Years ago my mother was visiting an acquaintance in Costa Rica when she noticed that grapefruit by the basketloads had fallen from a tree in his yard and were rotting on the ground. Try as she might, she could not interest him in the idea of eating one.
Perhaps some Spanish or Portuguese people passed by my house over the years and thought the same thing when they saw the quinces that had fallen off my tree. I used to chuck them into the woods.
But I have learned better. I have learned to make dulce de membrillo from the quinces that used to go to waste.
I discovered membrillo this past spring, in a lovely hotel in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where it was served for breakfast with fruit, cheese, bread and cafe con leche. Later, I talked to a colleague and her sister, who come from a Portuguese family, and they call the same confection mermalada. In English, it’s called quince paste.
This year, for the first time, Mom and I made some. I even ordered some Galician cheese to serve with it on Mom’s birthday. And for the past few weeks all my breakfasts have consisted of pieces of wheat toast topped with a slice of membrillo and a slice of cheese. With cafe con leche, of course.
If you’ve never met a quince, it is a hard, sour fruit that is usually shaped sort of like a pear or an apple. Quince paste is made by cutting the quinces in half, boiling them, grinding them through a food mill, boiling the puree with sugar and setting it in a mold. It comes out like a very thick jam that, if you leave it to dry, can be sliced.
As I write this, I’m checking on a batch of quince jelly, the only other use I’ve ever found for quinces. But mi corazon, that belongs to the membrillo now.