Is the fragrant fruiting quince making a culinary comeback? I suppose to answer that, we should first know its history and how it “went away” in the first place.
There is more than one plant called quince. This article focuses on Cydonia oblonga, the fruiting quince vs. various flowering quince plants including chaenomoles, the ornamental Japanese quince. Most quince plants produce edible fruit, though the culinary quality varies greatly. Cydonia oblogna on the other hand, has also been called the true quince, producing a large fruit popular since ancient times for culinary purposes. The fruiting quince — which is related to apples and pears — is a medium-sized thornless tree (or shrub-like if left unpruned). Some nurseries also graft quince onto dwarfing stock.
History of the Fruiting Quince
The quince is considered native to the Caucasus and northern Persia. It eventually became a favored cultivated tree in the eastern Mediterranean, and found its way far around the world including Africa, Australia, Mexico, and South America. Quince jellies became very popular in France and Spain. In Portugal, quince are called “marmelo” and the word “marmalade” originally referred to quince jam.
Quinces were made into jellies and other various sought-after desserts for both common folk and royalty. They were eventually introduced to the New World where colonial women made quince jam and jelly, taking advantage of the quince’s unusually high pectin content. Quinces appear in Greek and Roman legends, and are suggested to be the actual Forbidden Fruit of Eden. (I don’t know if I believe that rumor.) A quince eaten directly from the tree is known to be hard and sour before cooking into luscious culinary servings. If Eve would have bitten into that, she never would have swallowed it. I won’t guess as to whether she would have gone ahead and tried to tempt Adam.
“Because of the high pectin in the pulp, the fruit is rarely eaten out-of-hand,” says Barbara Ghazarian, author of the cookbook Simply Quince. “Slow cooking releases the pectin strands from the cell walls. Once released, the cooked fruit becomes supple and good eating.”
Deborah Madison, a long-time fan of the quince and author of several cookbooks including Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers Markets, says, “In general, quince don't really come into their best unless they're cooked. Their aroma blossoms, they color to a soft pink if allowed to cook long enough, and they lose their astringency.”
However, there have been other rumors of quince or quince-like fruits growing in South America that are sweet and succulent when eaten fresh. Although growing instructions for quince describe them as requiring a winter chilling period (see more about this below), they do grow in warmer climates also, perhaps having more time to ripen on the tree. Further, Madison says “I've heard that there's a variety that can be eaten raw, and I've seen kids in Mexico eat raw quince, sometimes adding baking soda to it as they go.”
Cooking with Quince
First off, true fruiting quinces are used in both savory and sweet dishes. For most recipes involving quince, peel them first and remove the core, unless you’re making jelly. For that, you may want to leave the peel on with its even-richer supply of pectin. As quince slowly cooks, the flesh will turn a pink-rose color. Like many apple varieties, the raw flesh will turn brown quickly when exposed to air, but this can be avoided if placing quince slices in water with a squeeze of lemon juice.
“One of my favorite things to do with quince (aside from admiring them and inhaling their perfume),” says Madison, “is to make a compote. I do this every fall; then I use the compote all winter in various ways — to top ice cream, to add to rice pudding, to use in an apple crisp. I especially like quince with their relatives, apples and pears, baked in a puff pastry crust. But the main thing is to have the quince in their syrup. Then you have infinite possibilities.”
Besides the traditional jam and jelly, people also eat quinces as stewed quince, quince pudding, quince butter, and as the foundation for meat sauces or meat side dishes similar to the traditional pairing of apple sauce and pork. Long favorite spices and natural flavorings to add to quince include ginger, cloves, cinnamon, rose water, and vanilla. Like apples, though, cooks experiment with many different herbs and spices to mingle with the quince’s natural fragrance. It’s also reputed to make a very good wine.
Types of Quinces
For most U.S. climates, quinces can be harvested from September through November. Nurseries often offer two popular varieties of quince: Pineapple and Orange. There is also Champion, Smyrna, Quincydonia and other types offered less often. “My personal favorite quince to cook with,” says Ghazarian “is Smyrna quince.”
“Horticulturist and parks commissioner R.C. Roeding of Fresno, Calif., brought the Smyrna quince to the United States from Smyrna, now Ismir, Turkey, in 1887,” explains Ghazarian. “It has pretty pink blossoms and large, oblong fruit that often possess ridges, like scarring, on the surface. It ripens a tad later than Pineapple quince which is the most popular variety (cultivated by Luther Burbank).
“While the scarring on the peel makes it a bit tougher to peel than other smoother skinned varieties, I like it because Smyrna quince boasts one of the highest antioxidant contents of any quince, which makes the fruit turn a gorgeous holiday red when slow cooked with a little sugar and lemon juice. I’m really into pretty food. In Smyrna’s case, pretty also means healthy. Can’t beat that, right? Most people from the Middle East will concur with me that Smyrnas are great cooking quinces.”
Although self-fertile, quince plants produce higher-quality fruit if there is another variety of quince nearby for cross pollination. As an aside, Ghazarian adds, “Apple orchardists need to be encouraged to plant quince trees in their acreage because quinces and apples flower about a week apart which will entice the bees to stay around and pollinate longer!”
Depending on the quince variety and its ultimate drip-line width, plant multiple quince in centers spaced to allow them to get full sun. The quince plant does well on a fertile site without excess nitrogen, and can stand wet and drought a tad more than apples, but really does best in well-drained moist soil. It can be damaged by fireblight, borers, codling moths, curculio, scale, and tent caterpillars. Keep the orchard soil and circulation healthy, and along with basic pruning, be sure to remove suckers in winter or early spring. Most quince plants need 100 to 300 chill hours to produce fruit, again depending on variety. (Chill hours are the hours in winter that range between 32 degrees F and 45 F. Growers can search for chill-hour charts online to see what the average is in their area, and most nurseries will tell how many are required for the varieties they sell.)
If left unpruned, quince plants can become large bushes instead of trees. Here’s one way to prune: Once a young sapling’s roots are established, quince can be pruned to just three to five healthy branches coming out from the young trunk, keeping the others pruned off. These foundational branches can be cut to about 20 inches, leaving an outward growing bud so the tree branches form an open centered chalice shape. From then on, prune away all inside and side branches, as well as any that cross over, making sure not to cut off any fruit spurs from the main branches.
Could it be that because quince must be carefully peeled, cored and slowly cooked before eating, it went out of favor as society moved more toward instant gratification in all endeavors? It’s also been suggested that when powdered-gelatin packets became available for jam and jelly-making, the high-pectin quince became somewhat forgotten. Its retreat couldn’t possibly have been caused by its lovely fragrant flavor. The scent can stop you in your tracks. (Keep in mind, wildlife love the scent also. A quince tree could possibly also be used to divert wildlife from other commercial fruits that ripen near the same time.)
If the quince fell out of favor because of the slowness of its preparation, perhaps that might also be why it’s returning as we reunite with our more in-the-moment cooking roots and purposely return to “slow food.” Various cooking experts, including spokespeople for the Slow Food Movement, believe the quince is making a comeback. And so does Barbara Ghazarian. “The quince revival has begun,” she says. “The more growers, chefs, and home cooks interested in the long-forgotten fruit, the better for everyone.”
For some fruiting quince recipes, see:
Barbara Berst Adams is author of Micro Eco-Farming and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm, www.NewAgritourism.com. She is also a contributor to the Center for the Micro Eco-Farming Movement, www.MicroEcoFarming.com and is the agrarian/rural community contributing editor at Great Group Activities, www.GreatGroupActivities.com