Each week we highlight what is seasonal, talk to those who grow it, and share a recipe (or two). This week: quince.
At first glance, a quince is downright weird. It’s misshapen, freckled and covered in a sticky white web. But inhale its sweet, floral scent and you will want to do right by this fruit.
Quince trees grow all over the world and evidence of their prominence in the orchard is apparent in the earliest writings of the Romans and Greeks. The quince is the last of the orchard fruits to ripen, even withstanding near-frosty temperatures before harvest. Some gardeners believe the cold weather improves the quince’s rose-like perfume.
For all their charm and oddity, the quince is a terrible neighbor in the orchard. According to Susanne Behling of Nob Hill Orchards in Gerrardstown, West Virginia, “they invite trouble.”
Quince bring with them two possible diseases: fireblight and quince rust. The rust is a fungal disease that causes rock hard, deformed fruit that will never soften. It is managed easily by fungicide, but has a bad habit of spreading the same deformation to any nearby apple tree.
Fireblight is a highly contagious, often tragic hazard to the orchardist. The systemic disease arrives only when humidity, high temperatures and full bloom are perfectly balanced. Once alight, it spreads quickly, leaving branches, leaves blackened and, in some cases, killing entire orchards in a single year.
So, why grow quince if they are so dangerous? Behling just had to have some. “One or two quince in a big batch of applesauce changes everything,” she says. After the first quince tree she planted promptly spread quince rust to a row of nearby apple trees, she planted the next two quince trees in a meadow 300 meters away from the nearest apple tree. Pollination wouldn’t be an issue, as quince are self-pollinating.
It doesn’t get easier when harvesting. The quince must be bright yellow and the pubescent wooly white that covers the ripening fruit should be nearly gone. A lime green flush is not a problem ”“ those will ripen on the counter in a matter of days ”“ but a deep green, fuzzy quince is destined to rot before ripening. “I wait until they change color,” says Behling, “and once they do, they have to get picked or the next storm will blow them right out of the tree.” Until the skin turns fully yellow, the floral scent is elusive, but even if the fruit is slightly green and only vaguely scented, long cooking will bring out the rich perfume.
The quince is difficult in the kitchen, too. Unripe, it is unbearably tart, woody and dry. Even when fully ripe, it is highly astringent. This is not a fruit eaten out of hand, like its botanical cousins apples and pears. But once cooked, the quince flavor is reminiscent of both. Quince is difficult to peel, core and chop, so sharpen your knives and work carefully.
To preserve quince for those quince-less months ahead, look to the European, Slavic and Turkish cuisines. Along the Mediterranean, spoon fruit is made, in which large pieces of quince are suspended in a sugary syrup. The fruit is served with yogurt and other fresh cheeses like labneh and ricotta.
To make a more classic jam, peeled, cored and sliced quince are boiled in water, and the softened fruit are combined with sugar and cooked to a soft gel. In the truest sense of old world economy, the water used to boil the quince becomes jelly.
Not only does the flavor of quince build with long cooking, but so does the color, deepening from a pale and ghostly yellow to rich, reddish, orangey tone. The color and flavor conversion is similar to the way applesauce reduces to apple butter, intensifying the very essence of the fruit. Long, slow cooking reduces the saucy quince, and with the fruit’s high pectin, a simple preservation technique emerges. The resulting fruit paste holds for months.
In Spain, Mexico and several South American countries, this paste is known as membrillo, while Eastern Europeans call it quince cheese. In these cultures, the paste is served alongside cheese (especially aged Manchego or other sheeps’ milk cheeses).
Try membrillo in a grilled cheese sandwich — and tuck in a piece of that leftover turkey, too. The not-too-sweet quince flavor works with meat and stews as readily as it pairs with cheese.
For the wine and cheese lover on your gift list, slice the membrillo into a 4-inch square, press a sprig of rosemary into the surface and wrap in parchment paper, add a wedge of aged Manchego and a bright red wine from Spain. Well-wrapped, membrillo lasts three or more months.