Now is the quince season…

With apologies to Rod Liddle, writing in The Spectator!

I am sad that my Quince tree (the produce of which gave me the CABAHS “Best in Show” cup once upon a time!) has not managed to bring a single fruit to maturity this year. Squirrels and the dreaded brown rot have taken all.

Quinces were first grown in England by Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, a man who would have made short work of Nicola Sturgeon. The fruit resembles a degenerate pear — a pear which has made bad choices in its life. Downy and squat. The tree from which it emerges is a delight, especially in early May when fecund with blossom, which is the time that famous perfume begins to emanate. That perfume stays with you — in the fruit bowl, when you are peeling it and, most of all, while it is being cooked.

Like all good food, the quince requires work, time and an appetite for deferred gratification. It is a beast to prepare. Peel and core a quince and you will find a swede can be sliced through like butter in comparison. The flesh of the quince is fibrously obstinate and the core intractable; be careful with that knife. When you have finished peeling and quartering, set the seeds aside in case someone you really don’t like comes over. They are rich in cyanide. Toast them and say to your adversary they are pumpkin seeds..

Anyway, cook those quarters gently. Either poach in a couple of inches of sugared water, a dash of honey and perhaps a strand of thyme in a saucepan on the stove top, or in a bath of the same in the oven. The recipe instructions vary as to how long you should do this — some suggest 40 minutes. Rubbish. You need at least two hours on a low heat. Only then will the quince reveal its magic — the gradual metamorphosis from a wan, pale yellow to a rich crimson, the anthocyanins doing their work. Add another hour or so if you’re making quince cheese from the pulp and then another six to rest, before straining and cooking again with added sugar. It will set just fine due to its natural load of pectin.

I prefer the quartered fruit to still have a little bite; five or six segments and the reserved cooking juice will transform your apple crumble with a gentle tartness. You can purée the red fruit into an accompaniment for duck, or simply serve as they are, with their gloriously red and sticky cooking juice, topped with cream. Either way, hurry: the quince season is nearly at an end.

Kathy

March 2020 – Russell Bowes on ‘Dig For Victory’

As we had quite a small turnout on Monday (understandably!) I thought you might like to know a little about Russell’s great talk. Russell started his talk with some facts, such as that when war broke out in 1939, nearly 80% of Britain’s food was imported. Imports were by ship and German blockades threatened supplies almost immediately.

A “Dig for Victory” campaign was started and people were urged to use any spare land to grow vegetables – this included parks, golf clubs and even the moat at the Tower of London:

Tower of London allotments

The campaign featured lots of posters, this one was interesting because as Russell pointed out, the man is using the wrong foot. In fact the photo was taken using a mannequin’s dummy leg!

Dig for Vic poster

Much of the campaign’s success, which was overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, was thanks to the Royal Horticultural Society’s role in teaching men and women across the country how to grow vegetables year round.

Another way of increasing food production was down to the War Agricultural Executive committees which were formed in Autumn 1939 and given expansive powers over farmers and landowners in the United Kingdom. After performing surveys of rural land in their county, each Committee was given the power to serve orders to farmers “requiring work to be done, or, in cases of default, to take possession of the land”. Committees could decide, on a farmer’s behalf, which crops should be planted in which fields, so as to best increase the production of foodstuffs in their areas.

Russell told us about the Womens Land Army too. This started in WW1 but was re-established shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in June 1939. It was finally disbanded in 1950. At its peak in 1943 over 80,000 women worked as ‘land girls’. They came from a wide range of backgrounds including towns and cities as well as the countryside.

He included lots of anecdotes about how dedicated the girls were, telling a story about one girl who turned up late with plaster in her hair, and asked the farmer not to mark her as late because she got there as soon as she could. Her house had been bombed that night! Another walked miles through waist-high snow to get to her farm and then apologised for being late.

Russell told us that one of the most missed vegetables was the humble onion. As they were nearly all grown in France, there were shortages immediately. One time, the post office received a parcel of onions where the address label was missing, so it went to lost property. They had 38 people turn up to claim it was theirs!

There were children’s campaigns too. Doctor Carrot popularised the myth that carrots could make you see in the dark.

Dr Carrot

We also heard about Cecil Middleton, who was really the first “celebrity gardener” on radio. He broadcast in Britain during the 30’s and 40’s, especially in relation to the “Dig for Victory” campaign. He was very knowledgeable but his programme went out on Sunday afternoons, and he had a soothing voice, so his main claim to fame was that he sent people to sleep after their Sunday lunch!

We thanked Russell for his entertaining talk and asked him to judge the Show Table and call the raffle. (We should really have had a loo roll as a raffle prize..!) It was a good evening, especially as we are going to have a bit of a break in meetings now. Take care everyone, stay well!


Russell Bowes is a freelance garden historian, garden tour guide and researcher.