The question, from a woman in a green windbreaker, was directed at the vendor, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“It’s a quince – it’s like the essence of apple, multiplied by 10, only you have to cook it before you can eat it. They’re fabulous!”
I do that when I’m at the farmers’ market: Engage in conversations with total strangers about food, and the preparation thereof. It’s part of what makes a local market so much more enjoyable than, say, a quick trip to Safeway. Strangers talk to each other; community happens over a bin of ripe, red tomatoes, a mountain of sweet corn – or a basket full of quinces.
The green windbreaker lady was interested but skeptical; she walked away with a bag of pears but no quinces. But the vendor seemed pleased. She should be; she’s the one who introduced me to the joys of quinces, and I’ve become one of a cadre of quince-lovers who snatch up the hard, golden fruits each autumn when she brings them to market.
“Quince” is one of those words I first encountered in literature (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and in my mother’s dog-eared copy of the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School cookbook, handed down from the grandmother who raised her. I had no idea what a quince actually was, mind you. In my mind’s eye, I imagined it as a small, round fruit, something like a kumquat, probably because of the “qu-” sound they shared. And knew that one could make jelly from it, as well as something called quince paste. It sounded genteel, ladylike and vaguely Victorian.
Imagine my surprise, during a stroll through the market two autumns ago, at encountering the real thing: A hard, yellow-gold fruit the size of a man’s fist, slightly pear-shaped and covered with a soft, waxy down that rubs off on your fingertips. And the fragrance! Quince has an intense perfume reminiscent of apples and honey, only more so.
I bought two on the spot, having no idea what I’d do with them. And then, like any good foodblogger, sat down at the computer to do a little research.
What the heck is a quince, anyway? Cydonia oblonga, botanically speaking: one of the most venerable fruits of the rose family, probably older than apples – and, many scholars believe, the fruit that got mistranslated as “apple” from many ancient writings, from the Greek mythologies to the Christian Bible. Given the quince’s origins in the temperate climate of the Caucasus and Mediterranean fertile crescent, it may well have been the fruit that tempted Eve, and the apple Paris handed Aphrodite.
In practice, quince is one of those Difficult Fruits. You can’t eat it raw – it’s too hard and too astringent, as anyone who’s tried to nibble its flesh will tell you (can you say “pucker”?) But those very qualities, caused by an abundance of natural pectins, also make cooked quince a natural for jellies and preserves (marmalade, now mostly made with oranges and other citrus fruits, originated in the Middle Ages as a way preserving quinces in honey).
Popular among colonial American gardeners, the quince has fallen out of favor in North America, replaced by fruits that are easier to eat and cultivate. Fireblight, a bacterial orchard disease, has wiped out many old stands of quince in the United States.
But some growers, particularly those who cultivate heirloom tree fruit, still grow quince, and now and then the fruit turns up in farm or specialty markets. Around here, First Fruits Farms grows beautiful quince, big and heavy and golden-ripe, and when I see them, I snatch them up.
What to do with all that quince? Most often, I simple cut them up and add them to applesauce for an extra boost of flavor. Lately, though, I’ve been branching out.
Google, my personal cybernetic brain enhancement, leads to all manner of lovely things to do with quince:
- David Leibovitz gives us a simple recipe for quince poached in sugar-and-vanilla syrup
- Via In Praise of Sardines, Paula Wolfert’s recipe for slow-baked quince, along with an explanation of why the fruit turns pink when cooked.
- From The Traveler’s Lunchbox, the classic Spanish dulce de membrillo, a solid quince paste most often eaten with pungent cheeses
- SimplyRecipes provides a clear quince jelly that takes advantage of the fruit’s natural pectins
- And from Lucullian Delights, an inventive recipe for quince with rosemary, pine nuts honey and rum
What really caught my attention this week, though, were recipes for Greek and Middle Eastern meals that combine quince with lamb to make a fragrant, fruity stew. I already had tender lamb rib chops from Wood Family Farm, but they’re better grilled or pan-fried than stewed. It seemed as if there ought to be a way to treat the meat the way it deserved to be treated and still enjoy the complex, fruity flavors of those stews and tagines.
And so, after poring over a few dozen recipes and rummaging through my pantry to see what I had on hand, I set out to improvise and deconstruct. What I wound up with was both easy and terrific: Succulent, spicy lambchops and tender, fragrant fruit; perfect fare for a chilly fall evening.
- 1 large quince, peeled, cored and sliced into half-inch-thick pieces
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 Tbsp honey
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 tsp culinary rosewater (you could substitute vanilla)
Combine water, sugar, honey and lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add quince, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until quince is tender and rosy-hued. Stir in rosewater, if you have it. This much can be made ahead; if you do, return it briefly to the burner to reheat while the lamb is cooking.
- 4-6 small lamb rib chops, trimmed of excess fat
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1Tbsp olive oil
- Juice of the other half lemon
Rinse the lamb chops and pat them dry. Mix spices and rub them all over the chops. Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Add chops and cook 4 minutes, then turn and cook 3 minutes on the other side. Remove meat to a warmed plate.
Ladle 1/2 cup of the syrup from the cooked quinces into the skillet; stir to scrape up the browned spices and meat drippings. Boil until the liquid is reduced by half; add lemon juice and salt, if needed, to taste.
Serve the chops alongside the quince (strained from the cooking syrup with a slotted spoon; reserve the syrup for some other use), and with couscous tossed with chopped dried apricots and toasted almonds. Spoon the pan sauce over all. Serves 2.
Postscript: Not long after falling in love with quinces, I was heading out for a coffee break at work when I stopped in my tracks across the street from my office. The ground was absolutely littered with quinces. Glancing up, I discovered that an unassuming tree I’d never really noticed among the landscaping was, in fact, a quince.
When I got back to work, I called the groundskeeping office. Would they object, I asked,if I collected some of the quinces that fell on the ground? Far from it, came the reply – they’d be glad to have some help clearing them off the walk.
So it is that each October I find myself toting plastic grocery sacks to work, and spending my breaks gleaning fallen quinces. Here’s where the fruit’s hard texture is a plus; the ones that land in the flower beds suffer barely a bruise. My co-workers (who think I’m nuts, anyway) are used to those few weeks each fall when my office reeks of quince.