In France, they call them les coings. Say it with a nasal Southern accent and it comes out almost like the sound of a duck's quack. At this time of year, you see them pinned with handwritten signs in beautiful round French cursive on the racks of good greengrocers and in village-square markets, golden-yellow and round, like the fast-disappearing sun.
Here in Ye Olde England, though, we call them something much more Shakespearean, a name straight out of A Midsummer Night's Dream: the quince. Yet, even if you've often eaten quince jelly, that amber-coloured stuff the Spanish sell to go with manchego cheese, the likelihood is that you've never actually eaten a quince itself.
Jane McMorland Hunter (rare bookseller and owner of a garden as neatly proportioned as herself) has set out with her colleague Sue Dunster to change this. Their new book, Quinces: Growing & Cooking (£9.99, Prospect Books), is neatly proportioned, too, though like its authors, it spills forth a multitude of useful knowledge. Mainly with the object of getting us, the gardeners, to grow them at home, because, Hunter and Dunster cheerfully explain, "They're impossible to buy; even in season, they're usually only available at the more inspired farmers' markets."
The weird thing about the quince is that they never get quite ripe enough to eat raw. They stay rock-hard, in most cases, and mouth-wincingly tart. This leads a lot of people with an existing quince tree to conclude that their precious acquisition is a useless example of the genre, and chop it down. This is a mistake for a couple of reasons. One is that quinces start the year by showing forth with a blossom so sweet and glorious that it's often treasured for purely floral reasons. And the so-called ornamental quinces (in a different genus, Chaenomeles) are covered, on bare, knobbly twigs, with apricot-coloured flowers with tiny, star-like centres, from late February onwards.
But even if you're growing for taste alone, don't give a quince the chop based on its raw flavour. These hard, uninviting fruit need to be cooked to bring out their subtle, old-fashioned aroma, natural sugars and top-noted scent. And when I say "cooked", I mean cooked very slowly, to bring all that flavour out. It's worth it – it's likely that the Greeks meant quinces in their myths referring to "golden apples" (even starting the Trojan War on the way). Yep, that's how good quinces are – they are literally mythical.
Quince trees, as Hunter and Dunster point out, won't fruit for a few years, so a three- or four-year old tree is the best to buy. Look for the right rootstock for your situation: Quince A will grow to around 15ft tall, whereas Quince C will stay measurably smaller (and is the one suitable for container-growing). The trees are self-fertile, meaning that you don't need another of a different variety to ensure pollination. Though they will need attention to get them going, once in full growth, quinces don't require much coddling – though they'd benefit from a yearly spring mulch, like any fruit tree.
Then you just need to choose your recipe. This is where our quince enthusiasts really get going, offering 50 pages of ideas, gathered from around the world. There's a "camel driver's feast" dish, with quinces cooked with za'atar (Cool! Finally something to use up that jar you bought to make a single Ottolenghi dish); and a treacle tart variation made with a quince syrup. There are even "posh dodgers", sandwiched together with home-made quince jam.
Don't mind if I do.
Four to buy: The mighty quince
Quince Serbian Gold
Considered the best choice for UK climates, and a good one to opt for if your orchard is subject to a blustery winter. £25; all quinces here from shop.otterfarm.co.uk
A Japanese flowering quince, this will produce usable fruit (though not quite your French coing). In early spring, its bare branches bloom with exquisite blossom. £9
A Serbian beauty that will grace the garden with frothy pink and white flowers in spring then turn out quinces before Halloween. £25
Quince, fan trained
Take the pain out of fan training and buy one that's already had discipline instilled by Mark Diacono at Otter Farm. £60Reuse content