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Rachel Johnson: everyone in my family is getting quince paste for Christmas

Making membrillo is a balm to the soul this autumn

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

Brrring! Freddy Gray of this parish is on the blower. ‘How about a piece for this week saying he’s won, I’ve lost, let’s Get Brexit Done, that sort of thing,’ he pitched.

‘Sorry Freddy, can’t talk, am making membrillo,’ I snapped as I gazed down into my second batch of chopped quinces, vanilla, lemon and sugar — which were rendering down in my magic machine to be set into claggy slabs of mahogany fruit fudge — while snorting the heady, tangy fumes as if they were mummy’s special marching powders.

‘You what?’

I explained in brief what membrillo was (quince paste, made from the bulging, knobbly, hard yellow fruit and best eaten with manchego cheese) and why I was making it (I am channelling Mrs Beeton partly to distract from Brexit and the news cycle, but that’s not the whole story).

‘Write about that then,’ Freddy ordered.


Well then. I am no domestic goddess and am a rubbish housewife, but I do find secret solace in the achievement of ‘woman’s work’ such as ironing, making bread, sweeping floors, and so on. If anyone told me to do them I’d be furious, but if I find myself — even with sulky reluctance — doing some manual chore that generations of women have done before me, such as pegging out washing on a sunny day; or taking out a batch of scones from the Aga, to be scoffed with golden dollops of Rodda’s and jam; even cleaning out the fridge — a sense of satisfied calm steals into my crabbed, cross soul. I am as happy as a bright-eyed collie rounding up sheep on some green hillside, and I assume this is because I have yielded to an instinct in my blood.

And another thing. Jeremy Corbyn has his allotment. We English have our kitchen gardens, the French their strict sense of ‘terroir’, the Archers the annual cut-throat Flower and Produce Show. To everything a season.

There is a single quince tree in my garden hanging heavy with fruit. When I admired nature’s bounty, I felt a sense of Victorian duty not to let them go to waste, like the 50 million apples that are rotting in the fields this autumn (a third of growers of hard fruit, sprouts, cabbages, kale, cauliflowers, broccoli and mushrooms are wringing their hands, because around 30 per cent of the pickers and packers from eastern Europe have stayed away this year and the produce is unharvested). Given the fruit-and-veg crisis looming this Christmas, it felt like a crime to let my quinces fall from the tree and simply mulch down in the damp grass.

When I saw the fruit high on the bough, I also saw the tree had gifted me an opportunity. There is a tradition in the Johnson family to give each other presents we have made ourselves. My older brother makes enormous vats of chutney and damson jam from his own fruit (‘If women can go to work and suffer the curse of ambition,’ he says, ‘then we men are entitled to the restful consolations of jam-making’). My nephews and nieces make sugar mice, fudge, biscuits to present as edible gifts. Even books we have published ourselves in the course of the year are allowable, if not as welcome.

This year, then, I am giving quince paste in Kilner jars or shrink-wrapped sections to everyone. Why not? I have both a free supply of large quinces, and a Thermomix machine which chops, mixes, steams and cooks.

Making membrillo in this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness has left me with a much-needed sense of personal achievement — a win, even — as we leave the EU against what I feel is in this country’s best interests.

I leave you with this recipe for quince marmalade from The Compleat Housewife of 1736. ‘Pare and core a pound of quince, and strain out the juice; to every pound of quince take ten spoonfuls of that juice, and three-quarters of a pound of loaf-sugar; put all into your preserving-pan, cover it close, and let it stew over a gentle fire two hours; when ’tis of an orange-red, uncover and boil it up as fast as you can: when of a good colour, break it as you like it, give it a boil, and pot it up.’

Reader alert: If your farmhouse kitchen does not boast a Thermomix, it’s best to wear protective gloves. ‘You have to book your taxi to A&E before you start making membrillo as it blurps up and rises as it boils,’ the cook Fiona Mates, of Bark Place Kitchen, warns. ‘It’s not possible to make it in a saucepan without suffering at least third-degree burns.’


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