Queso (in this case an artisan Grimbester from the Orkney Islands)
and Membrillo (Spanish Quince Paste)
My Spanish host mother Clari was one of the most enigmatic women I've ever known. Small, dark and rotund, with piercing coal-black eyes and an encroaching colony of facial hair, she was - despite the purplish shade of hair dye she used (which seemed to be de rigeur among brunettes the year I was there) - no shrinking violet. She could in fact be fiercely intimidating, the gruffness in her voice accentuated by decades of smoking Lucky Strikes, her orders taking on a military severity as she barked them to her wayward children. Her emotions were hidden behind a hard-as-nails exterior, occasionally belied by a softness of voice but never expressed overtly to either her spouse or children. It was quite disconcerting to a household newcomer like me, but everyone else seemed to take it in stride. It was with great surprise, then, that after living with her for a short time I discovered that not only did an unguarded back door to her affections exist, but that finding it was as easy as picking up a fork.
Within my first week of living there, I had figured out how things worked in Clari's household. She cooked, people ate. There was no discussion about what was for dinner, no special requests taken or pickiness tolerated. Whether she produced a pot of beans or a perfectly baked fish, her family was expected to eat and be grateful. The problem was that they never were. "Why can't we ever have Telepizza?" my two younger host siblings would complain daily. "Why do you need to use so much garlic?", my older host sister would chime in, pedantically redirecting the crispy fried slices to the rim of her plate. "I think you used too much salt this time," my host father would mumble, pouring himself more wine. Clari would just sigh deeply, shrug her shoulders, and turn to me. "Would you like more Melissa?"
Of course I did. Her food was incredible, cooked as much by instinct as by experience, and somehow she always managed to take the best part of an ingredient and turn it into a better, more exciting version of itself. Simple vegetables had me practically licking my plate; lentils found their way into my dreams. I don't know why her own children insisted on drooling over pizza commercials, but in my limited culinary experience this ranked up there with the food of the gods. And this isn't even taking dessert into account.
Although we had dessert every day there were usually only three options: yogurt, fruit, and nuts that you had to crack open yourself. Every once in a while there would be something special - a bar of chocolate, containers of sugary Petit Suisse, homemade vanilla custard, or less popular with my siblings, a wedge of pungent sheep's milk cheese and a slice of something called membrillo. I'll never forget the day Clari brought the cheese and membrillo out the first time and smiled at my quizzical look. "This is something very typical of our region," she said, "it's cheese made with sheep and goat's milk, which we like to eat with dulce de membrillo." "Dulce de what?" I asked. Membrillo, she explained to me, was a fruit something like an apple or a pear, but very hard - you could only eat it cooked, and when it was cooked with sugar to a firm paste it was called dulce. I shrugged - I had no idea what fruit she was talking about, and even after pausing to find the translation 'quince' in the dictionary, I was still just as clueless.
She cut me a thick, ruby-red slice from the long slab of membrillo, and asked what kind of cheese I wanted with it. She had two, neither identified by name but just by type of milk and age, both having been cut from large rind-washed wheels. The kids were already reaching for the one marked tierno, a young cheese possessing a supple, creamy texture and mild but somewhat unremarkable flavor. "I'll take that one," I said, pointing to the other, a cracked, golden wedge surrounded by wrinkled green rind, its pungent scent of sheep, wet floors and hay reaching me clear across the table. She exchanged quick glances with her husband before carving me off a wedge. "This is my favorite," she said quietly, "but I don't know if you'll like it. It's very strong." My older host sister shivered, and turned her gaze away.
Clari showed me how to layer slices of membrillo and cheese of equal thickness together. "You could eat it on bread, but I think it masks the flavor", she told me. With everybody's eyes following, I took a bite. I must have chewed thoughtfully, savoring the contrasts in texture and flavor and marvelling at how floral and fruity the membrillo was and how perfectly it subdued the salty, full-frontal-assault of the cheese. I don't remember that though, I only remember it being gone, and requesting another slice of each. And another. And being vaguely aware of the corners of Clari's mouth turning up again and again, every time I did. It wasn't just good - it was revelatory.
From that day forward, there was always queso and membrillo in the house. After lunch, Clari would impatiently ask "what do you kids want for dessert?", there would be various calls for chocolate or Petit Suisse, neither of which she seemed to buy anymore. My host siblings would grumpily concede to a yogurt or an orange, at which point she would turn to me and say "and for you, Melissa, queso and membrillo?". Upon seeing my nod, her expression would soften and get a little wistful, and everybody at the table would wonder what kind of a spell I had worked on her to always get what I wanted for dessert. Somehow I could never bring myself to tell them just how easy it had been.
Dulce de Membrillo
Source: The Basque Table by Teresa Barrenechea
Notes: Dulce de membrillo is eaten all over Spain, usually served in restaurants with Manchego cheese and eaten either as a tapa or as dessert. In Portugal they make something identical which they call marmelada. It's becoming increasingly available in the rest of the world, usually packed in small shelf-stable plastic containers, but honestly nothing beats it fresh. And it's so easy! Also, if you're lucky enough to be in possession of a large number of quinces, there have been a deluge of beautiful quince recipes posted around the blogosphere in recent weeks that look absolutely delicious.
Special equipment: a scale
4 large quinces
Wash the quinces, but do not peel them. Put them into a large pan, and add enough water to cover them by 1 inch. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook the quinces for about 40 minutes, until they begin to crack. With a slotted spoon, remove the quinces from the pan, and set them aside to cool.
When the quinces are cool enough to handle, peel them, and remove and discard the seeds. Weigh the peeled and seeded quinces, and then pass them through a food mill or process in a food processor until smooth.
Transfer the quinces to a saucepan, and add the same weight of sugar as fruit. Stir well, and cook the mixture over very low heat for about 1 hour, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the mixture turns red and very sticky, and there is no visible liquid left.
Transfer it to a shallow container (a loaf pan works well for this), and let it cool uncovered. Cut it up when it has solidified, and serve it with slices of pungent cheese. It will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to two months.