For me, autumn means quince—lots of it.
Never tried it? You’re not alone. I probably wouldn’t know much about it if I didn’t have a very prolific Portuguese quince tree in my back yard. The large, five-petaled quince blossoms are stunning, but what can you do with a fuzzy, oddly shaped, hard-as-a-rock fruit that you can’t eat raw? As it turns out, a lot—both sweet and savory. In case you’re not familiar, here’s what I’ve learned:
Quince Has a History
Quince is one of the oldest cultivated fruits on the planet. Its roots can be traced back to a mountainous region between the Caspian and Black seas, north of Iran and Turkey. It was cultivated in Mesopotamia (now Northern Iraq) around 100 BCE.
Quince is mentioned in Greek writings from as early as 600 BCE for its use in rituals associated with wedding ceremonies. Quince was cultivated well before the apple, and some historians believe that the quince, rather than the apple, may be the fruit responsible for the fall of humanity according to the Bible.
Quince made its way across the Mediterranean and settled in Europe as early as 700 CE. It came to the United States in the 1600s. Quince trees were popular in the New England colonies in 17th and 18th centuries. But once the much sweeter apple arrived, quince lost its status. Apples were much easier to use and tasted great raw. Quince, on the other hand, is hard and astringent, not so great for eating off the tree. Almost all varieties have to be cooked.
What Is Quince Good For?
For the first few years I lived in my house, my quince bounty ended up in the compost pile. When I decided to start using it, recipes were hard to come by. My edition of the classic tome, The Joy of Cooking, had only one recipe. There was no Google in the 1980s.
I first experimented with making quince butter using an apple butter recipe. I gave it to friends and family, who thoroughly enjoyed its unique taste. There’s really nothing like it.
In the past decade, quince has become much more fashionable. As of this writing, a Google search of quince recipes yields 878,000 results. While that might be small potatoes compared to other fruits and veggies, it definitely indicates a new appreciation for this homely ancient fruit.
Quince is one of those things like licorice or the Grateful Dead: People either love it, or they don’t. People are rarely neutral about it. This may be because its flavor is unfamiliar; and you do have to make a bit of a commitment to enjoy it. You can’t just peel it, slice it and pop it into your mouth.
Peeling it is a bear. Slicing it requires a substantial knife and a fair amount of muscle. Fortunately jams, jellies, sauces and membrillo don’t require peeling. In fact, the peels and seeds contain a huge amount of pectin, so cooking quince with the skins and seeds intact means that you don’t have to add pectin to make it set; they also impart a rich orange color.
An Easy Recipe: Quince Sauce
The easiest way I’ve found to cook quince was a discovery I made a few years ago—quince sauce. Cut up four or five large quinces and boil them in water with about four three-inch slices of unpeeled ginger. After about 45 minutes, put the mixture through a sieve or food mill. The result is a wonderful, fragrant sauce that you can use the same way you use applesauce. Its flavor, in my opinion, is much more interesting than that of applesauce. I found it to be delicious without any additional sweetener, but if you want to sweeten it, honey is a great complement. Autumn spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice work well too. Quince sauce is great on pancakes and waffles or on its own.
So where can you get quince? Farmer’s markets are a good bet, as are natural foods stores. I bring bushels of them to my yoga classes, where my students take them home and later send me the recipes they’ve discovered.
Ever practical, quince will last in your refrigerator for up to four months. They also keep well at room temperature for a few weeks. A bowl of quince on your kitchen counter will perfume your entire house.
I like to think of quince as the ugly duckling of fruits. It doesn’t look like much, but with a little time, energy and patience, it transforms into a thing of beauty.