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.
Very tasty crumble. 🙂
How very apt! I am just in the proccess of harvesting and using my quinces. Sometimes they are apple- shaped as well as the more common pear shape (they were in fact the “Golden Apple of the Hesperides ” for the Ancient Greeks, not apples or oranges as some sources suggest. So I have to have a tree in my garden. I’ve never heard of being able to eat them without cooking, even here with a long growing season they are hard! You describe the scent well – such a difficult perfume to describe, they smell only of themselves. I make jelly and I add some chilli to one batch to have a hot, spicy, perfumed jelly to have with cheese. I’ll try to post the recipe this week so you can try it.
I think it’s a particular variety that is said to ripen enough to be able to eat raw. Not sure how true this is. I’d love to hear from someone who has eaten one raw and what it’s like. Love the sound of your quince jelly. 🙂
Maureen Maybank said:
I have a young tree here in the Scottish Highlands – Meeches Prolific. Planted in 2006. This year was only its second fruiting but I got 7 lb of fruit! The aroma is wonderful and we do like quince jelly very much.
Thank you Maureen. Sounds like Meech’s Prolific is a good variety if you can grow it in the Highlands. I hope we can fit in a quince in a garden in the future.
How lovely! I haven’t seen any quinces around locally but will keep my eyes peeled. I used to have a small quince shrub (at least, I THOUGHT it was a quince) outside my old house, and once soaked a large preserving jarful of the fruit in rum to make a ratafia. But then lost confidence in the concoction, so it languished, untasted, at the back of the cupboard. The crumble sounds much more palatable. Thank you.
You do get the ornamental quince (Chaenomales) with smaller quince like fruit. My parents had one too and you can eat them, although I don’t think they taste quite the same. I know what you mean though. I have made concoctions too in the past and then got cold feet and thought I would poison us with botulism or misidentification. :0 I have spotted more quince this year than before. I live in a fairly rural spot and the local grocer had some a few weeks ago.
Have you tried quince jam? Very tasty 🙂
No I haven’t yet. Sounds delicious though.
Pat Watson said:
A friend of mine has a lot of Chaenomeles shrubs on his property, rather than a tree, and collects the fruit to make chutneys, often mixed with apple.
My parents use to have an ornamental quince too although I think the flavour is meant to be different to those from the actual quince tree. It would be interesting to know how different they are.
Enjoyed your informative post WW. A quince is one of those fruits like medlars that I would love to grow. We live about three miles away from one of the National Collections of Quinces so have been able to see them and find out quite a bit about them there as well as sample produce. Your recipe sounds rather tasty. Himself has a big appetite too when it comes to crumbles and sometimes second helpings 🙂
Thanks Anna. I’d love space for one too. Maybe when we move. :)I came across that collection, is it the one in Runcorn? I’d love to see the blossom, it’s meant to be lovely.
Interesting post. I have eaten quince and it didn’t really appeal much. xx
Thanks Flighty. I guess it could be an acquired taste. 😉
We just have chaenomeles here. but they do produce a few fruit which I add to apple crumble to make a change.
Annette’s Garden at http://www.personaleden.wordpress.com has a recipe at the moment for upside down quince tart.
Hi Pauline, I had heard that it was possible to use the fruit from the ornamental quince in cooking too. I wonder how much their flavour differs from actual quince. Thanks for the link. Will take a look. 🙂
Esther Montgomery said:
I’m rattling my brain to think when and why I ate something with quince in. When I got to the cheese bit . . . that sounded familiar. I seem to remember something slightly clear, slightly firm and slightly gritty. Could that have been it?
The firm and gritty bits sound right but I’m not sure about the clear. The quince paste I have seen is always a pink-red colour. Intriguing.
It’s not a fruit I’ve ever tasted but you’ve piqued my interest now! I had read about it in Mark Diacono’s book and there’s a Chaenomeles shrub in the grounds at my college – last year the fruit was left to fall onto the ground, as will be the medlars and any other edibles. I like the sound of a spiced chilli-fied quince jelly with cheese! If I had my own garden I would now be adding a quince tree to my wishlist for christmas!
It would be on my wishlist too. I might consider the dwarf, patio version. At least then it can come with us. The fruit of the chaenomeles are meant to taste quite different from the actual quince but I haven’t tried them. It would be interesting to compare.
I noticed that there’s a lot of fruit on the chaenomeles when I walked past a couple of days ago. I might have to take my secateurs when I next go walkabout at college. 😉
I have had two recent offers of fruit, but not from local friends unfortunately – you make them sound so enticing!
I hope you get a chance to taste them. Maybe your friends could post them to you. 😉
Weeding the Web said:
My husband planted a quince tree about three years ago. This year there are several fruit on the tree and we’ve already eaten one because it was a windfall. Highly under-rated, undeservedly neglected. Added a spiciness to apple that made it taste as if ground spices had been added. Don’t store them with other fruit, though. They’re said to perfume everything around them.
I agree, a much under-rated fruit. Hopefully due a bit of a revival.
Oh dear. You write too well. That is yet another tree I want to plant. I don’t have room for all these trees! But that crumble sounds so delicious…
:0 I’m sorry Janet. By the time I’d finished writing it I wanted one too. Maybe we should try the patio one. I’m always a little dubious about all those smaller fruit tree types they suggest in the catalogues as I think they might be a bit gimmicky but maybe it’s a good option. Transportable too. 😉
We grow Meeches Prolific quince and have just harvested the fruit ( I posted about it only this week) but many of the fruits had bitter pit which was a disappointment, We’ve used ours to mix with apples to make crumbles. To me the taste is very honey like.
Incidentally we also grow jostaberries and yellow raspberries!
We were given a tray of quinces by a friend recently, and I’d not tried them before that. We made them all into quince jelly and are loving it. We’ve been eating it with bread/cheese and stirred through porridge. I’m also looking forward to adding dollops of it to apple crumbles this winter.
The quince is no longer a forgotten fruit in Australia – it has been remembered, but is now a trendy fruit for foodies – gourmet quince pastes cost the earth. And to think it was a common fruit grown around every farmhouse and in lots of backyards only two generations ago. Fashion is so strange. I only grow the ornamental one, but the small fruit taste exactly the same as the large ones.
I’ve never even seen a quince, never mind tried one. They always remind me of The Owl and the Pussycat though.