Fruit cheeses – a peculiarly British amnesia

This is a short one,  mainly because I wrote about quince cheese last year, (the very first post) so there’s not a lot more to say.  Fruit cheeses are a super thick jam – so thick, that you can cut them, just like cheese.  Although packed with sugar, they should also retain a puckering tartness. 

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Quick recipe

Equal weights of jam sugar to cooked fruit pulp and lemon juice.  

Simmer until it’s a roiling, suppurating , molten, burn-inflicting mass and when you pull a wooden spoon through it, the pulp momentarily remains parted, like the Red Sea, just before it engulfed the pharaoh’s army.

Decant into chosen containers (saucers, cake tins, old molds from Sicily) and leave to set.

It keeps for ever, if kept somewhere dry and airtight.

Eat with real cheese and pickles

Last year, when I made the cotognata (Italian quince cheese) with mended moulds, saved from the bin, despite the best, foot-stamping efforts of TNT, I was talking with J about the long and broad tradition of British fruit cheeses, and we both started collecting recipes.  Whilst Sicily has it’s cotognata, and mustarda (not the spicy mustard version, but the heady, sweet, sweet grape juice one that Mary Taylor Simeti writes about), in Britain we quietly made the setting of fruit into hard jellies an under-the-radar national treasure.  

Perhaps it’s our tougher climate, but we do have a lot of pectin-rich fruit in our trees and hedgerows.  And pectin is what turns fruit and sugar into something stiff, set and jewel-like.  I’ve also just read that it can slightly reduce your cholesterol levels.  What’s not to like?

So with this trove of recipes, gleaned from pre and post war women, foraging their way out of poverty and rationing, I decided to assemble my own array of forgotten cheeses.  Quince cheese is still probably the one more people have heard of – although they’ll probably call it membrillo if they have heard of it, perhaps thinking that only the Spanish ever thought to make it.  But I wanted to celebrate the diversity of Britain’s own food heritage, whilst appropriating the charm and twee religiosity of the Sicilian moulds.

Over three months, around Birmingham, I squirrelled out rosehips, medlars, crabapples, damsons and quinces.  And bought some greengages.  Then applying the magic formula above, made my jewels.  The only variation is with the medlar cheese, which frankly, just tastes like earthy sweetness.  So, added cinnamon and allspice were used to jazz up its sturdy brownity.

To finish though – I’ve been set a task – a 17th century recipe for Queen Henrietta Maria’s Marmalade of Cherries – dug from the inestimably excellent ‘Good Things of England’, Florence White’s treasure trove of English food. We’ll see if it’s a recipe that was good enough to console her in her unfortunate widowhood.  J has dropped a big hint that there’s plenty of time to make it before Christmas, and I have a freezer drawer stuffed with the necessaries.  

Also, next year, I plan to make some suitably British moulds, to sit alongside the culturally appropriated Sicilian ones.  Fruit cheeses with images of medieval popes on them are all well and good, but they tend to upset the CofE contingent amongst my friends and relations.  I’ll see if I can fashion a passable St George or perhaps the head of Charles 1, although I doubt Henrietta would approve of the later.

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