Quince (Cydonia oblonga) are an odd fruit, shaped like a knobbly pear, skin the colour of school custard with a downy covering similar to that of a baby bird. And yet, despite being easy to grow in the British climate they’re a bit of a rarity. You won’t find them in supermarkets where a myriad of exotics flown in from abroad are easy to come by. If you’re lucky to have a greengrocer nearby who really knows their stuff you might catch a glimpse of the fruit and it’s unmistakable, almost radioactive, yellow glow.
I first came across this forgotten fruit a few years ago. I’m lucky to live not far from an amazing farmers’ market where twice a month a wealth of locally produced food goes on sale in the village hall. One of the suppliers is an organic fruit grower. He has introduced us to jostaberries, yellow raspberries and an impressive selection of apple varieties including ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’ which does have a pineappley flavour, and ‘Claygate Pearmain’. Then one October Saturday I spotted a tray of quince and I had to snap some up. I wasn’t sure what to do with them but I figured there would be some recipes lurking in my collection of recipe books.
Quince used to be popular here in Britain. It’s ability to work as an accompaniment to meats and cheeses as well as a dessert meant they featured significantly in medieval cooking when the distinction between sweet and savoury food was much more blurred. One drawback though is they can’t be eaten raw when grown in our climate. The flesh is hard, like an unripe pear. Perhaps this explains why quince fell out of favour as our eating habits changed. Cooking softens the flesh and provides the opportunity to add something sweet to reduce the sharpness of the fruit. Quince might not provide the perfect quick snack on the run, like an apple or banana, but the need to spend a little time preparing it isn’t a negative for me. They form part of the bounty of autumn, a time when colder weather and darker nights lend themselves to slow cooked food. A bowl of strawberries wouldn’t satisfy me as it did back in summer, now I crave a crumble, and so far this is my favourite way to eat quince. It’s also rather lovely roasted in wedges with pork chops or you could add it to tagines instead of apricots, like they do in Morocco. Use it in jams and pickles. It’s even a popular flavouring for a fruity brandy in the Balkans.
You can get an idea of the flavour of the fruit from the aroma they emit. Forget those artificial plug-in air fresheners, put a few quince in a bowl and they will fill your room with a beautiful citrus scent until you use them. They last well too, so leaving them in a bowl for several weeks is not a problem. As for the taste, well there’s definitely apple, a hint of orange, the astringency of lemon and a touch of the floral, but not in a parma violets, soapy way. it’s that floral note that elevates quince to a higher fruity level.
Quince are native to western Asia, the area around Afghanistan, Iran and Georgia but they spread into the eastern Mediterranean too and they have been cultivated there for many centuries. The Spanish make dulce membrillo, a fruity paste known as a cheese which goes perfectly as an accompaniment to cheese of the dairy kind. They adapt surprisingly well to growing in our climate, so if you would like to guarantee a supply of the fruit the best way is to grow your own. They are hardy but a warm, sheltered, sunny position is best to protect the blossom from frost and to help the fruit ripen. They are self-fertile so one tree is sufficient and will provide even the most ardent quince-lover enough fruit to get them through the winter. The RHS recommends the varieties ‘Meech’s Prolific’, ‘Vranja Nenadovic’ (AGM) and ‘Portugal’. You might also come across ‘Serbian Gold’ which used to be known as ‘Leskovac’ and is said to be the hardiest and the variety most able to cope with a wetter climate. One of the latest additions is ‘Krymsk’, an introduction from Russia which is said to ripen sufficiently on the tree to be eaten fresh. If you’re tempted then try one of the specialist fruit growers for advice on the best rootstock and which variety would suit your conditions. Otter Farm, Carrob Growers and Brogdale all sell a selection of quince. If space is tight there’s even a patio quince, ‘Sibley’s’, that can be grown in a pot.
You should be able to find quince for sale right through into November so if you can track some down here’s my Spelt, Apple and Quince Crumble recipe.
Ingredients - Enough for 2 but Wellyman does have a big appetite.
- 80g spelt flour for a nutty flavour
- 30g butter
- 20g golden caster sugar
- 1 medium size apple – I like ‘Blenheim Orange’
- 1 quince
- a sprinkle of sugar for the fruit
- Preheat your oven at 180C or gas mark 4.
- Wash the downy bloom from your quince and place whole in a pan with boiling water.
- Cook on a high heat for 10 minutes or until a fork goes into the flesh easily. Then remove from pan and allow to cool.
- Rub the spelt flour and butter together until you have a breadcrumb type texture.
- Stir the sugar into the crumble mixture.
- Cut the quince into chunks, removing the core. You can rub off the skin if you want but it isn’t necessary.
- Prepare your apple, cutting into small chunks and removing the core.
- Add the quince with chopped apple to a baking dish and sprinkle with sugar. Dessert apples are naturally much sweeter than the traditional cooker, ‘Bramley’s’, so you won’t need to use as much sugar. As the quince has a natural sharpness a sweeter apple variety works well in the recipe.
- Then cover with the crumble topping. Place in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes.