At the school I often give talks about the history of ‘sweet’ in Italy, and how little there was of it, until very recently. It’s a fascinating discussion, as for so much of human history, if you wanted something sweet, you had to find where nature would hide elevated levels of it, in the food bees created for themselves by gathering flower pollen, in ripe fruit, and in our case in Southern Italy, most often in really ripe grapes. (It’s virtually impossible to understand the history of sweet wine using today’s taste buds -as now, sweetness is everywhere but you don’t have to go very far back to find when it was a rare treat only a few times a year).
For most of European history, sweetness was tied to religious festivals, first pagan and then Christian, and even today most of the desserts we consume here were once- or still are- tied to important church dates. Aside from Sicily, few here in Italy finish daily meals with something sweet.
It simply isn’t done.
If this strikes you as odd, it’s likely because most of what you know about the food of Italy has been driven by restauranteurs outside of Italy, a group whose job it is to sell you more food.
La cotognata, or quince paste, is still a rare treat here in the Salento, mostly eaten in November and December, that is, near quince season, when the autumnal fruit becomes transformed from an inedible, almost wood-like sphere, into a deep, rich and sweet blood-red treat.
And the process couldn’t be easier: You peel, cut and core quinces, a sort of apple-shaped pear of a fruit. Each year we pass out surgical tape in hopes of preventing hot spots on the sides of fingers from all the cutting, which helps a bit but it far from perfect. I’ve made la cotognata for years but I’ve never made it once without a few blisters.
This year we made our quince paste for the year during our new advanced course for returning students, which worked out perfectly. Here, my friend Roberta, a nationally-renowned novelist joins us for the day.
At the castle we have 16 large cauldrons that we use for all our canning projects, this beauty here the ‘size 3’ out of a serious of 7, which is large enough to boil missionaries. Once all the quinces are peeled, cored, cut and tossed into the cauldron, the students head off for their afternoon naps. I stay behind and stir and stir, the paste thickening and oxidizing, moving from a blonde to a red head, just as the afternoon becomes evening.
After about 4 hours, the paste is ready to pour into jars, one of the ways the paste can be preserved. In another hour, its thick enough to pour into moulds and allow to set up, eventually gelling into an almost cheese-like thickness that we cut into squares to eat. Once the sugar level goes up- the percentage of residual water low enough- you no longer need any sort of preservative, either in the form of a jar, or in refrigeration.
We’ll serve ours throughout the year in tiny portions, the energy of the Pugliese summer sun, condensed down into a little succulent morsel, nature once again coaxed into concentrating her beguiling gifts.
To read more about our advanced class for returning students
To our 2013 calendar
To learn more about the castle classes (where we do all our preserving, canning and bottling for the year)