Friday, September 29, 2006

Regarding the Quince

The coing, or quince, is kind of a strange fruit. Sort of a cross between a pear and an enormous crab apple, its flesh, even when ripe, is often hard and difficult to cut in the center. My experiences with the coing have been rather marked, the first ever having taken place in China.

I had just arrived in Beijing and the moments there were swirling around me in a fantastical joyous chorale. The colors were bright, and all of the new adventures to come were just laid out before me like the wide stately avenues crossing the capital. I had so many choices. They were like ripe fruits just waiting for the taking, and each choice I made was to determine simply and directly what would happen thereafter.

Everything was riding on everything. It was precarious but true. I had all of the essentials covered. I had arrived after a strange hop-started slightly melancholy 12 days in Turkey visiting an old friend, I had a single bed to sleep on in a safe place, and I had a job. A small job, but with possibilities. When you are 24 years old, these things are really all you need.

I was relieved to see that I could actually speak in the language I had studied so long just to come to that moment. Looking back on that time, I am so glad that I was able to breathe and stay calm, because only after a person lets go and trusts their surroundings can they truly live to their potential.

In celebration of my arrival, I had been invited to dine with Mr. Ma. We had just finished a lovely dinner. He was a curious man. Chinese, extremely soft spoken and his face never showed his power. He smiled light heartedly with his entire visage except for one small place inside his eyes which to me was curiously attractive. He looked as if he had very soft skin but I didn’t dare touch. His hair was cut in a businessman’s style and he had lovely classic gold round rimmed glasses.

Some men sparkle like crystal, solidly emanating facets of their power as they move from one task to the next, from subject to subject. Mr. Ma sparkled like a diamond, unpredictably, and at moments with a fleeting gorgeous intensity. In fact, the whole idea of Mr. Ma in my 24 year old mind was sublime, out of my reach. I could not fathom who he was. I was taking him at the highest face value I could.

He had ordered an amazing array of special regional dishes which he pronounced slowly and with emphasis, looking into my eyes to be sure I understood their significance. I understood nothing with my book smarts, but didn’t realize it. In fact I had absolutely no knowledge of the incredible world of Chinese cuisine that was to unfold to me in the years to come. That night I walked the tightrope of learning and living. At the same time I was like a cat lapping milk, my back warmed by the sun.

We came out of the underground regional restaurant near the Jian Guo Men Wai, and I had just tried many silky and beautiful and also staid and satisfying things to eat. The lamps were lit, and we decided to go walking. It was then that I discovered that Mr. Ma was an antique collector, a quality I admire in a person. In fact, he had a shop. We decided to walk there. I talked about Vienna bronzes assuming he knew about them and he talked about the ancient Chinese bronzes he sought and collected, as if I knew all about them too.

We were headed down the big wide stately avenue and the evening light and the dry city breeze swept us along, hints of summer evenings still in it. He asked me if I knew what the fruits on the trees were. I did not. I was unable to understand the Chinese word, I had studied fruits and flowers somewhere around the halfway mark in my Chinese language studies, and the only word I remembered from those lessons was Hua Ping. Vase. He struggled to get the word out in English. His mouth got small like a little kiss and he said, Quince. The fruit is called a quince. I watched his mouth and vowed I would never forget that image, ever. I have memorized it from the last low sun’s beam of twilight imprinted in a streak across his cheek to the sound of the taxi driving by.

