Ask five people what they know about quince and chances are three of them will say, “Quints? You mean quintuplets?”
“Unfortunately quinces are a little bit of an anachronism in our day and age,” admits Christof Bernau, Garden Manager and Instructor at UCSC’s Farm and Garden, which has half a dozen quince trees. “It’s not a fruit that’s well known or recognized in the United States.”
To the uninitiated, a quince looks like a cross between an apple and a lumpy pear. Its slightly fuzzy skin ranges from warm gold to mottled orange depending on the variety, such as Pineapple Quince, citrusy Orange Quince and the absurdly large Jumbo Quince. Quinces are firm like butternut squash and when ripe emit a rich aroma with tropical undertones.
According to mythology, the quince was a gift from Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Thus quinces are widely represented in Greek paintings and mosaics as a symbol of commitment and fertility. An Athenian wedding tradition called for friends and family to toss quinces into the bridal chariot after a wedding. Some scholars even believe that quince may have been the “forbidden fruit” that Eve fed to Adam.
Take one bite of a raw quince and you’ll understand why Eve was ousted from the garden. Despite their alluring fragrance, quinces are unpalatable in their natural state. Their hard, pale flesh is dry and bitter. It takes extended cooking to draw out a quince’s sweet complex flavor. In the process, its sallow flesh morphs into a blushing, rosy hue, striking in tarts, preserves and jellies. In fact, quince is considered the initial fruit of marmalade, which originated in Portugal in the 1500s centuries before the orange variety. Still widely grown in Turkey, South America, and throughout the Mediterranean, quinces are considered a specialty item in the United States where there are very few trees in production.
However, local growers such as Brandon Faria of Watsonville understand the necessity of time for cultivating and enjoying these quirky fruits. “I was introduced to quince by my grandma Henriqueta, who remembers them from the Azores,” Faria says.
The Azores are composed of nine volcanic islands situated in the North Atlantic off the coast of Portugal. There, on the small island of Faial, the Faria family lived off the land, bartering for their basic necessities. In 1957 there was a major eruption on the eastern side of the island, which together with a heavy earthquake destroyed a significant portion of land. Henriqueta fled with her husband and three children, including Brandon’s father, Manuel.
The resilient family started over in Watsonville where Manuel established Spring Hills Farm and worked throughout the 70s and 80s. Brandon was brought up in agriculture, attending the Business Ag and Technology Academy at Watsonville High School. Then, disaster struck in the form of the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. Once again, the family lost everything.
Faria tells this story with remarkable candor, his voice resonating with pride rather than anger. “After you lose land, it’s almost impossible to get it back,” he says. But after 15 years of hard work and unstinting faith, the Faria family recently began Faria Farms at 785 Travers Lane.
“We are so privileged that we were given the gift of this land,” Faria says. “It was an old run-down orchard that hadn’t been pruned or picked for three years. My job is to bring some life back into it.”
To that end, Faria and his family tend about 75 different varieties of fruit trees including peaches, plums, figs, nectarines, olives and Smyrna Quince, an heirloom variety thought to originate in Smyrna, Turkey.
“We always canned and saved our seeds,” Faria explains. “It’s important to preserve those old heirloom varieties. My grandma was so excited when she saw that we had quince here. I love bringing that tradition back, a fruit that she [grew up] baking. Grandma always prepared it as marmalade, but my favorite way to use quince is in apple pie. Add a quince and it’ll be the best pie you’ve had in your life.”
“Quince does well combined with apples or pears in recipes or substituted for them,” agrees Jennifer Brewer, Culinary Educator for New Leaf Community Markets. “I like to add quince to apple pie because it turns sweet but stays pretty firm. They’re also very high in pectin, a natural gelling agent. That’s why you find quince in jams and jellies. Another great option is to chop them up and make chutney for the holidays. You can also make quince sauce instead of apple sauce to serve with cooked meats for that delicious sweet/salty contrast.”
Bernau, of UCSC’s Farm and Garden, appreciates what he calls the “nice perfuminess and spiciness” of a slow-cooked quince. Bernau suggests pouring warm quince compote over ice cream or whipping up some rustic membrillo. A tradition of Spain and Portugal, membrillo is a thick, sweet quince paste commonly served at room temperature to accompany savory cheeses such as Manchego. For a great membrillo recipe, Bernau recommends Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook, where you’ll also find recipes for saffron-infused lamb tangine with quinces and poached quinces with vanilla.
However people use his produce, Faria is just happy to be living off the land again, spreading his passion for organic farming and carrying on his family’s proud agricultural tradition. At Faria Farms, he still plants by the moon cycles, just the way his grandmother Henriqueta taught him.
“She can put a stick in the ground and it’ll grow!” he says with a laugh.
And I’ll bet she makes a mean marmalade.
How To Shop
Quinces are available from September through December. Choose firm, smooth fruit with few traces of green. Store at room temperature until yellow all over with a pleasant aroma. You can store ripe quince in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Quince and Apple Crumb Pie
1 large quince, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
5 medium baking apples, cored, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Tbs lemon juice
¾ cup unrefined sugar
2 Tbs all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp sea salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unrefined sugar
½ cup butter or trans-fat free margarine
One unbaked 9-inch pie shell
Preheat oven to 375º. Place quince and apples in a large bowl and toss with lemon juice. In a small bowl, mix together sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Toss with apples until evenly coated. Spoon mixture into pie shell. Mix together 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup sugar. Cut in butter or margarine with a fork or pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle mixture over apple filling. Cover top loosely with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until top is golden brown.
-- from Jennifer Brewer, New Leaf Community Markets
Quince and Cranberry Chutney
You can make this chutney up to 3 days in advance. Keep tightly covered and refrigerated.
1 ½ cups apple cider
½ cup unrefined sugar
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup minced peeled fresh ginger
2 tsp grated orange peel
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
¼ tsp sea salt
1 pound quinces (about 3 medium), peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes
12 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
In a medium saucepan, combine the apple cider, sugar, vinegar, ginger, orange peel, cardamom, cayenne and salt and bring to a boil over a medium heat. Add the quince, cover and cook until slightly tender, about 10-15 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the quince to a bowl.
Add the cranberries to the pan. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the berries just begin to pop, about 5 minutes. Strain into a separate bowl, reserving liquid and add the drained cranberries to the quince. Return the liquid to the pan, and boil over moderately high heat until reduced by half, about 5 min. Pour over the quince/cranberry mixture and let cool. Makes 3 ½ to 4 cups.
-- from Jennifer Brewer, New Leaf Community Markets
Grandma Henriqueta’s Original Quince Marmalade
Cut the quinces into quarters and take the seeds out, then chop into smaller pieces. Put the quince pieces into a preserving kettle and fill with just enough water to barely cover. Cook slowly until soft. Press through a hair sieve. Then add ¾ its weight of heated sugar. [ed note: Warm sugar by placing it in a steel bowl in a 250º oven for 5 minutes or microwave in a nonmetallic bowl for 1 minute.] Cook slowly for twenty minutes or so. Stir occasionally. Put into tumblers.