“There is no fruit growing in the land that is of so many excellent uses...serving as well to make many dishes...and much more for their physical virtues.” John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, 1629 .
There's a quince in the kitchen, it's plump curvaceous, cherub of a fruit, marks the start of frosty mornings at our farm in La Valle, WI. This lovely fruit marks the end of our CSA season, tucked in the last share box next to the butternnut and onions, its slow sweet ripening on the counter diffusing hints of flowers in the kitchen, reminding us of season's past. We encourage our members and fruit friends to let its presence and scent linger. Then when you catch a nostalgic scent of springs past, cut and simmer quince with your apples for a hearty sauce, or enjoy solo, slighlty poached and drizzled with honey-invoking the spirit of Aphrodite and Venus – honoring the culinary traditions from Apicius to your Grandma's orchard, and marveling at how such an ancient fruit has been overlooked in today's kitchen.
Quince are one of those old time fruits, rarely seen in the markets of North America today. Having lost popularity due to no fault of their own, it's hard to believe that they occupied an important place in the kitchens and gardens of almost every rural home at the beginning of the 20th century. Prized for jelly and added to many cooked foods and meat dishes, quince has a high pectin content and is not commonly thought of for fresh fruit consumption.
At our farm, we stumbled across quince through a conversation with another local farmer, Dale Secher with Carandale Farm, who was trialing different 'unusual fruits' for taste and grower friendliness at his Wisconsin farm. Inspired by it's potential in the kitchen and as a grower friendly addition to our farm's fruit guilds, we started growing quince in 2010 and this season have celebrated our first substantial harvest. I have observed through the growing seasons that quince also fills a unique niche in our one acre orchard ecosystem. It's soft pink blossoms are the last to bloom in our spring fruit succession. This means it misses the 'ice days of mid-May' prone to Wisconsin springs and offers an extended menu of nectar and pollen for our honeybees before the onset of June perennial flowers and herbs. On the back-end of the season, quince patiently await harvest after all the apples have been picked and take their sweet time to ripen off the tree. In the summer months the curculios and codling moths that challenge the organic apple grower tend to stay clear of quince, though admittedly we have yet to curtail the opportunistic Japanese beetles, which seem to defoliate most any broadleaf in sight. While it's comfort zone is USDA hardiness zone 5, with fruits you can play with microclimates and we find that quince do well on the SW facing slopes of our orchard ecosystem where there is full sun, good airflow and fertile soils at the edge of Wisconsin's Driftless Region. I've begun to admire quince as being the leverage fruit, bringing out the best in other fruits in the kitchen and mutually supportive and tolerant of other fruits and flowers we have interplanted in our farm.
Botanically speaking, quince are part of the Rosaceae family (most fruit trees including apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and apricots are in this family). Quince is the only plant in the genus Cydonia. Indeed, the botanical name Cydonia oblonga, refers to the ancient town of Cydonia on the Greek island of Crete, where the fruit was revered as a love gift from Aphrodite. The trees were thought to emerge from the forests wherever Aphrodite stepped when she was born from the foaming sea, thus linking the fruits with love and fertility. Mythology aside, quince is native to the foothills of the Caucausus mountains of Iran and Turkey and was later introduced to Greece, Italy, Poland, and the Balkan region of Eastern Europe. Historically, cultivation of quince may have preceded apple culture, and many references translated to "apple", such as the fruit in Song of Solomon, may have been to a quince. In researching some of the customs, I always love coming across old text and language, such as you might read in a curious book The Praise of Musicke: “I come to marriages, wherein as our ancstors did fondly and with a kind of doating, maintaine many rites andceremonies, some whereof were either shadowes or abodements of a pleasant life to come, as the eating of a Quince Peare to be a preparative of sweet and delightful days between the married persons.”
In Plutarch's Lives, Solon is said to have decreed that "bride and bridegroom shall be shut into a chamber, and eat a quince together."When a baby is born in the Balkans, a quince tree is planted as a symbol of fertility, love and life. It is no wonder quince is called the love apple and was a quintessential part of any wedding ceremony. This custom continued through the Middle Ages and even survived into Victorian domestic life in England
In the kitchen as in the orchard (and maybe even the bedroom), quince brings out the best in other fruits. Aromatnaya, the variety that we grow, has a reputation for being deliciously sweet eaten fresh as well as an excellent choice cooked and sweetened, often used in preserves due to its high pectin content. The strong fruit perfume of quince enhances the flavor of apple pies, sauces, and other jams. The term marmalade originally meaning a quince jam, derives from marmelo the Portuguese word for the fruit.
