Michele Roberts finds perfect food for modern lovers

Aphrodite's golden apple, the quince, is the perfect food for modern lovers

Just before I left France, my neighbour Julie invited me to come over and pick some of her quinces. The small, umbrella-shaped tree, full and dropping with heavy yellow pear-like fruit, was as perfect and miniature as an image in a medieval manuscript. I made jam, first boiling the unskinned quinces with orange juice, to soften them, and then reboiling the flesh with sugar. More a puree than jam resulted: pale pink, and nice eaten with a white bread, such as cholla, and butter. Wholemeal bread would overwhelm the delicate taste.

The ancient Greeks held the quince sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The golden apple given by Paris to Aphrodite as top beauty queen was probably a quince. The Greeks developed a robust variety of quinces in Kydonia, Crete, and accordingly called quinces mela (apples) of Kydonia. From this origin derive the French cotignac, Italian cotognata and Greek kidonopasto, along with 17th-century English words such as "quidony" and "quidoniac" (quince paste). The Romans, who also loved the quince, named it melimelum, from the Greek "honey-apple". Spanish membrillo derives from this, and the Portuguese word marmelada.

The Spaniards make quince paste (membrillo) to eat with cheese, because the Arabs in medieval Spain invented these honeyed preserves and passed their recipes down. They were thought to have medicinal properties, varied by adding different spices, in particular as digestive aids. The English version was called chardeqynce (flesh of quinces). Sixteenth- and 17th-century cooks carved the pastes into fancy shapes such as dogs, dolphins and mermaids. The tradition survives in the recipe for Maids of Honour, buxom little tarts employing cushions of quince jelly. Apparently Henry VIII pressed these upon his future mistresses. Poor, foolish girls. If only they'd stuck to nibbling quinces rather than the royal cock!

The Arab recipes continue to flourish. An Algerian dish, torchi, features quinces as hors d'oeuvres: cooked in water, soaked in a water and sugar syrup, finally sprinkled with white wine vinegar and mustard seed. Madame Guinaudeau, in Traditional Moroccan Cooking, describes how in Fez, where fruit tagines are common, a favourite method is to combine stewed mutton with quinces, flavoured with ginger, saffron, honey, cinnamon, orange flower water and sesame seeds.

Once your beloved has cooked you such a quince feast, you will feel very happy, ready to hum along with the "Song of Songs". The apples in this erotic poem were probably quinces. Before cooking them, you have to rub off their down with a cloth. If I were to invent an adjective, I'd say that the hairs on my lover's forearms are quidoniac.