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The Forgotten Quince

jane mcmorland hunter

Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become the lost fruit. Out of season, they are impossible to obtain, and even in season they are usually available only at the more inspired farmers markets and a few selective shops. This seems a sorry state of affairs for a fruit that is delicious in sweet and savory dishes, can easily be preserved and will enhance a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance.

Apples stole the credit

Quinces originally came to America and Europe from Central Asia, where they grow wild in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Turkestan and Iran. While apples tend to get the credit, quinces were quite possibly the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden, and the fruit Paris gave Aphrodite; it was said that quince trees grew up wherever she walked. Much later Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussycat dined on quinces at their wedding feast, echoing the Greek tradition of using quinces at weddings to ensure commitment and fertility.

Chris Kelly

Quinces have been used in Persian cooking for more than 2,500 years but probably reached Britain in the 13th century where they appear in recipes for pies sweetened with honey. They were one of the first fruits to be introduced to the colonies in North America by the British settlers, where they were widely cultivated by the 1720s. Many of the early American varieties were distinguished by shape: “apple” or “pear” type.

In the 1850s, Rev. William Meech discovered the “Pear-Shaped Orange Quince” in Connecticut. From 1888 onward, this variety has been known as Meech’s Prolific in recognition of its reliable high yields. A 19th-century French nursery catalog deemed it “Remarkable for its superior quality.” Yet today, Meech’s Prolific is comparatively rare in the U.S. and only grown by a few home fruit tree growers.

Sugar did the quince in

The decline of the quince can be dated to the turn of the 19th century when sugar became cheap and freely available. This led to a change in taste and the astringent flavor of the quince was no longer in demand. In the 20th century, the necessary labor-intensive preparation and cooking spelled its death. Quinces all but disappeared. Recently, though, interest has begun to revive, with a taste for sharper flavors, the growth of the slow food movement and a greater awareness and interest in our food’s provenance.

Quinces, a quintessential slow food, are wonderfully scented and delicious when cooked. Apart from certain “sweet” varieties, the fruit cannot be eaten raw. Poaching, roasting or baking will release the unique flavour, beautiful rosy color and delicate texture. Their high level of pectin makes them exquisitely suitable for jams and jellies. Originally marmalade, named for the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, was made from the fruit.

A little quince goes a long way, and the addition of a few slices will transform sweet and savory dishes. The flavor combines particularly well with apples and pears but will also enhance almonds, oranges and even mulberries, if you can get them. Quince can be made into cakes, pies, shortbread and fools; stuffed with meat or cheese; and are used in many Mediterranean and Central Asian savory dishes including chicken, beef and all types of game.

It’s time to rediscover quince and return this remarkably versatile fruit to its place at the table. Ask for it at your grocer, and, if it’s not available, ask why. If you’re thinking of planting a tree, try a quince. They are easy to care for and the blossom is beautiful. And if we don’t all make an effort, they will simply die out.

This week’s Zester Soapbox contributors, Jane McMorland Hunter and Chris Kelly, are British gardening experts and coauthors of  “Basic Gardening” and “For the Love of an Orchard.” McMorland Hunter has years of experience in creating and maintaining patio, balcony and roof gardens and is the author of “The Tiny Garden.” Kelly comes from a family of gardeners who founded and ran a major U.K. seed company; and he has designed, constructed and restored numerous private gardens.  

Photos, from top:

Jane McMorland Hunter

Chris Kelly

Credits: Courtesy of Hunter and Kelly

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Learn more about quinces and other orchard fruits: Enter now to win Jane McMorland Hunter and Chris Kelly’s book “For the Love of an Orchard.”

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