I owe a debt of gratitude for my love of autumn to Sr. Mary Theophane, the nun who taught me most school subjects in years 8, 9 and 10, way back in the mists of time during the early 1950s.
Fanny, as we girls called her behind her back, was a woman who could turn her hand to teaching any subject that her superiors nominated. From my first day in her classroom as a twelve-year-old, I adored her. In the next three decisive years I absorbed the knowledge, attitudes and skills that she bestowed generously on her students. At the same time she encouraged me question everything and to think for myself.
Not everyone had the same rich experience of being taught by nuns as I did, but the sisters were good to me and for me. Sr. Theophane and the others were quintessential feminists. They imparted an understanding that women can do anything to which they set their minds.
Although the subject of John Keats’s romantic ‘Ode to Autumn’ bears little resemblance to an autumn in Perth, Western Australia, each year at this time I revisit the poem and the warm memories it evokes of my dear teacher, with her love of language and her enthusiasm (one of many) for poetry.
Autumn in Perth has few distinct markers. There are seldom mists here, and mellow fruitfulness appears a bit thin. Instead, in this city, we know it’s autumn when, after months of the searing heat of summer, one morning we sense it’s time to put a blanket on the bed; the day-time temperatures have dropped below the 30 degree Celsius mark; the roses that have been quiet in the heat of summer are blooming voluptuously again; in the shops, new season apples are crisp and even a little tart.
One of my own special markers of autumn is that, if you know where to find them, quinces appear. Until the last few years, they haven’t been readily available in the shops. In my childhood, there was a quince tree in our garden and my mother picked the fruit and made ruby-red jelly, and we ate stewed quinces until we were bored with them. Years later, I used to visit a quince and apple orchard in Dwellingup, where I often camped by the Murray River with my children and, later, grandchildren.
This week, a stack of quinces at $4.99 a kilo confronted me in a local fruit shop. Surely that was too good to be true? I bought five, not sure what I’d do with them. Make jam, I thought, my mother’s jelly, perhaps. Or I’d simply stew them. The idea of making jam appealed to my housewifely heart, but the jars of marmalade (two varieties) from last winter still sit in the pantry, and we’ve hardly touched the green tomato chutney created from a glut of tomatoes that didn’t seem to ripen. It turned out later that they were Green Zebra variety that we’d planted by accident. They would have been perfect in salads in spite of their odd appearance.
Idling at the computer (as I often do) I checked for stewed quince recipes in case my old, well-tested one had been superseded, and found David Lebovitz’s site, living the sweet life in Paris with, among many other lovely posts, his recipes not only for rosy poached quinces that judging by the photographs lived up to their name, but also for a quince tarte tatin. The poached quince recipe sounded fabulous and I was keen to try the tarte, too.
But there was a problem. My arthritic right hand, the one the physiotherapist has been working on in an attempt to redefine its claw-like shape, refused to hold a knife that would do the job of cutting and coring the fruit, and the hard knobbly fruit resisted all my attempts. In the end I had to call in some big guns. The man of the house was happy to oblige, and cheerfully hacked away at the fruit until I was satisfied. Even though his hands are older than mine, they seem to work better these days.
The result of our labours was not exactly what I expected. I followed the French rosy-poached-quince recipe implicitly, adding honey and lemon and wine, but they ended up looking little like the finished fruit in the recipe. Instead, mine were cooked until some bits disintegrated; and the liquid didn’t reduce as it was supposed to. In spite of how they looked, they tasted delicious.
It is still autumn, and there are still quinces in the shops. Perhaps this week I will make some jam after all – and we can eat the chilled fruit later in the day, coated in the thick red jelly as I remember from my mother’s simple recipe – and other years.
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