Apicius, Rome's first cookbook author, first century CE, preserved whole quinces with their stems and leaves attached in a bath of honey diluted with defrutum, a newly prepared wine that is spiced and reduced by boiling. Another quince dish prepared by Apicius, Patina de Cydoniis, combines them with leeks, honey, and broth in hot oil. Let's imagine ourselves picknicking in at the foothills of the Caucasus mountains of Iran or in Cydonia. A quince in your basket and in your kitchen would be part of every meal. I confess, I had a hard time finding 2500 year old recipes from Persia, but I did find a few modern middle eastern quince stew recipes.
Perhaps our modern American palettes are more predictable, though I blame it on the British, who adulterated quince with sugar when it first made its way to England in 1275 when Edward 1 ordered that quince trees be planted at the Tower of London. Quince paste, known in the 17th and 18th century as quiddany or cotoniack, traditionally was likely made from both quinces and pears (or peaches) and thickened with eggs, destined for immediate consumption. What is fascinating and beautiful is the artwork around quince pastes. Imagine the end result if Michealangelo sculpted a jello mold. They would be garnished and carved into the shape of stags, or reflect the coat of arms seal of royalty such as Phillip V of Spain. You can see these various quince coat of arms on the website historicalfruits.com
I'm a pretty practical Midwestern farmer, though maybe in the winter months I can carve a Paste of Genoa (aka quince and peach paste) in the shape of a rosette or the Tudor seal when I have more time on my hand. There are lots of variations on Quince paste, including the Spanish membrillo, a quince paste commonly served alongside Manchego cheese, and it was fun to read different recipes. This one from a 1707 recipe listed in the Whole Duty of a Woman: London, I think is the base for the modern Quince paste.
Boil your Quinces in water, sweetened with sugar, till they be soft, then skin them and take out the cores; after that boil the water with a little more sugar, cloves, cinnamon and lemon peel till it becomes of the thickness of a syrup; when cold lay your quinces in halves or quarters, sprinkling sugar between each layer; put a pint iof the syrup or more according to the biggness of your pye or tart, make the coffin round with close or cut covers, and bake it pretty well. And thus you may do with Pippins and Pearmains, or with Winter-fruit, and also with green codlings.
Does anyone have any idea what green codlings are?
Seriously, this basic boil in sugar or honey water as a syrup and to soften the fruit itself is common for pies and if you want to make a paste, bake it slowly in an oven. I love adding a quince or two to an apple pie, it just brings out the floral nature of both fruits and helps create a nice gel.
As quince continued to make its way across oceans, this time to America, you would find a tree or two of Cydonia oblonga and later Aromatnaya and Smyrna varieites in almost every home orchard, including throughout southern Wisconsin. Primarily it was valued for its high pectin content and used in all types of fruit preserves to help with thickening. With the invention of modern pectin powder the trees were rendered obsolete. Indeed according to the last Agricultural Census in 2012 only about 500 acres of quince are recorded, mostly in the Pacific NW and along the West Coast and a few smatterings in Vermont/New England. Now this doesn't include home plantings, but compared to millions of acres of apples, it's pretty small.
Today, I'm a fan of (re) discovering uses of quince and experimenting. My favorite is to make a variation on applesauce, wherein I mix 3 quarts of our fall raspberries with 3 pounds of chopped quince fruit, add 1 cup and cook/simmer to desired consistency.
I am reminded of Wendell Berry's proclamation that 'Eating is an Agriculture Act' and when you enjoy a quince you are supporting and evolving ancient culinary traditions and keeping diversity alive in today's agricultural landscape. As I gaze at the quince sitting there beckoning the imagination, slowly ripening and releasing Aphrodite's perfume on my kitchen counter, I sigh contentedly. We need more leverage fruits like the quince which helps us find ways to bring out the best in other things whether its our apple pie or with our neighbors.
Learn more: On-line quince recipe favorites:
On-line recipes, quince favorites:
Quince – Historic Food Recipes -
Basic Quince Paste Recipe from Epicurious.com
Poached Winter Fruits in Spiced Wine From the BBC Food Recipes website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/poached_quince_and_28589
This dessert by Ramond Blanc from Kew on a Plate defines an exact moment in the season – the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.