Waste Not, Want Not: The Art of Foraging
In France, the ambrosial fruit known as coing, or quince, is usually transformed into jelly or fruit paste. But getting at that wonderful taste takes a little work, and sometimes just finding quinces can be a challenge. In the French countryside, quinces are there for the taking. Or are they?
If you’ve never tried a quince, you’re missing out on this kissing cousin of pears and apples. In fact, a quince looks much like a big, lumpy pear. So even though quinces require a bit of elbow grease (huile de coude), a simple poach in a light sugar syrup transforms the humble quince into a succulent, almost intoxicating, substance.
Ripe for the kicking
Cheese shops here in Paris often sell pâte de fruit, a fruit paste or bar, dense with quince flavor. The paste is wonderful served alongside a piece of Comté cheese. You’ll find quinces in Paris at most markets in the fall and winter, including the Marché d’Aligre, where I offer market tours. But clever foragers in the French countryside never pay for their quinces – they find them.
Known as glaneurs or grapilleurs, those who pick up potatoes or apples along their country stroll are ripe for the kicking! Since many landowners get angry at the wily walkers who take their vegetables and fruit (even the pieces lying on the ground, detached from the plant), the landowners consider them as chapardeurs, or petty thieves.
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But if the fruit is just going to rot on the ground, isn’t it better that someone takes it? When I lived in the western Loire Valley, there seemed to be a lot of informal rules about taking fruit. Some locals told me that if the branch of a fruit tree hangs over onto a public road, like these plums (right), we’re even allowed to pick the fruit from it – but only from that overhanging branch.
Quinces are the exception. Some people told me that a quince, even on the ground, was interdit, or forbidden, to take. But I learned later that glanage and grapillage are actually protected by French law – so the forbidden fruit, as it were, is often completely legal in the French countryside.
Cozy up to Mother Nature
According to article 673 of the French civil code, we’re not allowed to pick any fruit from a tree or pick up any vegetables from a field until after the harvest is over. But once the rest of the crop has been taken away, it’s open season on gleaning.
With so much emphasis placed on reducing food waste nowadays – such as with this French law banning supermarkets from throwing away food – why not take advantage of what nature offers? Hunting for mushrooms, gathering elderberries and blackberries, or picking up walnuts: these are all legal activities of course, and finding food in the wild is a gratifying task because it lets us cozy up to Mother Nature.
But is free food taboo? According to Fruimalin (“clever fruit”), organized gleaning is a way to help with crop rotation in the countryside and provides employment. But what if you’re a city-dweller?
Many years ago, a friend of mine practiced gleaning after the Raspail organic market here in Paris, where prices were prohibitively expensive. Today’s glaneurs – in the city, we’d call them urban foragers – are not quite what we see in Jean-François Millet’s 1867 painting Gleaners (on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris).
I’ll admit that I’ve taken advantage many times of what I call “pre-gleaning”: when the market is coming to an end, merchants tend to bradent, or discount, their items. And then after the market is officially over, I see urban foragers, as they’re known, pick up and sort through over-ripe fruit that is too fragile to take back to the farm.
In 2010, France formalized urban foraging in Lille, and the movement has grown: there are now official “Gleaner’s Tents” set up in marketplaces all over France! Their motto? “If you throw it away, it’s thrown away. If you give it away, it’s eaten.” Okay, maybe that doesn’t translate too well, so here’s the French:
The Gleaners and I
Agnès Varda, who died in 2019, was a New Wave filmmaker who and also made a documentary about modern-day foragers: The Gleaners and I follows farmers, retirees, and both salaried and unemployed workers, anywhere they might glean: in the countryside, of course, but also near the ocean or even in cities. Gleaners, urban foragers, déchétariens (trashitarians), freegans – they’re all, if you’ll pardon the expression, ready to pick up where conventional food distribution has left off.
Quinces are just about as fussy as the owners of the trees they grow on. Quinces can’t be eaten raw, and they’re hard and almost uninviting, with a wood-like pith around the seeds. So you’ll need to be armed with patience (and a sharp peeler) to peel them, and the juice can stain your clothes, so make sure to wear a good apron!
To soften quince and more easily dig out the hard pith around the seeds, the fruit must be poached in a light sugar syrup before it goes into the oven topped with the delicious crumble mixture you’ll be making.
And the poaching by-product is delicious: while you’re cooking it down, the quince-infused syrup will fill your home with the most delicious odor, and will probably drive your family members crazy with impatience to eat the crumble. Even though it’s not part of the recipe, once reduced, the syrup is delicious for serving over ice cream, plain yogurt, or your morning oatmeal.
- 5 cups (1.2 liters) water
- 1½ cups (300 g) sugar
- 2-3 large quince (about 2.2 pounds or 1 kg)
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) butter (for the baking dish)
for the crumble topping:
- scant ⅓ cup (70 g) raw sugar
- ½ cup (50 g) almond flour
- 2 tablespoons (15 g) flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- 1 pinch fine sea salt
- 4½ tablespoons (60 g) very cold butter, cut into smallish cubes
how to make it:
- In a medium to large pot, bring to the boil the water and sugar.
- Using a very sturdy peeler, and protecting your clothes with an apron, peel the quince. Cut each into 8 pieces. Don’t worry about the seeds and white pith around them for the moment – they can go right into the pot with the pieces of fruit.
- Once the sugar syrup is boiling, add the quince and bring back to the boil. Let the pieces simmer gently for about 30 minutes, or until a knife poked into a piece meets just a little bit of resistance. Stir the quince pieces from time to time to make sure all the fruit is cooked evenly. The pieces should begin turning a beautiful pink color.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove the fruit from the syrup and let it drain in a colander. If you want to save the syrup for another use, which I recommend (see above), strain it through a fine-mesh strainer and then let it cook down over low heat, reducing it to a thick syrup.
- Once the quince pieces have cooled, use a small paring knife or even a sharp-edged spoon to dig out any remaining seeds. Remove the white pith, or any other part of the quince’s insides that are hard. Run your finger along the inner edges to check for tough areas, and then cut them away. Cut each piece into 4 smaller pieces.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). To make the crumble mixture, combine the raw sugar, almond flour, flour, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine and then add the cold butter. With your hands, rub the ingredients together quickly until the mixture looks like very coarse breadcrumbs.
- Butter a 7 x 11-inch (18 x 28cm) glass baking dish, or any attractive, similar-sized oven-proof dish. Spread the quince pieces in the bottom of the dish, and top with the crumble mixture. Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and bubbly. Remove the dish from the oven and let it cool for about 10 minutes. Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of crème fraiche if you like. Bon app’!
serves 4-6; recipe may be doubled if you’re serving a large family or friends!