Quince! Wait: Quince?

 

By Carolyn Curtis

 

Quince. A short, sharp word. It sounds old-fashioned, maybe because of the “qu,” as in “quaint.” Is “quince” also a plural? People use it that way.

As a kid in Chicago, I’d heard of quince(s) but never came anywhere near them, even in my year in Europe in the mid-sixties. But in the nineteenseventies, out in the northern California countryside, our Italian Swiss landlady had a quince tree, as well as a pear, and a twostoryhigh fig.

The pear and quince were stubby little trees. The quince fruits, late in October, were knobby yellow things the size of grapefruit, but not spherical. They had a sort of topknot, but weren’t pear-shaped either. They were fuzzy like peaches, but hard. I learned that they were too woody and astringent to eat raw. The only use I heard of was jelly, a lot of work.

Though closely related to apples and pears, quinces are in a genus by themselves, Cydonia, with only one species, oblonga. (That knobby shape?)  Cydonia is the ancient name of a city on Crete; the ancients didn’t know that the fruit stemmed from Ukraine and/or the Caucasus. (Apples also hail from roughly that part of the world, Central Asia.)

There’s a myth that the apple in Genesis was a quince, but that “honor” has also been assigned to the pomegranate. Besides, it’s hard to eat a quince, even if a snake were to hand it to you, unless the snake had baked it somehow.

Quinces were common in Colonialera and nineteenthcentury gardens. Hence my landlady’s tree; her in-laws settled that property in the late 1800s. Quinces fell out of favor only in the last century or so; we’ll see why later.

Is “flowering quince” the same thing? Nope, it’s a different genus, Chaenomeles (“open apple”), with roots in Chinese and Japanese horticulture. In autumn, its fruits look just like Golden Delicious apples, but they also are hard and astringent, and not as flavorful as Cydonia oblonga. But its flowers are showier, in lovely shades of persimmon, apricot, white, variegated. Blooming in February, in California at least, they are most welcome. People cut twofootlong branches for impressive arrangements, and then they forget all about these shrubs for the rest of the year.

Since quinces have been around since antiquity, you’d expect a lot of varieties. Popular here are Smyrna, Champion (enormous), Aromatnaya (1990 Ukrainian introduction), Ekmek (from Turkey, and meaning bread, like that cracker?); and then Limon, Orange, and Pineapple, which smell like their namesakes. One Pineapple quince can perfume a room.

Unlike apples, which we take for granted yearround, you’ll see quinces only in autumn—unless you’re in an appropriate ethnic group. A local Persian grocery always has them; doled out from cold storage? At room temperature, quinces don’t keep much more than a week, despite seeming so woody. Bruises can develop into spoilage.

Persians and others use quinces in slowcooked lamb stews, with cinnamon, cayenne, and other flavorings; you can also try this with pork. But most quince recipes tend toward the pastry and preserve side of cookery. Some recipes combine apple and quince slices, but quince slices take longer to soften. With just quince slices, you can make a pie (or tarte tatin!), but you’d better precook the slices for a galette, not baked as long.

And now we come to why quinces aren’t so popular any more. They’re a bear to peel and core. You can get most of the skin off with a potato peeler, but you need a paring knife for the many crevices on these knobby things. To core one, you need a heavy chef’s knife or cleaver to bust it in quarters. You’ll discover an arrangement like a pear, with a heavy fibrous string running from stem to seed capsule. You gouge out the string, the core, and the gritty part just under the core. As you work, the quince flesh might be turning brown the way peeled apples will, so your next step must be set up before you start all this peeling and coring.

You can make quince jelly, if you have the juice (don’t ask) and want to go that route. Since these fruits are loaded with pectin, all you need is sugar. Some varieties turn a gorgeous coral during jellying, yielding jewellike jars for your besties. There’s also membrillo, quince paste, which takes more patience than I have.

Much easier: poached slices. You make a pot of plain heavy syrup, so that as you peel, core, and slice, you can plunk the slices right in. Then as you gently cook them, you’ll find there’s a short window between when they start to soften and when they turn to mush. So you have a sterilized widemouth pint jar ready for them as each slice achieves that optimum texture. Layer slices horizontally in the jars, or lengthwise if you’re dexterous and the slices are long; cover with syrup. For extra interest, slide a star anise pod down along the glass, or a short cinnamon stick, two or three coins of ginger, a piece of orange peel or vanilla bean, or any two of these you like (heat them a bit in the syrup first), to delight the friend you’re giving this to. Probably cardamom and other warm spices would work, too.

But what do quinces taste like on their own?  Kind of pearish, more toward a fruityfloral apple like Golden Delicious, but richer and fuller, the way mangoes and really good melons are. I haven’t discerned differences among the varieties I’ve tried, except Pineapple, which does have a bit of that hardtodefine flavor on top of the applepear.

We like these slices in winter as a breakfast fruit. But the real reason to go to all this trouble: you can’t buy anything like this. You have to make this treat yourself. The beneficiaries of your creativity and labor know this. And isn’t that the point? 

 


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