Sunday, 25 October 2009


Quince (aiva in Russian) is a visual hybrid between an apple and a pear; it has a tough pale-yellow skin and an astringent or tart flavour. Following my promise earlier in the blog, this month's pick up from 'Turkit' - my neighbourhood Turkish grocery shop - is this curious little fruit, that is as widely eaten in Turkey (see my travels in Turkish Cappadocia last year, where quince trees are in abundance in the wild, surprisingly similar in taste and look to the cultivated variety sold in shops here), as is in Southern America (made into dulce de membrillo, a paste-like substance often eaten with bread and cheese) and Britain - where it's most commonly cooked into the quince jelly.

I have had the pleasure of encountering this heavy, scented fruit, still on its tree, at Brogdale, the Natural Fruit Collection in Favesham, Kent - one of the largest collection of temperate fruits in-the-world (!). The visit was the first 'field trip' as part of my course in the Anthropology of Food at the University of London - twenty of us travelling to this 'garden of England' (as Kent is often referred to), on a rainy and muggy day, with our little writing pads and big cameras. We wanted to know everything there is to know about The Apple and its siblings - from its origin to its environmental and political story, but the main activity of the day was of course the tasting (in fact, so much and for so many hours, that I was dreaming of apples, pears and quinces later on at night!).

There are over 3000 types of fruit there - just apples come to 2200, but plums, nuts, gooseberries are also in their hundreds. One of the main activities of Brogdale is to collect and conserve the varieties (although the history is tangled and the current situation where the land is privately owned and a number of businesses, rather unrelated to the orchards, are let out on the farm, is rather confusing, making the future of the place quite uncertain...).

Many of the types here are indigenous to the British Isles (such as the omnipresent in supermarkets Cox Orange Pippin and the most popular dessert apple - Russet), but there are many that grow predominately in warmer climates (such as the 'Asian'- very sweet and Russet-looking small apple often grown in Japan, and Decio - an old variety, originated from Italy, pale and delicate, it needs lots of sunshine to be a real contender).

I particularly liked the look of Jonathan:) - apparently, one of the most successful varieties grown in the States. I'm afraid to me this Jonathan tasted a bit too bland and uninspiring - why couldn't they give this name to a big and bouncy, full of flavour and complexity apple I ask!

And the best discovery was a pear from Ukraine - a large and bulbous fruit with intensely lime-y smell and very crisp but juicy flavour. The tree itself is the biggest, the widest, in the collection. Some interesting images pop into mind of broad and steady Ukrainian lads...:)

Despite the fact that the collection is not organic and so the trees are routinely sprayed with chemicals (the fact of which the lovely guide Joan had calmly and openly disclosed - the way that merited a discussion, but not an argument, a rare quality really), I, all of us really, couldn't stop admiring the sheer diversity of the humble apple (and quince, and plum) tree, feeling like small children in a sweet shop, overwhelmed by the choice of colours, shapes, smells and alluring names.

By back to the quince - the tour had started in fact with this tall and leafy tree. The fruit is so under-appreciated in this country apparently that the tree stands outside the main orchard, completely unguarded, all laden with fragrant fruits and looking melancholic under British drizzle. The guide had said firmly that quinces are not be eaten row and that it needs to be shaped into jellies and pastes. I had to disagree! The quinces I had been buying in my 'Turkit' (really not that dissimilar from the ones on display in Kent) were beautiful sliced thinly, to expose the velvety texture of the fruit, the pleasure intensified by the enormity of the quince - one could slowly devour the fruit, a few slivers at a time, several days in a row (as long as one doesn't mind the discolouration caused by air).

I also have a memory of putting dark and syrapy quince jam (pieces of quince almost translucent from the long cooking) onto a warm toast - in Crimea, southern Ukraine, the jam made by my grandmother in chunky three-litre pots. The Crimean climate must be perfect for this hardy fruit - freezing cold in winter and hot and sunny in summer - but strangely I do not recall seeing quinces or its jam since those early days.

