Demystifying The Quince Those who haven't discovered the beguiling fragrance and subtle flavor of the quince might turn up their noses at the rock-hard, waxy-skinned fruit in the market. But the holidays are high time for a revival of this nostalgic relative of apples and pears.

Demystifying The Quince

Laura McCandlish for NPR
Quinces
Laura McCandlish for NPR

Until recently, I had never seen a fresh quince. I knew quince paste, or membrillo, from Spanish cheese plates. I knew that Korean friends boiled down quince juice into a tea.

However, since moving to Oregon I've found quinces at the local farmers market and even growing on trees in my neighborhood. In fact, it turns out that the most diverse quince grove in North America, if not the world, thrives at a U.S. Department of Agriculture gene bank just down the road.

Still, close proximity to quinces doesn't necessarily give you the nerve to try the rock-hard, acerbic fruit. But last spring, I had my quince revelation. Just one bite of the tangy, poached morsel on a charcuterie plate had me counting the days until this fall's season.

In late September, I huddled beside our market director, staking my claim on her orchard's first-to-ripen crop. She even spikes her apple cider with quince.

I began more humbly, slipping the peeled fruit into a pie. With their beguiling fragrance and subtle flavor, quinces naturally partner with their more universally beloved pome sisters, apple and pear.

A quince is a fruit of contradictions. It's generally too astringent to eat raw, yet it smells so guava-sweet. Its white, dry, hard flesh blushes and softens, without turning mushy, when cooked. It has tough, waxy skin that bruises more easily than you'd think.

Revered since antiquity, quinces are still treasured all over the globe. With their high pectin content, quinces lend themselves to jellies, pastes and preserves. The word marmalade, after all, derives from the Portuguese name for quince.

In the United States, quinces were common in the garden and in the kitchen from colonial days through the 19th century, until the advent of commercial gelatin and pectin. Americans instead turned to sweeter, eat-out-of-hand fruits.

About The Author

Laura McCandlish is an Oregon-based freelance writer. She contributes to The Oregonian's FOODday section and hosts a monthly food show on Portland radio station KBOO. She blogs at baltimoregon.com.

Now, underground enthusiasts are reviving the nostalgic fruit, hoping quince can resurge just like once-forgotten rhubarb. A motley tribe recently gathered here in Corvallis for an "unappreciated fruits" event. Home orchardists and horticulturalists, members of Slow Food USA's endangered foods board, and Lebanese and Iranian natives longing for quince, their grandmother's stewing staple, rounded out the crowd.

One key question divided the devotees: Can a quince be eaten raw? Yes, evidently — depending on the variety. That weekend, we walked among the hundred or so clones at the USDA orchard, sampling some quite palatable ones from their native Caucasus region. They tasted juicy and crisp, with notes of raspberry and star fruit. No chalkiness. On hand was famed fruit sleuth and food writer David Karp, who advocates biting right into the sometimes elusive, sweeter-fleshed quince. He hopes an apple-like variety brought here from Peru will soon be tested and rolled out for commercial cultivation.

Many fans agree with cookbook author Barbara Ghazarian that the quince is "the quintessential slow food," whose magic is only revealed through cooking. She just published a culinary tome devoted to the forbidden fruit (botanists believe the quince, not an apple, was Eve's true Garden of Eden temptation). Drawing on the recipes of her Armenian ancestors, Ghazarian includes savory preparations, such as lamb-stuffed quince dolmas and a sweet-tart quince and parsnip stew.

She, like many chefs, recommends poaching quinces over a low flame for several hours. Try simmering slices of them in a sweetened white wine syrup (think Riesling), with a touch of vanilla bean and citrus zest. Reusing the poaching liquid for subsequent batches only intensifies the sections' ruby color. Cooking the quince coaxes out the anticarcinogen anthocyanins, those purple pigments also found in berries. These jewels then caramelize when baked into a tart.

By now you're thinking, great, you live in the Mediterranean-like Willamette Valley, where quinces flourish. Where can I buy them? Try upscale grocers and ethnic markets, which ship them in from California. The San Joaquin Valley grows most of the country's quinces, primarily the most common Pineapple variety, on a scant couple of hundred acres. That's all we demand.

But first, search for ones from your local apple or pear vendor. They're readily available at farmers markets in the East. Unfortunately, quinces fall prey to fire blight in humid parts of the country. More ubiquitous are flowering quince shrubs, a different genus from the fruit-bearing Cydonia oblonga. They do, however, produce small pomes that can be substituted in some recipes.

With a season that runs through December, quinces make an aromatic holiday centerpiece. How can you tell they're ripe? Rubbing off their fuzz should reveal a bright, yellow peel. Better yet, just follow your nose. A quince's perfume should fill a room.