The Quince should always be chosen as ripe as possible. A ripe quince is yellow and has a strong odor of the fruit. It is commonly covered with a fungus that protects it naturally from insect invasion, and those with the discriminating eye choose the ones featuring this dusty coat. The coating looks like sawdust, and its presence is a good indication of the fruit’s freshness. The quince is very good peeled, seeded, sectioned, and poached in spiced wine and syrup, made into jam, put in chutneys, or cooked in plain sugar to bring out the best in its unique flavor. The flesh of the quince will brown in contact with air, so if you’re mincing it for compote or cutting it into wedges for conserves, you should immerse the cut pieces in water/lemon juice mixture, and any conserve liquid should also have some lemon juice. Some French recipes call for the quince to release its flavor into syrup by long poaching the fruit and then as a last step, discarding the pulp of the fruit. The resulting syrup is used to flavor crèmes, flans, mousses, and blanc-mangers. About this time of year, George Blanc, in Vonnas, not far from Lyon, serves a dessert composé of corn meal sablés with fresh figs and fig raspberry jam surrounded on the plate with a line of quince syrup.

Pate de coings, stewed until a thick paste that hardens like gum drops is spread out on parchment on kitchen tables throughout the country of France. Last year a magazine had a recipe for quince prepared somewhat like pears poached in wine. I was not satisfied with the result of that recipe, but was happy that I was attracted by the idea. It was extremely pretty, with the wine soaking in increments from outside to in. I ended up recycling it into a tarte with a sweet crust. With these two fruits I am going to make a little batch of jelly for Loïc.

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Blogger Katie said...

When I lived in Andorra there was a quince tree on the edge of our property. Neither I nor my neighbors knew anything about them so they were left to be picked by the foragers (who were everywhere - they would come at night and strip fruit trees bare).
Now I have a medlar....which I know nothing about....This time I will try to learn....

11:40 AM, September 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lovely quince memories...

2:51 AM, October 01, 2006  
Blogger L Vanel said...

It's nice that in life sometimes we are presented with another opportunity to appreciate the things we didn't know what to do with before. I would love to hear about what you do discover, Katie. Thank you for your comments.

10:23 AM, October 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a lovely ready, once more. I so much wish I could write like this in English...sigh, in another life....

5:33 PM, October 02, 2006  
Blogger Riana Lagarde said...

Great story! I love Quinces... my MIL's neighbor has a tree that they never use and just Friday I was thinking, oh they look ready, tomorrow I will pick a couple. The next day, someone had stripped the tree bare...shucks!

9:05 AM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger L Vanel said...

I wonder what it is with trees being stripped of quinces overnight!

6:19 PM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Francine said...

My mother-in-law makes a great pate de coing. Yesterday I think she started on a new batch, she was chopping the quinces quite ferociously. My father-in-law was planning to use some in the lamb he was about to prepare. Sadly we weren't able to stay for lunch

1:42 PM, October 08, 2006  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Hmm! Quince and lamb sounds like a nice combination.

3:30 PM, October 08, 2006  
Blogger Scazza said...

Lucy, a question: I have quince that are green but smell amazing, strong, beautiful. Are they ripe? Everywhere it says they should be yellow AND odorous, so should I wait for them to turn yellow to use?

4:52 PM, November 08, 2009  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Scazza, good question. Try cutting one up, see if they are soft. If they are hard, go ahead and wrap them in newspaper and put them in a dark place to see how they progress.

9:31 PM, November 08, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Quinces are never soft! They may well ripen more stored in a dark place, but they will never go soft unless they rot, and they a murder to chop up.

I prefer to bake them in sugary water slowly for a very long time under foil or a lid (they go a lovely red colour, and the water takes on a delicious flavour) and then cut them up and remove the core. The skin peels off easily, like paper, when they have been baked like this.

12:15 PM, June 04, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Well there you have it. Thank you, Susanna.

12:43 PM, June 04, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Back in upstate New York as a child we had a venerable quince in our yard - perched at the top of a steep slope and almost certainly having been planted in the 19th century. I loved to climb it as its branches were nearly horizontal in spots. And once a year our parents took all the fruit and made a massive amount of quince jelly, which lasted well into the next winter. I have never tasted quince since we moved away when I was 11. I wonder if the flavor memory would flicker right back up in my brain if I were to eat it again?

3:41 PM, June 10, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

It think it would, Jeremy.

5:26 PM, June 10, 2010  

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