Consider the quince: centuries ago, it was the talk of the town, eaten by kings, queens and commoners. Often eaten with wild game, it was just as popular, if not more so, than its cousins apples and pears. With a renewed appreciation for local produce and farmers markets all over the country these days, it seems the time is ripe for a quince revival.
Quince is considered native to the Caucasus region and Western Asia, but has made its way all over the world, winning particularly ardent fans in Spain, France and Portugal with its jellies and jams. In fact, the word "marmalade" originally referred to quince jam, thanks to the Portuguese word for quince, "marmelo."
Once quince came over to the New World, it quickly caught on with colonial women, who made use of its high pectin content by making plenty of preserves. It was not uncommon for a quince tree or two to be planted in the orchards and vegetable gardens of New England colonies.
The quirks of quince
Don't judge a quince by its outward appearance — it's what's on the inside that counts. (Photo: Golf Bravo [CC by SA 2.5]/Wikimedia Commons)
Today, quince paste is still popular in the Iberian peninsula and Spanish-speaking countries, with dulce de membrillo often served in sandwiches or with Manchego cheese as an after-dinner dessert. The firm, sticky, sweet paste is also a wonderful addition to your cheese or charcuterie boards. Quince also offers a wealth of health benefits: it's high in vitamin C, zinc, iron, copper, iron, potassium and fiber.
Unfortunately, it's tough these days to find quince in a North American grocery store, or even a farmers market, but it's worth asking around! Your best bet might be finding a neighbor who has a shrub in their backyard; the deciduous quince tree is often grown for its ornamental qualities and pretty pale pink blossoms. Though quince was originally grown in the English colonies, American farmers took them westward to cultivate in Texas and California, but there's still not a nationwide commercial quince industry (yet).
Perhaps the most important thing to know about quince is that you can't eat it raw; unless, of course, you like your fruit hard, woody and astringent. You'll know a quince is ripe once it's fully yellow and its intoxicating fragrance is already in the air.
Because there's so much pectin in the fruit, you'll need to roll up your sleeves and give it some tough love and affection. A sharp paring knife and careful carving skills are essential; the quince's tough skin doesn't always peel away easily. Despite that chore, you'll want to always remove the peel and core before cooking, and then you can roast, stew, puree, jelly, poach, bake or grill them to your heart's content.
If you want to keep it simple, poaching or stewing it in a sugary liquid is best. It's also a two-for-one, as you'll get tender fruit for baking and a syrup that you'll want to drizzle on just about everything including oatmeal.
Don't be shy with the sugar, as quince is pretty bitter. Then put your own twist on flavors while you stew it — fresh ginger, vanilla beans, rosemary, lemon peels or cinnamon sticks are all welcome additions.
Another delightful surprise about quince? The longer you cook it, the prettier it becomes. That gnarled, knobby, homely little fruit will transform into a brilliant salmon-pink with the help of some heat and steam. Quince is also a lovely fruit to leave out on a sunny windowsill, as it slowly releases an intoxicating scent reminiscent of vanilla and apples. Whether you're baking a quince tarte tatin, a jam for your cheese plate, or a savory Moroccan tagine, the quirks of the quince will all be worthwhile once you've had your first bite.