Hilarie Stelfox: ‘They dined on mince and slices of quince’
INSPIRED by Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas I have been making preserves for the festive season.
If I expected to impress the Man-in-Charge, or anyone else for that matter, the exercise was, to use the words of Firstborn, “an epic fail.”
The Man regards my forays into preservation with cat-like suspicion.
We still have a couple of pots of courgette chutney and beetroot relish in the fridge from last year, which he studiously avoids, nose wrinkled and whiskers bristling at the mere thought of consuming their contents.
On Monday evening he came home from work to find six jars of what I have grandly called ‘Quince and Apple Marmalade’ on the kitchen worktop – the result of several hours of chopping, boiling and straining (the straining was especially tiresome).
Hours that some might argue would have been better spent doing something else. And I’m not counting the time involved in picking the quinces from the front garden and apples from our neighbour’s tree – I can’t resist food for free.
“It’s lovely. Honest,” I said, in my best sales voice. “It tastes just like orange marmalade.”
But I know that the chances of him tasting it are as remote as one of our cats learning how to open a door for themselves. And that, as it turns out, is perhaps a good thing. The tasting not the opening.
On Tuesday morning I Googled ‘quince’ to find out more about this most ancient of fruit – reputed to be the ‘apple’ in the Garden of Eden.
The first surprise was that the picture illustrating a common species of quince did not resemble the spiky shrub in our garden one iota.
Several searches later and I’d managed to establish that the quince is a member of the apple and pear family and comes in several varieties – none that I could see exactly resembling mine. Which caused me a moment of stabbing doubt.
It also made me to stop to consider exactly why I thought we had a quince shrub in the first place, as I’d certainly never seen one before.
The only thing I knew about the fruit was that it appears in Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat – “They dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.”
The second surprise was that the seeds of the quince contain substances called nitriles.
In the stomach, enzymes and stomach acid cause some of the nitriles to be hydrolyzed and produce HCN (hydrogen cyanide), which is a volatile gas and, as its name suggests, potentially toxic. (Interestingly, nitriles are also a constituent of superglue, a substance that my marmalade bears an uncanny resemblance to in both colour and texture).
“But,” said a colleague who had been consulted because she is keenly horticultural, “did you strain your jam and take the seeds out?”
Much as I would have liked to say that I had painstakingly removed all the seeds, I had to confess that I hadn’t.
The ‘quince’ had revealed themselves to be irritatingly full of ‘pips’ that would have taken forever to remove.
It had proved much easier to throw whole quince into the jam pan, mush them up, and sieve the seeds out at the bottling stage.
Which now means that I have either made a preserve out of some random ‘fruit’ (and we all remember our parents’ warnings about not eating things found in the garden) or that my marmalade is laced with cyanide.
Although, to be fair, Wikipedia does say that the seeds are only toxic if consumed in large quantities and in some countries they are used as a medicine for pneumonia and lung diseases. Kill or cure, perhaps.
And so I have a dilemma. Should I go ahead and put lace doilies around my pots and make gifts of them or should I just tip the whole lot into the compost bucket?
“Give them to people you don’t like,” said another colleague, who had been listening with interest as my tale of quincely woe unfolded.
I’m sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen to Kirstie.