OPPORTUNISM AND PRESERVING: The Cheese Stands Alone
I have been fortunate to have my curiosity and eclectic taste nurtured and expanded by knowledgeable gleaners and by others who have over-abundant orchards. Through them, I have learned to appreciate the merits of two rather obscure and old-fashioned fruits that have become favorites in spite of their problematic characteristics.
The first is the quince, an obstreperous fruit whose aroma and flavor I have been addicted to since childhood. A family friend gave my mother a jar of golden jelly that was made from them. Later, I discovered quince trees on a college campus. Mistaken for apples during their season, the ground would be littered with fruit with one bite taken from each. That is because they are knobby shaped and fuzzy skinned, with an astringent and pithy flesh. However, the perfume of a ripe quince is rich, complex, honeyed and not easily dismissed. This was my first opportunity to discover the secrets of this fruit for myself, as a simple jam. Since then, I have transformed them into jelly, preserves, quince paste, various condiments, liqueur, and have poached them with vanilla beans to be canned for winter desserts.
My research has also taught me about the economy of earlier cooks. They would cook the fleshy parts of the quince into a candy-like paste to be part of the traditional thirteen desserts of Christmas in provincial France. Quince paste is also used to accompany cheese as a dessert course in Spain and Latin America. The skins and cores of the quince, which contain high amounts of pectin, were not discarded. They were boiled in water, with any specimens that were overly small or difficult. The resulting liquid was carefully strained, then cooked with sugar to make an elegant, translucent jelly.
The Damson plum is another fruit that does not give quick satisfaction. For the past several years I have looked forward to the annual phone call from my friends who are expert gardeners and rare-fruit growers. I am the only person of their acquaintance who is interested in their twice yearly over-abundance of this fruit. The fruits are small with tart yellow meat and tough, dusky blue-black, astringent skin. They are highly prized, however, in the British Isles for preserves and a fruit "cheese that is used as a traditional accompaniment to a roasted joint of lamb or mutton.
My curiosity insisted that I investigate them. Damson preserve is specifically extolled for its tart and intense flavor. My first season of making jam with them was a revelation. Their skins, when cooked with the flesh, create deep color and layers of flavor. These attributes are enhanced if the cooked fruit is allowed to sit on its skins overnight before being sieved and made into preserves. The jam was indeed brilliant in color and flavor, and is a favorite of mine.
This season expanded my Damson repertoire to include "Damson cheese." Armed with confidence from years of making quince paste, girded with a vision of thousands of steamy British housewives diligently stirring kettles of Damson in preparation for Royal Jubilee celebrations, and with the advice of my book-teacher, Ms. Grigson, I began my inaugural batch. Fortunately, I have learned from experience to never make a large first batch of anything. The initial attempt was kindly described as "resilient." It could have bounced like a handball! Happily, I learned from my error to cook the preserve gently so as not to develop the pectin to such a high degree. Small squat jars of sturdy Damson now wait in the dark of my pantry for future feasts.
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of these two fruits with such different personalities. The quince's perfumed Mediterranean subtlety and the Damson's vivid brightness will both be companions on my cheese plate as the weather cools
© Elissa Rubin-Mahon 2002