The Disappearance and Revival of Fruiting Quince

Though usually hard and sour right off the tree, the fruiting quince is a delicious edition to both sweet and savory recipes, or as compote, butter, sauce, or jam.

| Fall 2012

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.”

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