Stuff and Nonsense – Edward Lear and the Quince.

In my recent post, The Quince Years, I dwelt on the quince in a quince-less year for me here in ‘a small Welsh city by the sea’.   Since then Claudia Roden’s new book The Food of Spain (Michael Joseph) has made its way into our kitchen library.   Her remark that ‘I adore everything made from quinces’ naturally struck a chord with me, prompting me to look up some old food-related idle thoughts involving Edward Lear which I’ve ‘reblogged’ here – especially as the bicentenary of his birth is now being celebrated in so many places.

Drawing by WN Marstrand of Edward Lear, 1840.

Drawing by WN Marstrand of Edward Lear, 1840. (The Guardian)

Lear is known for his nonsense verse, drawings and limericks; however, his ‘day job’ was as a fine artist.  He initially made his name producing exquisitely bird paintings from life, he then went on to execute enormous landscapes paintings of remote scenery; to which end, this apparently unlikely adventurer travelled extensively in search of suitable subjects.  An endearing but troubled character, much has been written on uneasy life and work (his paintings can seem overly composed, uneventful and ‘sane’ – contrasting with his caricatures that are, for me, rather manic and often disturbing):

Stuff and Nonsense.

‘Never give a sucker an even break’ laughed Hercules as he duped the giant Atlas into undertaking one of his twelve labours for him; what is more stealing the Golden Apples of the Hesperides was an audacious task.  From the Western orchard their reflection set up the luminous sky at sunset.  ‘Golden Delicious’ would seem to be a likely variety, by its name and colour if not much else, but were these lustrous fruit apples at all?  Like Adam and Eve’s temptation and other legendary apples of the Mediterranean it has been suggested that what we might be talking about is quince, a close relation to apples and pears.  

As a child, I first came across quince in Edward Lear’s much-loved nonsense poem ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ (published 1871) long before I met one in the flesh.  ‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince’, it all seemed good nonsense to me. Touchingly pretty, but pretty incongruent.  My first real quinces were a disappointment, a glowing skin on the surface, but the interior was brown with all the diseases ‘that flesh is heir to’.  Not an uncommon occurrence in our climate, it seems. 

Then I came across carne de membrillo – the meat of the quince.   Lying in slabs, it form part of a display of preserved fruit of medieval gaudiness in La Boqueria market in Barcelona.  The quince ‘cheese’ had a dark rosy hue and the rather gritty texture of the fruit – boiled, sugared and boiled again it is then air-dried until it can be sliced like Cheddar.  Acting on a tip, I cut some onto a juicy pork chop as a sort of deep-flavoured, and rather solid, apple sauce.  It was outstanding. 

Quince’s role as an accompaniment to meat started the unlubricated cogs of my mind working – I had an impression that I first saw the preserve standing on the counter of a Spanish butcher’s stall; rather incongruent I thought.  Was I in danger here of perhaps making some sense of Edward Lear’s nonsense?  I looked up his potted biography and found; Edward Lear – artist, writer and extensive traveller in the Near East, the Levant, Egypt among many other far-flung places.  His long-standing servant and cook, Giorgio, exclaimed on arriving at the ‘rose-red’ ruins of Petra, ‘we have come into a world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry powder and salmon’.  These were actually the lands of quince/mince combination.  A quince might be hollowed out and filled with a mixture of mince and split yellow peas flavoured with cinnamon and onion.

If he did have this Arabian conjunction in mind maybe it wasn’t exactly to his taste, in other words it was nonsense to him.  But, if I catch a fine quince this season I will try it out, as well as a few other things – the infusion of quince is credited to improve everything from apple pie to chicken stock. In his three nonsense recipes Lear makes playful fun of domestic cookery publications of his time, of which Mrs. Beeton was the leading light.  I will resist his instruction to cover my dish with four gallons of ‘crumbobblious sauce’, but, being an impatient sort of cook, I may well fall for his most desperate serving suggestion, ‘serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible’. 

Some years after I wrote this we took a memorable holiday travelling between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas through what is now Albania, Macedonia and Greece.   At the time I had no idea that we were performing largely the same journey, but in reverse, that Edward Lear took in 1848 in an effort to escape Salonica (now Thessaloniki), whose port was closed due to a cholera outbreak.  This region was then part of the Ottoman Empire and one telling structure from this time was a clock tower overlooking the market of Ohrid; a historic town by a beautiful inland lake of that name, that was some way beyond the halfway mark of Lear’s journey. The clock was there to remind the busy population of the time for prayers and it still looks over stalls offering gleaming trays of quince, and also the local lake trout whose quality Lear noted were ‘surpassingly fine’ (see pic below).

Edward Lear, Akhrida (Ohrid), Sketch 1848.

Edward Lear, Akhrida (Ohrid), sketch 1848.

A tray of quinces, Ohrid market, Macedonia. Photo: Mr. Edible.

A tray of quinces, Ohrid market, Macedonia (2009). Photo: Mr. Edible.

Lake Orhid Trout 2009. Photo: Mr. Edible.

‘…a rural dinner of excellent cold fish (the trout of the Lake of Akhridha [Ohrid] are surpassingly fine) …’ ,  Lear’s Balkan Journal, 23rd Sept. 1848. – Lake Orhid trout on offer at Orhid market, 2009. Photo: Mr. Edible.

UPDATE 26 Oct 2012:

BBC News website;

David Attenborough’s collection of Edward Lear’s ornithological prints.

Edward Lear

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2 thoughts on “Stuff and Nonsense – Edward Lear and the Quince.

  1. The standard of my writing is very fitful. I enjoy following your bee odyssey. I wondered if the Manor would host the Labour Party conference next year after the One Nation speech of Ed Milliband! I’d been aware of the link between the house and the man as by complete co-incidence I have the 1881 Illustrated London News covering Disraeli’s funeral, a report covering many pages and lots of ‘illustrations’.

  2. My feeble bit about bees and literature definitely needs improvement after reading this piece from you. I try to expand the references but my mind either goes back to Winnie the Pooh who thought the only reason there were bees were to supply him with honey, or Benjamin Disraeli who I have yet to prove kept bees, but said ‘The nation, in a state of anarchy and dissolution, then becomes a people; and after experiencing all the consequent misery, like a company of bees spoiled of their
    queen and rifled of their hive, they set to again and establish themselves into a society’. I am a volunteer with the bee project at Hughenden Manor, Disraeli’s erstwhile home.

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