It was my partner Vincenzo’s great aunt who made cotognata. The youngest of five siblings, all of whom had their own families, it was both her speciality and responsibility. Every autumn, in her kitchen in Gela on the south coast of Sicily, she cooked kilos and kilos of mela cotogna (quince) down to a puree and passed it though a hand-cranked food mill, before bringing it back to a boil with lemon juice and sugar. Once the mixture reached the setting point (a dense, molten state that burped and spat at passing children), it was poured into terracotta or tin moulds and left to set to a firm jelly. Every mould was patterned inside, so, when turned out, the forms had a raised decoration, possibly recognisable as flowers, grapes, swirls or an angel.
Some were dusted with sugar, others not; either way, they were left to dry for a few more days. How cotognata is dried is personal, an everlasting competition the cook has with herself: colour, consistency, how firm, how dry … Some people swear by a sunny table outside, while a cool oven is also an option; Vincenzo’s great aunt used every spare surface in the house for hers.
The quince is an ancient fruit. Part of the rose family, it’s the only member of the genus Cydonia, and native to Iran, Turkey, possibly Greece and the Crimean peninsula. Its tree is small and shrubby, not fussy about where it grows (it loves a ravine), and has many thorny branches. In spring, pale pink and white flowers with ruffled edges are the start of the autumn’s fruit. In Sicily, there are two varieties: the somewhat pear-shaped oblonga and the apple-like vulgaris, both of which are green to begin with, before ripening into a warm, yellow fruit with a fuzzy coat. The smell is warm, too - somewhere between a ripe apple and a pear, with spiced musk. In a 980AD poem, Shafer Ben Utman al-Mushafi suggests quince’s perfume is that of a loved woman, while it has the colour of an impassioned and scrawny lover.
Sugarcane arrived in Sicily with the Arabs in the 900s. In her book about Sicilian food, Mary Taylor Simeti explains that with cane arrived a talent and love for comfits – sugar-coated spices for the chamber. Together with almond paste and candied fruit (quince, pumpkin, citrus), quince comfits established Sicily as a producer of confections, which sweetened courts all over Europe. Production diminished following the extinction of the Arab and Norman dynasties, but the traditions remained, in courts and among ordinary people. After all, quinces grew wild all over the island, and honey or grape must have provided an alternative to sugar.
Quince’s firm and astringent flesh is well-suited to preserving – a good job, seeing as it is barely edible raw – and, together with the skin, has enough pectin to ensure a firm set. As already mentioned, the exact set depends on the maker. I like mine firm but with wobble, somewhere between a thick jam and a wine gum.
Like its Spanish first cousin membrillo, if cotognata is wrapped when stored, it remains softer for longer. Exposed to the air, it hardens. Vincenzo knows this better than me, remembering the portions of his great aunt’s prolific preservation efforts that were given to his grandma. Taken from the cupboard in the living room, an oval in November was still soft and pliable, while by April they were firmer, more like fruit pastilles; by August, they were starting to turn opaque. The quantity was such that certain batches of cotognata might last long enough to meet the next batch, or the next, when they were more like crystals. This is the cotognata that Vincenzo remembers. An oval pushed in his pocket on the way to school, hard but sticky, so collecting whatever was inside – fuzz and fluff, a Sicilian version of my pear drop, or the half-sucked cola bottle that thrilled when found.
While cotognata is by no means just a Christmas thing, the taste, scent, deep colour and the fact that quince is in season do make it feel particularly appropriate at this time of year. It is delicious with cheese and cold meats, or with seed cake. Or given as a gift to be eaten (or stored in the cupboard).
Cotognata, or Sicilian quince paste
Like very thick jam crossed with jelly cubes, cotognata is similar to membrillo, but slightly cloudy. Like membrillo, it sets into a firm paste that can be cut into cubes or slices. Be careful when cooking, because the pulp gets really hot and can spit.
Prep 5 min
Cook 1 hr 20 min+
Set 8 hr+
Makes 1 x 40cm x 30cm baking tray or 8 saucers
Juice of 2 lemons
800g-1.2kg sugar – the amount will depend on the weight of the quince after sieving
Wipe the quince with a damp cloth to rub off any fuzz, but don’t peel them. Quarter, cut away and discard the cores, then cut the flesh into large chunks. Put these in a heavy-based pan with the lemon juice and 200ml water, then cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for about 40 minutes, until the fruit is very soft.
Pass the quince mixture through a food mill until you have a fine pulp. Weigh the pulp and return it to the pan with 800g sugar for every kilo of pulp. Heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then turn up the heat and cook, stirring regularly, for 25-40 minutes, until the paste is thick: when you run a wooden spoon across the base of the pan, it should leave a gap.
Spoon into a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, or into eight moulds or saucers, then leave uncovered in a cool, dry place for at least eight hours until set completely (I give mine 12 hours). Wrap in greaseproof paper and store in a cool, dry place, where it will keep for months.