Just last week a friend and I had a discussion on quinces because she’d found a tree laden with fruit at the university where she works. The next morning I went down to the garden to see whether our quince tree was still standing but it seems as if it’s been taken out and I’m not surprised at all. It was ancient when I was growing up and well past it’s prime. My grandmother & I liked to eat them and over the years my sister seems to have taken to them.
She makes the best preserved quinces I’ve ever tasted and I’m always extremely happy to get a jar but it doesn’t happen all that often. My mother was none too enthusiastic about them unless they arrived in her pantry, duly preserved in a glass jar; I could never understand her reasoning then but I do now: she had a very busy household, did all her cooking herself and quinces take a good while to cook.
WHAT IS QUINCE?
The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is the only member of the genus Cydonia and native to southwest Asia in the Caucasus region. It’s a smallish deciduous tree that can grow up to 8 metres and like apples & pears, is a pome fruit. The unripe fruit is green with fine, dense, short grey-white hairs, most of which rubs off before maturity in late autumn when the fruit changes colour to yellow with hard, highly perfumed flesh. It blooms in spring and the flowers always have five petals. It was first documented and named by the Akkadians who called the fruit supurgillu; the word we use today comes from the ancient seaport of Kydonia on the island of Crete (via a 14th century French coin). The tree originated in Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia & Pakistan).
QUINCES IN ANCIENT HISTORY
- Quinces were cultivated before apples and many references to apples were, in fact, quinces (our history books are riddled with translation discrepancies).
- The apple in the Song of Solomon, may well have been to a quince because apples simply weren’t around when it was written.
- In ancient Greece, the quince was a ritual offering at weddings, because they believed that Aphrodite brought quinces with her from the Levant; since she was sacred, the quince was too.
- Greek brides ate a piece of quince for good breath before going into the bridal chamber.
- Paris awarded Aphrodite a quince, not an apple.
- Atlanta hesitated in her race for a golden quince.
- The Romans loved quinces and you’ll find loads of recipes for quinces in Apicius’s famous cookbooks.
- Pliny the Elder documents the Mulvian quince which, he believed, could be eaten raw.
- Columella believed that the fruit of paradise was a quince.
- King Charlemagne liked the plant and decreed that all orchards have at least one tree but he didn’t take into account that the fruit needed good summer heat for ripening purposes.
Most varieties of quince are too hard & too sour to eat raw but they’re great in jams, preserves, jellies and puddings! I love eating them roasted or baked & when you’re going to make a crumble, there’s nothing like spicy stewed quinces for the filling; you’ll notice that they turn red after a long cooking period which is essential when it comes to this fruit.
They’re strongly perfumed which is why the old people used to add a little bit to apple pies but I’m not nuts about it. I tasted quince wine once but it was very sweet & I suspect it has a high alcohol content.
In Germany I’ve tasted quince juice (quittensaft) and it’s really good and in the Balkans they make a type of quince brandy with quite an intense flavour; it’s quite difficult to describe because we were tasting it with a rather ghastly chocolate cake at the time which meant that anything would have tasted good as long as it would wash down the cake. Needless to say my head spun like mad when I went to bed that night.
In Italy the quinces are quite common (in central & southern Italy as far as I know) but they don’t have too many trees. We had a quince tree in our garden when we were growing up but it was very old and my mother wasn’t mad about them so we didn’t use it much.
QUINCES AROUND THE WORLD
- A quince tree is planted as a symbol of love, life and fertility when a baby is born in Slavonia & Croatia.
- The Lebanese make jam (sjarjel) from quinces.
- Syrians cook them with pomegranate paste (dibs rouman) to eat with meat and kibbeh, calling it kibbeh safarjalieh.
- Pakistanis make muraba by stewing quinces with sugar until they’re bright red & preserve them in jars to eat like a jam.
- They’re popular in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay where they thrive; they export loads to North American speciality markets.
- Dulce de membrillo is made from quinces (a membrillo is a quince) and it’s absolutely delicious on sandwiches with manchego cheese.
- The Portuguese marmelada is made from quince.
- In Valais and also in the Alsace liqueur de coing is made from quince and used as a digestif.
- Turkey ranks first in world quince production by producing a quarter of the total world production.
- In Italy it is called mela cotogna and it is used for compotes and jams. In my region, they use it in the preparation of the savor Romagnolo – an antique jam made out of must and fruits of the seasons.