PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am

Quinces are sometimes mistaken for oddly shaped pears or apples, which isn't surprising because the fruits are related.

What is it? Believed to originate from the Middle East, the quince is a hard fruit with tough, slightly rough skin. Ranging from the size of an apple to as large as a grapefruit, the fruit is almost always cooked because it can be unpleasantly astringent when eaten raw. The flesh turns pink when cooked.

How to choose: like pears, quinces are usually sold unripe. It isn't easy to see if the fruit is bruised because blemishes don't appear until they ripen. Store them at room temperature out of direct sunlight until ready to eat. Depending on the variety, the skin will turn from green to yellow or pinkish, or from yellow to golden. Quinces remain firm, even when ripe.

What else? Some people believe the serpent offered a quince - not an apple - to Eve in the story of her and Adam being cast out of the Garden of Eden.

How to use: the fruit is high in pectin, so it's frequently made into preserves. Quince marmalade is a classic: peel the fruit (it isn't easy to do) and remove the seeds and core. Finely shred the fruit, weigh it and add about three-quarters the amount of granulated sugar. Put the fruit and sugar into a pan and add enough water to barely cover. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the fruit is tender and translucent, then continue to cook until it reaches a jam-like consistency (test by spooning some of it onto a chilled plate). Ladle into sterilised jars, then store in the fridge or process in a boiling-water bath. If you prefer a smooth jam rather than chunky marmalade, simmer the peeled, cored quinces in water until tender, then puree with some of the cooking liquid. Add sugar (about three-quarters the weight of the raw fruit) and cook as above. For membrillo (quince paste; sometimes called quince cheese) continue to cook the mixture, stirring constantly over a low heat (it burns easily), until it's a thick paste. Spoon into clean ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and allow to cool, then serve in thin slices with salty cheese such as Manchego.

The fruit - peeled, halved and cored - can be poached until tender in a thick sugar syrup flavoured with a vanilla bean that's been cut in half, lengthwise. Allow the quince halves to cool in the syrup then serve with clotted cream.