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Magic realism

April 24, 2010

When I was ten years old, I bought my first packet of Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstoppers from the corner shop. Roald Dahl was my favourite author, so of course I had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and by then had probably also seen Gene Wilder’s mildly disturbing interpretation of Willy Wonka, that alchemist and conjurer of confectionery.

Although I can probably be described as possessing a reasonably well-developed intellect, I have always been terribly naïve, and when I popped that first ball of iridescent, sugar-laced, chemically-enhanced goodness into my mouth, I honestly believed that it would last forever. I did not take pause to consider clues indicating anything to the contrary, such as the fact that, as a mass-produced item sold in boxes of 20 or so, consumers worldwide would generally be sucking on more than a few of them. Imagine my disappointment when, alas, it became smaller and smaller, until it was no more!

That day, a little bit of magic disappeared from my world. I’m sure that somewhere a fairy died and a unicorn fell off a rainbow. It was worse than finding out that Santa isn’t real. When you stop and think about it, the idea of Father Christmas is kind of creepy, and you still get presents anyway.

Fortunately, all these years later, my world is still full of magic. It usually appears unexpectedly and at times when I need it most. It takes many forms. Sometimes I suddenly remember the miracles behind the banalities of everyday life: when I flick a switch, the magic of electricity lights the room in a nanosecond! Excuse my language, but that’s pretty fucking amazing, is it not? Sometimes the magic of nature amazes me; a seed which has lay dormant can suddenly be nurtured and spring to life, transforming into a plant which may garnish next Tuesday night’s dinner or become a fig tree which outlives me by hundreds of years. Of course the ‘magic’ of which I speak can be explained rationally and scientifically, but I care not for that. I would rather these things remain mysterious pleasures. I am an atheist and do not know what it is to have a ‘religious experience’; perhaps this is my own version.

It grows from seed

As you can imagine, my favourite kind of magic takes place in the kitchen. This week I have been exploring the, quite considerable, magic of quinces. Indeed, as I write, I am stationed next to the hob keeping a watchful eye over a pot bubbling with future quince-paste. Today however, I wish to share with you a simple recipe for poached quinces, a quintessentially autumnal delight.

Cydonia oblonga

The quince is an ancient fruit which was once surrounded by myth and awe of a different kind, sacred to Aphrodite and Venus, goddesses of love, and a symbol of fertility and happiness. In their raw form, while beautifully aromatic, they are hard, floury and astringent, and not at all to be recommended for eating. When cooked however, over time they transform miraculously in flavour and colour. From a pale, inedible fruit, they slowly become soft, simultaneously sweet and piquant, and the most ravishing shade of deep red, like the finest shiraz. This, to me, is a magical transformation which never fails to delight.

Poached Quinces (based on a recipe from Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion)

6 quinces, washed, peeled and placed in a bowl of water combined with the juice of a lemon to prevent discolouration
2.25 litres of light sugar syrup (2 parts water to 1 part sugar)
1 vanilla bean
juice of 1 lemon
spices to your taste, if desired (I used a stick of cinnamon and star anise)

Preheat oven to 150 degrees. Cut quinces into quarters or sixths. Cut out the cores and tie loosely in a piece of muslin. Return quince slices to the acidulated water as you go, to prevent them from browning. Put sugar syrup in a large enameled cast-iron casserole with other ingredients and muslin bag, then add drained quinces.


Cover tightly and bake in the oven for at least four (and up to eight) hours (mine cooked for about six), until the quince is a deep red. Do not stir or the quinces will break up.


Cool (I left them on the hob overnight). Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the syrup. Eat them on their own, with yoghurt, on muesli, or with ice cream. They keep very well in the fridge. You can do myriad things with the fruit and leftover syrup, but you can discover those things for yourself with the magic of the interwebs.

Breakfast in the garden in Autumn

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2010 17:33

    Absolutely gorgeous – don’t you love Quinces! I picked some up at the Farmers’ Market this morning and will poach them tomorrow for breakfast during the week!

    They look fab!

    • felixexplody permalink*
      April 24, 2010 19:16

      Delicious! Now that they’re becoming available more widely, I wish they’d label the varieties, like apples or pears. Enjoy!

  2. April 24, 2010 17:40

    Oh Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my most favourite book in the world as well. I once stuck some chewing gum behind my ear so I could be just like Violet Beauregarde. Needless to say, I lost a few hairs when I tried to pull it off again. I agree – too often we take for granted all of the magic in the world. Babies and little kids are the best reminders that wow, zippers are amazing!

    I hadn’t really thought of quinces as being magical either, but you’re right, they’re transformation when cooked is pretty special! (ps. lol at the creepy reference re: Santa Claus!)

    • felixexplody permalink*
      April 24, 2010 19:20

      I thought you’d appreciate the Charlie reference Helen (or should I say, Augustus 😉 Your chewing gum story is hilarious! I would take the magic of quinces over Santa any day… 🙂

  3. April 25, 2010 18:31

    Well, you got me at the title! MAGIC REALISM <~ preferred reading genre much enjoyed~! FAVE book of the genre has to be 'Like Water For Chocolate' which translated well into a movie too.

    FOOD well got me on the QUINCES too. Good point on labelling varieties … xx

    • felixexplody permalink*
      April 25, 2010 20:20

      Thanks Becca! One of my favourite genres too, especially the South American stuff like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. My very favourite though is Peter Carey’s early work, you should check it out! xox

  4. andysomething permalink
    May 1, 2010 10:36

    Another great post. I love quinces. My most successful horticultural venture (4 years of study finally paying off) was growing a prolific quince tree from cuttings. It provided beautiful soft pink flowers, lovely waxy yellow fruit and quite a few codling moths, right outside our kitchen window. And it was the envy of our Former Yugoslavian neighbours who had a real Canberra quarter acre block under full production – nothing left untilled. I was so proud when Tomas came and asked for a cutting.

    • felixexplody permalink*
      May 1, 2010 11:20

      What a fantastic story! Well done on your horticultural handywork! Quince trees are just beautiful. My Aunt had a prolific tree in the garden which mysteriously died a year ago and she’s still mourning its loss. (Btw ‘coddling moths’, what a lovely phrase!)

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