Nearly every September or October as a kid growing up in New England, I would go apple picking. Sometimes with my parents and sometimes with other kids and their families, we would wait for a crisp fall day to pile into the station wagon and head west to the countryside of Central Massachusetts or occasionally, especially in later years with college friends, to New Hampshire. Hayrides in rickety old farm wagons, warm cider doughnuts, and pickup games of apple baseball were all part of the wholesome, bucolic fun of a day spent in the orchard.
This year in California, I waited and waited for a crisp fall day–the kind that smells of wood burning fires and impending winter–to arrive, but by early November with the temperatures still in the high 80s, I gave up. Despite my nostalgic yearning for New England, always strongest at this time of year, the apples still marched onward, ripening on the trees regardless of the confusing climate. So I did what any good New Englander would do. I went apple picking. But this year I was already in the country, and I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I walked out our front door, through the vines and down to the barn, where Granny Smiths and Fujis awaited.
Though we only have a few, it is a magical experience to pick fruit from your own trees.
Several years ago, during an extended visit with my (soon-to-be at the time) inlaws, my mother-in-law, Chantal, plucked a few fuzzy chartreuse quinces from her pantry for a simple compote. I remembered purchasing a gelée de coing (quince jelly) as a gift from a tiny épicerie fine in Paris during my college years, but I had never tasted the fruit myself.
Quince, which looks like a cross between an apple and a pear, is not a common American household fruit (though it may have been at one time), and if you’ve ever tried to bite into one, you know it’s hard as a rock and far too astringent to be enjoyed raw. But transform it into jelly, candy paste, stewed fruit, or a pie, and you will be surprised at how delicious cooked quince can be.
Chantal likes to add quince to her compote de pommes, or applesauce, to enhance the flavor (and the color, as quince flesh turns a rosy color when cooked). She serves the compote chilled as a simple weeknight dessert, but it’s also delicious with yogurt for breakfast or even to accompany pork chops.
Chantal’s Quince and Apple Compote
1 to 3 ratio of quince to apple (I usually use about 2 quince and 6 apples for a small batch)
3 tbsp sugar (so often I add the sugar as Chantal does, au pif, by eye, and don’t measure, but I air on the scant side, as you don’t want this to be too sweet and you can always add more later if it’s too tart)
Juice and zest of one orange or lemon
1/2 tbsp cinnamon (add more or less to your liking)
Peel, core, and cube quinces and apples into 1 inch chunks. The quince is quite hard to cut through and core, so be careful with your knife. Add fruit, juice, zest, and cinnamon to a large saucepan and cover with 1/2 cup water. Cook covered on low to medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is tender, about 30 minutes. Purée or leave chunky and serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.