Monday, October 27, 2008

The Golden Quince

Ripe quinces in late October

Above: Ripe quinces in late October.

The famous quince trees that grace the four beds at the center of the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden have grown there since the early 1950s. Although the trees are showing their age, they still bear a heavy crop—so heavy that it is necessary to thin the fruits in late summer and to prop up the aging boughs to help them to bear the weight of the fruit. The quinces are not harvested; the fruits are picked up as they fall. Closely related to apples and pears, quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a distinct species whose fruits have an irregular shape, a wooly white coat when green, a bright golden color when ripe, and a delicious perfume all their own. (Quince is the sole member of the genus Cydonia; flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica), a shrub grown for its coral-pink flowers, does bear a small quince-like fruit, but is another species altogether.)

Quinces are said to ripen early and well enough to be eaten out of hand in warmer climates, but in northern Europe and here in the United States, they are still quite hard, dry, and astringent when they finally begin to grow golden and aromatic in the second half of October. For this reason, quinces are usually eaten cooked, not raw. Quinces have a lot of pectin, and make excellent jams and jellies. They can also be made into quince paste (membrillo in Spanish, cotognata in Italian, cotignac in French). In the Middle Ages, this stiff conserve was pressed into boxes or fancy forms, sliced, and eaten with the fingers as part of the dessert course. (Alan Davison, The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999). Nowadays quince paste is often served as an accompaniment to cheese. While the sweetened fruit may be baked in pies and tarts, there are also many savory recipes that combine quince with poultry and with meat.

Quince appears in a famous ninth-century edict, the Capitulare de villis, in which the emperor Charlemagne decreed which plants were to be grown on the imperial estates. It is one of several kinds of fruit trees shown growing in the orchard-cemetery of the monastery on the ninth-century plan of St.Gall—a very beautiful way of carrying out the idea that the monks would enter Paradise when they died.

Native to the Caucasus, quince was widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean in antiquity. The modern name of the genus comes from the ancient city of Cydonia (modern-day Khania) in Crete, where quince trees grew in abundance. The identification of the quince with the golden apples of the Hesperides was made in antiquity by the Greek botanist Theophrastus. The quince was also identified with the golden apple awarded to Aphrodite in the Judgment of Paris, and was sacred to the goddess of love and fertility. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, the Athenian lawgiver Solon directed that a bride should nibble at a quince before entering the nuptial chamber, a symbolism that was recreated in the Renaissance. (Mirella D’Ancona Levi, The Botanical Garden of the Renaissance, 1977.)

Quince has a long history of medicinal use. The ancient Greek herbalist Dioscorides, whose De Materia Medica was influential throughout the Middle Ages, recommended the fruit as a diuretic, a styptic, and an astringent; it was also used to counteract dysentery and as a poultice for inflamed breasts. (Frank Anderson, German Herbals through 1500, 1984.) The mucilage from the seed coats has humectant and emollient properties and is used today in natural cosmetics.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (11)

  1. 5oclockteaspoon Says:

    I enjoyed reading about the quince and its medicinal and culinary uses. Islamic cuisine of the Middle East includes many sweet and savory dishes made with quince as well.
    I have flowering shrub and tree varieties and cook with the fruit from both species. It is indeed a wonderful fruit that is unfortunately rarely used for cooking in the US.

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    5oclockteaspoon,

    My favorite savory recipe, for Duck with Quinces spiced with cinnamon, is from Paula Wolfert’s Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. I think it is a Syrian dish—my cookbooks are all in my kitchen in the country and not here in Manhattan, so I can’t make sure.

    I have never cooked with the fruit of flowering quince—do you use them interchangeably with the tree fruit, or do you reserve them for certain dishes? Many visitors to The Cloisters who are not familiar with the orchard tree have flowering quince in their gardens.

  3. Marie Viljoen Says:

    Deirdre, one can preserve the fruit of the flowering quince, and use the sweetly preserved fruit as one would the quince with duck, lamb etc, but there is obviously a lot less “meat” to the smaller fruit.

    Heres a great link about them:

    http://nami-nami.blogspot.com/2007/09/beautiful-flowers-fragrant-fruit.html

  4. 5oclockteaspoon Says:

    Deirdre,

    So far I have only used the shrub fruit with the tree fruit, although I would like to experiment with a shrub fruit tart. Last year I combined all of my tree and shrub quince to make a huge batch of quince jam. I could not detect any difference in taste from pure tree quince jam.
    “Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World” by Lilia Zaouali has several sweet and savory quince recipes.

  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Thank you both for the information, and for the very good link, Marie. Many visitors to The Cloisters gardens who are unfamiliar with the orchard fruit have flowering quince on their properties, and will be happy to know that they can successfully substitute the fruits of Chaenomeles japonica for those of Cydonia oblonga in preserves and other recipes. I haven’t yet added Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World to my cookbook collection, but I plan on it.

  6. Dionysus Says:

    Interesting to note the comments about Quince being named in Cydonia, which as you say is modern day Chania, because although we only live a few kilometres fom there I’ve never seen any growing in the area - I shall have to keep my eyes open!

  7. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dionysus—

    I visited Chania and environs in wildflower season about fifteen years ago. It was an unforgettable experience, and I saw many plants that we grow here at The Cloisters. I don’t recall seeing any quince orchards, but there was a lot to see, including the wonderful market, where I bought a lot of herbs and spices. I see that the web page for Chania does have a recipe for quince marmalade. http://www.chania.eu/tourism/
    Do keep your eyes open—I would be interested to know if quince are still found in your vicinity.

  8. nbmandel Says:

    Deirdre, did Cloisters staff get a chance to make quince preserves this year? I’d love to see a follow-up post if so.

  9. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    As always, staff members and volunteers made use of whatever windfalls were available for preserves and other favorite recipes. (We don’t pick the quince, but gather them up as they drop to the ground). Relatively few fruits ripened soundly this year—some big winds in early autumn knocked a good many down well before they were ready. (If the fruits aren’t ripe enough to be fragrant, they won’t have any taste). The quince are also host to apple maggots, which cause malformations. We’re addressing this problem with the help of our consulting arborist, using organic methods. It is important to pick up any affected fruits, because the life-cycle of the maggot, which emerges from the fruit to winter over in the soil below the tree, and emerges from the ground as a winged insect in summer to re-enter the quince, is thus interrupted. We’ll be placing sticky red spheres in the trees in early July, to fool and trap the insects as they emerge. For more on this common orchard pest, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_maggot

    I was able to get a couple of quarts of juice from about 5 lbs. of quince this fall, using a steam juicer. You simply cut the fruit up roughly and place it in the steamer basket—there is no need to peel or core it, which saves quite a bit of work. The steam extracts all the color and savor. I used it in a punch.

  10. JudyThomas Says:

    I was at the garden last weekend (June, 2010), visiting from Virginia, and much admired the quince trees. I spoke with an informative and helpful volunteer, but did not ask all my questions. Do you need to severely prune the quince trees to get them to their current compact and twisted form? I hope to plant two this fall.

  11. Francisca Benitez Says:

    Dear quince lovers, come to see ORO DULCE, a film about making quince paste in remote rural Chile, on view at Cuchifritos + Project Space until Sunday March 9, 2014, 6pm
    http://artistsallianceinc.org/cuchifritos-gallery-2/on-view
    http://franciscabenitez.org/works/oro-dulce/

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