Monday 7 November 2011

Membrillo and the overlooked Quince

Cotan's quince, membrillo
Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, Juán Sanchez Cotán circa 1600, Oil on canvas 69.2 x 85.1 cm. San Diego Museum of Art.
Quince, membrillo
''Koehler's Medicinal-Plants'' 1887
Quince in Chelsea Physic Garden

Fresh quince
Quince jam, membrillo

The quince is a fabled and ancient fruit playing a host of different roles; from original sin in the Garden of Eden - theological interpretations of ancient texts suggest it could have been the quince that tempted Eve as opposed to its much maligned cousin, to its multifarious medicinal properties as a cure for numerous conditions - from pneumonia and lung disease, to colds and coughs.   

Before giving up his studio to become a Carthusian monk, the Spanish Baroque artist, Juán Sanchez Cotán,  painted, amongst other things, still life. His compositions were ascetic and minimal and so rendered his chosen objects with spectacular detail. The relation proposed by Cotán between the viewer and the foodstuffs, so meticulously displayed might be described as anorexic, taking the word in its literal and Greek sense as meaning 'without desire'. Fruit and vegetables are suspended in space, framed by the black void, devoid of human contact and divorced from any notion of appetite or consumption - their value goes beyond that of mere nourishment.

By imbuing the ordinary and the overlooked with such exacting detail, by imbibing foodstuffs with the care and expertise of his craftsmanship, (that at that time was usually only afforded to the megalographic subjects of the court and the divine) Cotán's version of the hyper-real can be seen to 'persuade vision to shed its worldly education'- that is to question what society deems spectacular and consequently what the eye has been trained to ignore and pay attention to the otherwise overlooked.

The quince has now become a relative stranger to the British eye and palate but the subtlety of its delicate flavour once cooked to a rosy amber hue, to produce quince cheese or membrillo, is a perfect foil for strong cheese and cooked meats.  


1.5kg Quinces 
750g Granulated sugar

Core and quarter the quinces – there’s no need to peel them. 
Put them in a large saucepan with just enough water to cover. 
Simmer gently until the flesh is really soft and collapsing. 
Pour the fruit into a blender and puree.
Push the mixture through a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon.
Measure the purée – there should be just under 1 litre. 
Put the purée back in the pan with 450g sugar for every 600ml of purée. 
Heat gently, stirring from time to time to help the sugar dissolve, then bring to the boil and cook gently for 30–40 minutes or until the mixture is so thick that if you scrape a wooden spoon through it, the purée parts and leaves a clean line at the bottom of the pan.
Spread the mixture into lightly oiled dishes or moulds, or pot in clean, sterilised jars. 
The membrillo will set firm as it cools and will keep for up to 6 months in the fridge.

Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, (London, Reaktion, 1990)

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