In my Italian garden we have a profusion of quince trees and the same goes for most of my Salentino neighbours and acquaintances, who are all immensely rich in sour, rock hard and strongly perfumed fruits from fall and onwards. But the low, frugal quince tree provides fruit for all senses and sense for all seasons.
During spring, the quince produces exquisitely shaped flower buds with a delicate pink hue that unfolds into a four petalled flowers resembling dog roses. Over summer, the fruits grow along with a characteristic fragrance that sweetens the surrounding air and tricks you into believing that you have just entered a classic, slightly stuffed tea room steaming with freshly brewed flower teas. The smell is so strong that some people keep a quince in their drawers to scent the clothes. In the fall, the apple or pear shaped fruits develop a hairy fuzz that soften their wax-like skin, and you start hearing the thud thud sound of heavy quinces falling to the ground. And finally, after hours of preparation and showers of sugar the fruits are edible as a kind of mincemeat marmalade known as cotognata.
To judge from the number of jars with homemade cotognata, I am given as a go away present every year, many families have a surplus of quince jam stocked away in their ‘cantina’ basement. Quince trees produce a very high yield, and as always in old peasant cultures natural riches come with an obligation to make the best of what you have been given. It is a pity and a great shame to see a heap of rotting fruit beneath each tree.
Instead most of the fruits are gathered and carried inside, where the housewife peels the hairy skin off the cotogne (and off her hands for that matter), uses all her strength and arm muscles to cut the fruit in smaller pieces, removes the core, the seeds and part of her thumb, and boils the fruit with enough sugar (pound to pound) to make a thick, dark brown pasta. The process takes most of the day and produces a good, natural sleep, even if you cheat and boil the cotogne until soft in order to make them easier to peel and handle. Making cotognata is hard labour rewarded with barrels full of hard marmalade with a somewhat artificial, perfumed taste.
– It is very good with cheese or as marmalade served with bread, the housewifes say, handing over the gifts of cotognata, and their husbands nod in agreement and avert their eyes.
Still, I used to have a jar or two left over at the approach of each new season, unless they were used as a wandering trophy, but those days are over. I have just discovered that cotognata makes perfect pie filling (see the recipe here), so in the future I doubt cotognata presents will be enough to see us through winter. I may even have to resume my own experiments with our Italian garden’s bounty of uncooperative quince fruits.