The wintry season will see more of us embracing time in our kitchens. Conditions are right for finding a cooking project with a modest learning curve and big rewards. It’s an opportune moment to discover quince, the final act in the year’s fruit season.
Quince is ginkgo-leaf yellow when ripe, and the pome is sensual to the eye and in hand — all Rubenesque curves and dimples. It was a symbol of love, happiness and fertility for the ancient Greeks. But its sauterne scent is the real seduction: honey, ripe pineapple and antique roses.
“In the orchard, the ripe fruit is so fragrant it’s a challenge to evaluate individual varieties for aroma,” says Joseph Postman, retired curator and plant pathologist at the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository.
Cutting into the fruit the first time is a strange experience. The flesh is dense, dry, a little woody even. The core has an almond-like shape, and the membrane containing the tiny mahogany seeds — the endocarp — is thick and tough. Slice the fruit into wedges and then carefully cut out the core by making a deepish V with a paring knife or using a melon baller. For kitchen tool geeks, a peach pitting spoon works a charm.
It needs cooking — and not just a little. Watching the fruit turn a sunset palette of rose-orange shades while poaching is a small miracle. The plant pigment anthocyanin is responsible, and the intensity depends on the varietal’s tannin content. Heat creates the magic. Spooning wedges out of ruby syrup on a blustery day is restorative for the senses and spirit.
Quince season is short, from October into December, and crops are as small as demand. The tree thrives in hot, dry conditions and is not terribly cold tolerant. Sometimes the fruit is available out of season, but cut into it, and the flesh is brown throughout from late harvesting or growing and storing in suboptimal conditions.
“The Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas are the fruit’s center of origin,” says Postman. It has grown wild for centuries, and agrarian Levantine, Sephardic and Orthodox Christian communities around the Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea and North Africa cook with it. Ripe fruit is preserved into jams, jellies and sweet pastes.
Out of a desire to hold tight to the memory of her Armenian grandmother, Barbara Ghazarian wrote a cookbook, “Simply Quince” (Mayreni Publishing, 2009). “There were three trees in her yard, and she put the fruit down every fall,” she says. “When my family would visit on a high-holiday afternoon, she would serve thin slices of candied quince along with strong coffee.”
The sweet sounds like gliko, a sugar-saturated confit of fruit from the southern Albanian city of Përmet, which the Slow Food Presidium has protectively embraced, calling it “a largely forgotten gastronomic treasure.”
A year ago, Aya Wadi and her mother, Duha Shaar, opened a restaurant, Royal Aleppo Food, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In return for their warmth and hospitality, they received an abundance of attention and goodwill, including a spot in the UN Refugee Agency’s beautiful free cookbook, “Tastes From Home.”
Eating kibbe bi safarjaliyeh, a savory meat and quince dish from Aleppo, Syria, on the first night of Eid stirs up happy memories. But the Wadis’ northern location means the window of availability is smaller. After their first year without quince, they began freezing an annual supply, cutting the fruit into large chunks and simmering it in water with salt and citric acid to prevent oxidation. “My father bought a big box of about 100 quinces,” she says with a laugh. “People were wondering what he was doing with them.”
The fruit is still a mystery to most North Americans. The organic orchardist Tremaine Arkley built a market for his quince through Portland, Ore., restaurants, a good move from a consumer education perspective. Who better to demystify the fruit and bring out its allure than chefs?
He grows the varietal Portugal and has 250 trees on his farm in Independence, Ore., in the Willamette Valley. “It’s flavorful, easy to grow, has a smooth skin and is a good size,” he says, “They can get to be a pound apiece.” He also sells to farmers markets and cider and spirit makers.
Growth may be promising in the hard cider and spirit market, but there are challenges, too. The fruit is not as juicy as apples or pears and is tannic. Varieties better suited to juicing are not grown commercially in the United States. “Out of 10 bushels, we got maybe a couple of gallons of juice,” says distiller Jamie Oakes of Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire. Using a hand-crank press is strenuous work, and because the seeds are high in pectin, it can gum up the mechanics of a commercial hydraulic press.
Steven Grasse, the CEO of Quaker City Mercantile and owner of Tamworth Distilling, produced a small-batch Ginger Quince Cordial in 2019. Sourcing local fruit — a core value of the business — is a big challenge. “We use the distillery test kitchen to do the craziest stuff with spirits in small batches to increase our knowledge,” he says, “We’re in a rural community in the White Mountains, and what we produce is wilderness-to-table.”
Grasse wrote a charming and informative book, “Colonial Spirits,” in 2016 that includes a recipe for quince wine. It reads like a worthy undertaking for a history nerd crossed with a curious home beverage maker — something to brighten faltering spirits come February.
For the home cook, toss the poached fruit into a fall salad. Its sweetness and squash-like texture pair beautifully with bitter leafy greens, toasted nuts and shaved root vegetables. Or sprinkle the fruit with rose water and serve with a creamy pudding.
Ghazarian likes to chop raw quince and add it to stuffing for roast turkey or pork. “A slice or two of quince in autumn put into chicken stock gives an excellent flavour,” writes Patience Gray in her book “Honey From A Weed.”
Sweet quince paste — membrillo from Spain or Latin America and cotognata from Italy — are a natural with buttery gorgonzola or crumbly aged queso manchego.
But the exquisite pleasure of the fruit is not just in the eating. A pottery bowl of quince on a kitchen table, waiting to be cooked, is an antidote to the gray flannel days in late fall. The vibrant yellow color of the skin and their exotic scent brighten the room and lift the spirit.