Jackie French: why quinces turn me on

Let us be quite clear on this: I don't find quinces sexy. Delicious, certainly. Almost uniquely fragrant, quite magic in the way you can turn something hard and knobby into so many stunning dishes, plus, being late maturing, quinces tend not to get stung by fruit fly unless you grow an early variety.

In addition, the fruit bats only discover the quinces are ripe when they have hung on the trees through several frosts and become deeply fragrant to both human and fruit bat. As the superior species, we humans should be able to remember to pick quinces before the fruit bats get around to it. (I manage this about one year in three.)

Champion and Smyrna are the main commercially grown quinces in Australia but specialist fruit nurseries will sell many other varieties.

Champion and Smyrna are the main commercially grown quinces in Australia but specialist fruit nurseries will sell many other varieties.

The second thing to point out: there is possibly not a fruit or veg that has not at some stage been seen - or eaten - as an aphrodisiac. Apples and their connection to Eve, the most suggestive shape of parsnips and carrots - especially when they bi or trifurcate - potatoes and tomatoes because they are not mentioned in the Bible and if they are not in the Bible they must be sinful and if they are sinful they must be sexy ...

Quinces used to seen as sexy, too, for their resemblance to breasts. To anyone scratching their head trying to think when they last saw a breast that even vaguely resembled a quince, when did you last see a parsnip that ...

I'd better stop there. This is a family newspaper.

I love autumn and winter fruit. It ripens slowly so you can keep up with it. At the moment my favorite fruit of all is quinces, mostly because we don't get to eat them any other time. They are easy to grow - no pruning or watering once established, even in extreme droughts - though they'll give a far better crop with regular watering and tucker.

Trees that don't get enough water may produce woody fruit, far harder and a lot smaller than usual. Feed in early to late spring. They'll tolerate just about any climate as long as it's cold enough for cardigans most of winter.

The spring flowers are pretty too, clusters of pink or white, and deep yellow autumn leaves. But it is the fruit that's the star - great big fat darlings. You really know you've grown something when you pick a quince.

Champion and Smyrna are the main commercially grown quinces in Australia, cropping mid-season and with good fruit, but specialist fruit nurseries will sell many other varieties - we have about 12 growing here. Look for the Pineapple Quince - its perfume slowly increases after picking and will fill the whole house with fruitiness.

The main quince-growing problem is that some trees sucker. Prune them off, as the suckers probably won't bear good fruit. Another problem is fungal leaf and fruit spots - spray with Bordeaux at leaf fall and again just as leaf buds are swelling.

Ripe quinces turn yellowish, rather than green, and smell rich and ripe. Fallen fruit means that the fruit is ripe, or over-ripe, or has been attacked by pests or the tree is moisture stressed. But don't wait for quinces to soften on the tree - quinces are still hard when ripe. Don't pick them too early, either. They will eventually soften as you cook them but won't taste of much. Quinces can be stored for several months and even longer if individually wrapped in newspaper.

Quinces make one of the most superlative of all jellies, deep glowing red. Quince paste is quick jelly that has been cooked gently for longer so it sets firmly. But stewed quinces (don't add sugar till the slices are soft, or they may never soften) also make magnificent tarts, pies, additions to morning porridge, or mix with crushed meringue and ice-cream so that rich red against the white makes a stunning 'Not At All Eton' mess.

This week I will:

  • Treat myself to three extremely interesting banksia plants. Suggestions welcome.
  • Buy 100 nerines for planting in late summer to bloom through next year's winter.
  • Eat a vast amount of tabouli while it is still warm enough for the parsley plants to put out another crop or three.
  • Make quince tart, with extremely decorative slices arranged in the French manner.
  • Try to finish last year's tamarillo chutney before it's time to make this year's.
  • Guzzle as many late tomatoes as possible, with black pepper and basil.