I have also stewed sliced quince briefly at home, in a bit of butter, with lots of cinnamon, to be eaten with cold vanilla ice-cream, or - to make use of all the different varieties of apples I picked up walking through Brogdale (above) and to make the tummy of the Englishman warm and happy - cook the chopped quince with sugar and a bit of water to layer the Crumble, the ultimate autumnal pudding...

How do you eat your quince?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The 'Turkit' and its Prickley pears

Something to look forward to, oh my faithful reader. Over the coming months I will be picking a fruit or a vegetable, earlier unknown or undiscovered to me, from my local Turkish/Greek green grocer in Turnpike Lane, North London; bring it home, dissect it, look at it, cook it, probably eat it, and then, hopefully, describe it to you. I am preparing for lots of delights, surprises and god-knows-what-that-is's. I will need your help, your expertise and, on occasion, your sympathy.

The shop in question is a lively, loud, cramped and hectic shop 3 minutes walk from our house. The shop is essentially a green grocer, a glorious collection of fruit and veg, cheeses, cans of the pickled and marinated, breads, olives and spices. Being primarily a source of Mediterranean goodies, it has always been clever in stocking up on produce that would attract other local communities, namely Bangladeshi, Indian and even Polish - hence to me it is a prime example of ingenious business know-how, fuelled by migrant wit and local necessity. There are many other shops on the street that sell similar produce, but this one is the biggest, the noisiest, and, on the surface of it, the most successful.

The shop is owned by a Turkish family, which means you learn people's faces quite quickly here (even if the urban realities prevent you from stopping to say a proper hello to the shop keepers and exchange more than the required politenesses - all excuses of course) and know what service to expect, or not, from a particular member. All are involved - cousins, parents, grandparents and aunties are here at one time or another; and so you see teenage children starting out in the shop to bulk up their pocket money, then young women getting married, raising their children whilst doing short hours behind the till, men of the family doing their manly things of carrying boxes and playing in security guards, and sometimes you spot a photograph on a wall, with a black ribbon across it, a granddad in black-and-white, who has spent most of his life surrounded by this bounty and you saw laying out bunches of mint in neat rows just the other day*..

We call the shop 'Turkit'. Our domestic legend has it that the original name of the shop - Turkish International - slowly metamorphosed into turk. international, then turk. in, and the turkit. In spite of living in the proximity to the shop for five years, I am still to try most of the produce on sale there: amongst the usual boxes of figs, cabbages, parsley, massive sacks of basmati rice, and oblongs of freshly baked Turkish bread, there are curious packs of huge, round, glossy leaves; tiny, mouse-like green vegetables, massive, earth-coloured, potato-looking things, dark rounds strongly smelling of limes - to name just a few. So I have made a decision to pick a fruit or a vegetable, completely randomly, and make something out of it or with it, approximately once a month or so.

And so my fruit of September is a Prickly pear - a cute and gorgeously pale yellow/green/pink fruit, that is only in season a few weeks a year (at least when transported to England). The skin looks soft and subtle and so the subsequent hours spent trying to get rid of numerous splinters in my fingers - all tiny, thin needles that come out of the pear's skin, very similar to a cactus - came as an annoying surprise.

The Prickly pear is a very popular fruit in Greece around this time of the year, and is one of the main nostalgia items for the large population surrounding Green Lanes, and specifically Turkit (so somewhat akin to Russians with our prickly gherkins, see my post on that here).

The similarity with your ordinary pear is only its shape, the flesh inside is a beautiful rose-pink, fleshy and refreshing looking. But biting into the creature was a bit disappointing - lots of soft seeds inside, and the flesh more watery than juicy, the taste, I thought, would suit better to squeezing it into a cold drink, rather than eating it in slices or with a spoon, like I did.

Have you eaten a Prickly pear before? I'm confident that the original Greek fruit found on the sunny islands is a more promising item!

*Obviously, the shop is not as idealic as I describe it, and is a dusty, bitterly cold in winter and stuffy in summer place of work for generations of this family. But you do see people moving on and up from there: it seems to provide a solid basis for some of the 'original' family members and, by being financially successful, an opportunity to study and progress for others, to move beyond the shelf-stocking, weighting and bagging.