It’s a lump fruit, with a mottled pale yellow skin and a very sour taste.
It’s probably because of its sour taste that it hasn’t been bred to food photography perfection, as for instance, pears and apples have been. They’re all cousins, by the way — apples, pears and quinces — all members of the rose family. But what its cousins got in taste, the quince got in smell: it has a fragrant aroma just sitting in a fruit bowl as you set them out to ripen. Because of that aroma, they were often studded with cloves and used as room fresheners.
For our modern Western tastes, quince is too hard and too sour to eat raw. In the Middle East and in some parts of Latin America, though, they will be eaten raw. In the Middle East, where fruits are often combined with savoury items, quinces are frequently found in meat stews.
We have tended to use them in desserts and preserves, where sweetener can be added to compensate for the sourness — just as you would for rhubarb, for instance. Quinces are ideal for preserves, in fact, because they have a large amount of naturally occurring pectin. As a sauce (similar to apple sauce) or jelly, the sourness works really well with fatty foods.
Quinces can be round like an apple, or shaped like a pear with a shorter neck, and range in size from that of an apple to that of a grapefruit. Some varieties are oval. These days, your best chance of finding quinces is at ethnic markets. You want ones that are hard (this is contrary to instinct when choosing fruit, but a soft Quince is on its way out and will be mealy.) Don’t worry if the yellow skin looks imperfect because it has brown spots on it: that doesn’t affect the fruit, and besides, that’s just how they come. Avoid any that are wrinkled or brown all over.
Maybe someday quince will make a comeback. After all, tart cranberries are everywhere today, and sour rhubarb is even starting to make a break out of its pie rut.
Peel, then cut. But be forewarned — if you’ve ever cut into a pumpkin or a good hard squash, that’s about what you’re going to be up against when you tackle a Quince, so have a good knife ready. Quinces need 30 to 40 minutes of simmering cooking to soften them up. Or, pressure cook on high (13 to 15 lbs) for 4 to 5 minutes.
When cooked, the flesh turns rose-coloured and gives off a pleasing fragrance. A slice or two tossed into anything involving apples or pears, such as pies or cakes, really complements them. Quince sauce, like apple sauce, is really good with meat, especially pork.
1 pound = 450g = 3 to 4 medium ones = 1 1/2 cups chopped
4.5 kg quinces, boiled with 1 litre of water and strained == 2.5 litres (10 cups) of quince juice
Store apart from other fruit as the other fruit may absorb the strong perfume from the quince. If the quinces you buy have not completely yellowed yet, then they need to ripen. Keep them out of the refrigerator until they do go yellow all over and start to give off a perfumey aroma. When they hit this point, you need to use them right away so that they don’t keep on ripening and go mealy, or refrigerate for up to two more weeks before using.
Native to the Black Sea area, such as Southern Georgia, Iran and Turkey, where wild forms of it still grow. The first traces of it being cultivated were in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Quince fans maintain that the golden apple that started the Trojan War was actually a quince. Certainly, it featured as a ritual item in Greek wedding ceremonies as early as 600 BC. In ancient Athens, people would toss quinces into the bridal chariot or waggon.
The Romans used quince. For them, the fruit was sacred to Venus, and it was depicted in artwork in Pompeii. They would preserve quinces whole in honey and wine. Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), in his Natural History (xv. II) mentions the belief that quince would ward off the evil eye.
Cato (234 – 149 BC) mentions 3 types of Quinces: Cotonea Scantiana, Quiriniana, and Mala Struthea, which despite the mala (“apple”) name, was a quince. (De Re Rustica, Chap. 7)
English colonists in Virginia brought quince to North America. Before baked apples were “invented”, the British were doing the same with Quinces. Marmalade was made from quinces long before someone had the idea of using bitter oranges.
Literature & Lore
“They dined on mince and pieces of quince which they ate with a runcible spoon.” — Edward Lear (1812 – 1888), “The Owl and the Pussycat”. First published 1871.
“Quince Marmelade: Take of the fairest quinces, wash them very clean, grate them very small, and wring out as much juice as you can; then take other quinces and cut them into six pieces, put them into a pot, let them be evapoured with hot water, until they be throughly mellow; then take half a pot-full of the former juice, and pour it upon the former, stew’d and cut to pieces; break it well together, and put the rest of the juice amongst it, then wring it through a clean thin cloth; seeth no more of this juice at once than will fill a box therewith, and put white Sugar to it, as much as you please.” Hannah Woolley. The Gentlewomans Companion. London. 1673.
In old French, quince was called “coin”. This became “quin” in Middle English, whose plural was “quins”. The plural became used as the singular, “quince”; the plural is now “quinces”.
Slater, Nigel. Nigel Slater’s quintessential quince. Manchester: The Observer. 29 November 2009.