The quince is the sole member of the genus Cydonia in the family Rosaceae (which also contains apples and pears). The quince is native to the region between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, a mountainous region that touches northern Turkey, Iran and Southern Georgia. A knobby, irregular shaped variety still grows wild in this part of the world.
It loves rocky slopes and woodland margins. It is a small, deciduous tree and bears a fruit, which is bright golden yellow and pear-shaped. The fruit is considered to be astringent and somewhat unpleasant raw – but that quality is largely determined by the climate the quince is grown in and whether it is allowed to fully ripen on the tree. In warmer climates the quince is eaten raw.
Cultivation of the quince began in Northern Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. By 200 and 100 BCE, was cultivated by the Greeks as it traveled into the Eastern Mediterranean. The quince was actually cultivated prior to the apple and reached Palestine by 100 BCE. Reference to the apple in the Song of Solomon may not have been an apple at all but might have been a quince instead.
In the Middle East quince is considered a common food, and, though it is sour, is eaten raw as well as cooked. Unpopular for most of its existence in the United States, the quince was more successful in Latin American countries. Today, the quince is relegated to the specialty fruit list in the United States where there are very few trees in production. For the western palate quince is generally considered edible only when cooked.
Quince, like the apple and guava, produces a natural pectin when cooked, making it ideal for jelling. Stews that combine sour fruits, such as quince, with meats are traditional foods in Iran and Morocco. Quince is also incorporated into cuisines in various pies, tarts and sauces, where it adds a unique flavor and a hint of pink coloring.
The whole quince fruits are so fragrant at room temperature that in ancient times they were used to perfume the room. Quinces make ideal bases for pomanders studded with cloves and hung as decorations or given as gifts during the Christmas season.
Quince is high in fiber, very low in cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium. Quince is high in Vitamin C and copper and contains small amounts of iron and calcium.
Selection and Storage
Quince are available in the early fall through January. Though many large grocery chains will have quince available you will have to seek them out in a tiny corner of the produce section. Not big sellers, quinces are considered a specialty item. Ethnic markets that specialize in Middle Eastern items will definitely have quinces during the fall season.
Quince can be round, oval or somewhat pear shaped golden in color with a sometimes knobby skin. Choose those that are firm a small amount of brown mottling won’t affect the flavor or quality. Quince that are shriveled, soft, or brown all over are no longer fresh.
If the quince is not completely yellow, store them at room temperature until they are fully ripened, yellow all over, and emit a pleasant aroma. If you don’t plan to use the ripe quince immediately, then store them in the refrigerator where they will keep up to two weeks. It’s best to store them separately from apples and pears because their strong aroma may affect the flavor of other fruits.
In spite of their hardness they bruise easily so handle carefully.
Most varieties of quince are rock hard and quite sour, though in the 1990′s a sweeter variety called the “apple quince” was developed and can be eaten raw. Unless the sweet variety of quince is available, they are too acidic and astringent to be eaten raw.
Because of their firmness and sour taste, quinces are almost always peeled, sweetened, and cooked, frequently into preserves. In the cooking process, the flesh turns a delicate pink and emits a delightful perfume-like fragrance.
Quince has the firmness of a hard winter squash, so be sure to use a large, firm chef’s knife to cut it into halves, quarters, or slices. Peeling works well with a vegetable peeler or a small paring knife. Remove the core with a small, very firm paring knife.
A slice or two of peeled quince added to apples or pears while they cook will add appealing flavor and aroma to the dish.
Quince makes an excellent fruit sauce similar to applesauce. Though the flesh is white when raw, it turns a delicate pink when cooked. Peel a few quinces, slice them with a very firm knife, and remove the seeds. Cook them in a small amount of water with your sweetener of choice until they reach a pulpy consistency like applesauce. Mash or puree in a food processor, and serve as a dessert or accompaniment to savory dishes.
Quince sauce makes an excellent companion to potato latkes (pancakes).
Baked quince is a warm, comforting snack. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Peel and core, then cut into slices. Overlap the slices in a baking dish and drizzle with honey, citrus juice and water. Cover and bake for one hour or until the slices become translucent. Remove the covering and bake an additional 10 minutes to thicken the juices.
Poached quince is an equally wonderful preparation. Quarter and peel quinces. Mix together enough water and your choice of natural sweetener to cover the quince you wish to prepare. Simmer until they can be easily pierced with a sharp knife. You may add vanilla bean, or other spices such as clove or cinnamon.
Quince can also be added to savory stews, tagines, pies, tarts or crisps.