I recently discovered the joys of Spanish membrillo, a sweet paste made from quince, sugar and lemon that I found in the cheese section of our local Whole Foods Market. Personally, I prefer to separate my savory courses from my sweet ones, but I recognize that this view is increasingly a minority one. My wife loves her membrillo with cheese, which is the classic pairing: Amazon sells a combination package of membrillo with manchego (see Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler at the end of this blog). Having discovered it, the thing that surprises me is how little discussed membrillo seems to be: I have not been able to find it mentioned in my cheese books, and The Penguin Companion to Food – one of my favorite food dictionaries – only mentions it as part of an entry on quince preserves. Even worse, this mention is somewhat dismissive: “The coarser quince pastes, such as membrillo, are served in Spain with cheese.”
Coarser or not, I find the stuff delicious.
Consistent with its absence from the cheese books and food dictionaries, there is also no entry for membrillo in either of Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s terrific books, their flavor matching guide The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs or their drink pairing book What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers. Again referring to the entries on quince, however, some extremely useful suggestions emerge. First, the Flavor Bible’s entry on quince strongly recommends pairing with cheese – especially goat cheese, manchego, or ricotta – and here quince paste is mentioned as being particularly good. The highest honors are accorded to pairings of quince with apples and pears, and both lemon and sugar are also given high ratings (the other two ingredients listed on the label of the membrillo package sitting in front of me now). Other recommended flavor pairings include both cranberries and hazelnuts, recommendations that are consistent with one of my favorite ways of having membrillo: slathered thickly on Lesley Stowe Raincoast Crisps cranberry and hazelnut crackers (also available from Amazon: see Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler).
The Flavor Bible also lists several drink recommendations for quince, including “liqueurs, nut,” “whiskey,” “wine: red, sweet,” and – a stronger recommendation – “wine, white: e.g., Riesling.” Interestingly, the entry on “quinces” in What to Drink with What You Eat is much shorter and it doesn’t include most of these pairings, although it does have a sub-entry on “paste (e.g., served with cheese),” where late harvest wine is recommended. Following their suggestion on nut liqueurs, I have found that membrillo goes exceptionally well with the Italian walnut liqueur Nocello, and, although I haven’t yet tried it, I am certain the same would be true of the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico. An even more interesting pairing is with St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, a Jamaican-inspired allspice liqueur (see the entry on the Haus Alpenz website for a description). As the label on the bottle notes, allspice is a berry whose flavor combines notes of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, all three of which are recommended pairings with quince in The Flavor Bible. A small glass of this liqueur with a couple of cranberry and hazelnut crackers, each generously spread with membrillo, is an excellent way to end any day.