a low to medium heat and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down slightly and cover with a lid. Cook the quince, stirring occasionally until the fruit is soft - this should take approximately 45 minutes.

Once the fruit is soft, remove from the heat and purée very roughly in a Magimix or a blender. Return to the saucepan and add the sugar and the lemon juice and cook over a very low heat, stirring fairly constantly, for around 30 minutes.

The mixture will cook into a beautiful, deep-orange paste. When it is done, it should be quite thick, not runny, yet still quite pourable. Place in a container and allow to cool completely before putting it into the refrigerator. Serve with a strong cheese and some grapes.

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