We never ate quince at home when I was a child, nor did my mother make jam from quince, but I do remember tasting it when I was very young. That unusual sweet tang was firmly embedded in my food memory, like a little chip of sensual data, by my Aunt Edna. She was an excellent cook and often made quince jelly, one of the many jams that appeared at her banquet sized afternoon tea of scones and cakes. I didn’t understand the taste then, but I loved it. Now, I might describe it as ambrosial, ancient, and enticing.
Years later, at the age of thirty to be precise, we moved to the country and I rediscovered that refined sweet flavour of Persia, Aphrodite and roses. The annual gathering of quinces from Norma’s orchard involved roaring down a rutted and overgrown dirt track in her old Subaru, with Poppy the dog on board, to the old fairyland quince grove beside the banks of the Diamond Creek. It was well hidden from human and bird predators. The trunks were grey and lime with lichen, the neglected trees gnarled and contorted, but they still cropped yearly. They were planted by the creek banks in the 1890s when the area around St Andrews was largely a fruit-growing district. That secret quince grove disappeared in the devastating bushfires of 2009.
In the old days, the orchards bordering the Diamond Creek relied on its regular flow through this valley from its source in the Kinglake hills to the north. Records were maintained by orchardists up until the 1960s. As land holders turned away from agriculture, records of the Diamond Creek’s flow became impressionistic, but most locals will tell you that the volume has decreased significantly over the last 25 years, and in summer, the creek invariably dries up. Coincidentally, Coca Cola/ Amatil began buying up most of the underground water in the aquifer at Kinglake from the 1990s onwards, effectively dehydrating the communities further downstream. Kinglake water is bought for a song and is used to bottle Mount Franklin water. Thoughtless consumers drink pure water from plastic bottles, when they have a very good source of it in their own tap, while a beautiful local creek, a tributary of the Yarra, is left with an irregular flow, not to mention the ramifications for wild life, further desiccation of the bush, increase in bushfire hazard and the problem of plastic.
Returning to the glories of quince, I am happy to see that quinces are now widely available in markets, appearing from April onwards. My 5-year-old Smyrna quince tree produces well, but wild birds and summer water shortage makes for a small harvest. I make a few batches of poached quinces each season, which last quite well under poaching liquid in the fridge. I take out slices to make various cakes and desserts, then boil up the poaching syrup, reducing it to a jelly glaze to use as a sauce or jam.
The Original Recipe
- 250 g butter, at room temperature
- 1 ¼ cups caster sugar
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind
- 3 eggs
- ½ cup almond meal
- ¼ cup flaked almonds
- ¾cup milk
- 2 ¼ cups self-raising flour, sifted
- 2 large pre- poached quinces, drained and cut into slices, liquid reserved.
Preheat oven to 180°C or 160°C fan forced. Grease base and sides of a 22 cm springform pan and line with baking paper.
Use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment to beat butter, sugar and lemon rind in a bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in almond meal and flaked almonds. Then stir in milk and flour, alternating. Spoon 2/3 of batter into prepared pan. Top with half of quince. Top with remaining batter. Top with remaining quince. Bake for 1 hr 20 mins or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Stand in pan for 5 mins, then remove sides of pan. You may need to cover the cake with tinfoil after an hour if the top is already brown.
Serve cake warm or at room temperature with cream and reduced, thickened quince syrup or more simply with sifted icing sugar.
The Adapted Recipe. I didn’t like the sound of flaked almonds inside the batter but I still wanted a strong almond taste. I changed the ratio of almond meal to flour and removed the flaked almonds altogether. My version used 1 cup of almond meal to 1 and 3/4 cups of SR flour and a scant teaspoon of baking powder. Try either version. Maybe add a little slurp of Amaretto or a drop of almond essence. I also glazed the cake with some of the reduced hot syrup.