Maricel Presilla of Zafra in Hoboken recalls eating quince paste in her native Cuba.
Jeanne Colleluori, a spokesperson for Wegmans Food Markets, remembers her mother stewing quinces picked from a tree near their home outside Rochester, NY. As a youngster in Germany, Thomas Ciszak, the executive chef at the Copeland Restaurant in Morristown, used to watch his mother and grandmother put up quinces in mason jars.
As a child in West Virginia, James Kesler of Tree-Licious Orchards in Port Murray ate toast with his grandmother’s quince jelly.
Andre de Waal of Andre’s Restaurant and Wine Boutique in Newton came to appreciate the taste of quinces as an adult. Dan Adickes of Mountain Top Orchards in Glen Gardner still tends the quince trees his father planted some 40 years ago.
Popular with home gardeners for their showy pink or white flowers, quince trees embellish gardens grand and small throughout the northeast. They tolerate our seasons well, and flourish with little fuss. And yet, there’s not much of a market for the astringent fruit.
“They’re still considered an oddity,” said Bill Tietjen, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Warren County. “You can’t eat them out of hand. You’ve got to process them in some way to make them edible. Nowadays, it’s all about convenience.”
Already Adickes has harvested his Wayne’s County Orange variety of quinces for sale at the Paterson farmers’ market each weekend. “They’re running small this year,” he said — about a quarter to a half-inch smaller than usual — but he’s happy with the taste. “They’ve got a faint orange flavor to them.” Toward the end of the month he’ll harvest his Champion variety.
Customers for his quinces, which he sells for $5 for a two-quart basket, reflect a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Eastern Europeans favor the fruit for jams and marmalades; Arabs incorporate it into sauces and cooked dishes; Italians shape quince jam in decorative molds for cotognata, a traditional treat for All Souls’ Day; and Latin Americans craft quinces into membrillo, a sweet paste served with Manchego cheese.
Yet, Adickes cultivates only 15 quince trees because, he said, “there’s not the demand for them.”
The policy at Wegmans Food Markets is to make quinces, which retails for $1.50 apiece, available to all the stores in the chain. “But not all our stores choose to carry them because they’re not a big seller,” said Colleluori. Typically they’re brought in from California from April to July and again from September through December. “Four of our New Jersey stores show sales of quinces in the last month or so,” she added.
At the New York Greenmarkets where Kesler brings his fruit, people have begun asking for quinces. “The people who like quince like it a lot,” he said. He expects to start picking them by this weekend. “We need some cool weather to make the fruit go from green to yellow,” he said. “I’ll selectively pick the ones with the best color in accordance with the demand.” He expects he’ll have the fruit harvested off his 50 Champion quince trees by mid-November. That’s around the time that de Waal expects to reintroduce quinces to his menu. “When we get a little closer to Thanksgiving I work them in. Although the calendar says it’s autumn, the weather has not let us escape to the fall yet.”
De Waal uses quinces to temper the richness of his foie gras and makes a quince “butter” to accompany his cheese platter. But, he admits, “quince doesn’t have menu appeal. It’s a cook’s fruit, not a consumer’s fruit. Because it can be tart and tannic, it might be intimidating to the home cook.”
It’s precisely because quince is uncommon that Ciszak likes to use it at the Copeland. Currently, he’s making quince ragout to accompany a foie gras mousse and includes quinces and apples in his lentil and duck cassoulet. “It keeps a great texture, but quince is mostly used by me for fragrance,” he said. “I always describe it as between a pear and an apple, but more fragrant. It’s almost like potpourri you set out in a bowl.” Indeed, Adickes has heard of people putting quinces in their closet “to make their clothes smell pretty.”
A member of the rose family and native to northern Persia, quinces may have been the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, as well as the “golden apple” prize that Paris awarded the goddess Aphrodite in exchange for Helen of Troy. In ancient Rome, bridal couples would share a quince, considered a symbol of love and fertility, on their wedding day. The custom continued into the Middle Ages.
“It is the quintessential medieval fruit tree, as it grew in every medieval orchard,” said Presilla. “There’s something very voluptuous and beautiful about quince. It’s very structural. In Spain I would display the fruit as a sculpture, something I still do. But I love cooking quince for its aroma and flavor.”
Presilla recommends poaching quartered quinces in a floral white wine, such as Torontes from Argentina, mixed with sugar, lime juice, cinnamon and anise. For a savory application, she suggests making quince chutney by combining it with onions, hot Andean peppers, mustard seeds, and toasted cumin. In Greek cuisine, whole quinces are filled, like bell peppers, with a variety of meat and rice stuffings, and then baked.
High in pectin, quinces adds body, as well as flavor and fragrance, to fruit pies. As long as it’s cooked long enough to allow its dense flesh to soften, quinces can be used in place of pears in most recipes, said Ciszak. “It’s a good fall fruit because it’s something you have to cook,” said de Waal. “It lends itself naturally to the cold weather.”