The Quince's Delicious History
Thursday, March 20, 2008
People are drawn to the romance of antique apples and pears, but for a truly ancient fruit steeped in history, take a look at the quince. Its birthplace is thought to have been the Fertile Crescent in Asia Minor, the cradle of civilization. From there it spread to the Mediterranean, delighting the Greeks and Romans with its tart, delicate flavor and powerful aroma. (A bowl of quinces on a table perfumes the air.) Because apples were unknown in the ancient world, a quince might well have tempted Eve, and the golden apples of the Hesperides, given to Aphrodite by Paris of Troy, were probably quinces, too.
The edible quince, Cydonia oblonga, is not the same as the ornamental flowering quince, Chaenomeles, which announces spring with its showy early blooms of scarlet, white or pink. Its fruits are insignificant.
The edible quince was popular in Colonial America, and quinces grew at Jefferson's Monticello. I first encountered them in an old orchard in Connecticut. The golden fruits, handsome on the tree, looked like lumpy pears, rough-skinned and rock-hard. But I knew that you didn't eat quinces fresh, you cooked them, so I made a quince butter to spread on toast. It turned out quite well, though I like quince jelly even better. The pale quince flesh has a rosy color when cooked and is traditionally stewed, poached or baked in desserts, often with other fruits. Both its distinct taste and very high pectin content endear it to cooks worldwide. It's especially prized in the Middle East but also savored in South America and Europe, where it marries well with rich meat dishes. In Spain it becomes a dense paste to eat with cheese.
Recently I was talking quinces with my friend Lee Reich, author of "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden." He extolled their ease of cultivation, and urged me to plant one in my yard. Yes, just one is needed, since they self-pollinate. "They're also pretty pest-free," he said. He recommended diligent pruning as a remedy for fire blight, a disease that can blacken the branches in areas with humid summers. He said any standard variety such as Pineapple or Orange will do fine. There is not much difference among them. Like me, he values the trees' small size and picturesque branching pattern. (They're sometimes grown as bushy shrubs, and even used as dwarfing rootstocks for other tree fruits.)
"There are four quince trees in the garden at the Cloisters, the museum in New York City," Lee said fondly. "They are very old, very beautiful. Whenever I'm there, I stop in and take their picture." They would, indeed, be perfect for an enclosed medieval garden -- or for mine. A mulch, to conserve moisture, will benefit the tree roots, which are shallow. But they go deep in time.