Quince is a common sight in Portuguese gardens. It can’t be said with certainty when it arrived, but it has travelled here from the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, somewhere between Persia and Turkmenistan, where it originates. It is known to have been cultivated for over 5,000 years, making it the most ancient fruit of all.
Throughout its long history, it is not surprising that quince has been implicated in multiple stories and historical events. It was apparently most likely a bite of quince, rather than an apple, that got Eve evicted from the Gardens of Eden!
During the Middle Ages, quince was propelled to the culinary heights by the sheer fact that it needed cooking. At the time, when raw fruits were regarded as potentially dangerous and treated with suspicion, quince was hailed for its ability to withstand heat and transform into a bright ruby-orange jelly, a pleasure for the eye and the palate.
It was the abundance of pectin that helped quince mark its place in the gastronomic history, so much so that the Medieval recipes of ‘marmelada’, a Portuguese fruit cheese (from ‘marmelo’, quince in Portuguese), still stand true.
In fact, it was with the nudge from Portuguese that the term ‘marmalade’ entered the English language. It started when the King Henry VIII received a box of ‘marmelada’ from a certain Mr. Hull of Exter. The said marmalade was allegedly a favourite of Anne Boleyn and her court, and was equally praised by Mary, Queen of Scots, who claimed that it helped her combat sea sickness when crossing from Calais to Scotland in 1561.
For its digestive and culinary properties, quince was usually served at the end of the dinner, and it is known to have crowned several royal banquets such as, for instance, the coronation of Richard III.
In the current day and age, quince is considered to be a difficult fruit – it is a cook’s fruit. Ironically, what once brought it to fame, is now causing its demise. And indeed, it is somewhat treacherous to deal with. Whilst its voluptuous form lures one in to take a bite with a delicate fragrance of citrus, honey and rose, its flesh resists such action and attacks with the wicked astringent and even sour sensation. It does not taste the way it looks, and it can’t be eaten right off the tree. What kind of fruit is that? It must be playing hard to get, one might wonder.
However, those who are willing to put in an effort and break through its defences are ever so generously rewarded. Poach it in wine or sugar syrup with a vanilla bean and serve it as a dessert. Give a go to making a jelly, and enjoy it with cheese, yoghurt, or toast.
My most favourite combination includes the additions of orange and cardamon for extra flavour. Make sure to put cooked fruits through a strainer for superior texture. Slow cook it in a tagine-like dish with a meat of your choice – lamb and pork are particularly spectacular for their ability to handle the sweetness and fruitiness of the quince.
Make a liquor of quince and apples by infusing the roasted fruits with some sugar syrup and brandy. Top the infusion with sparkling wine or champaign for a celebratory drink.
Quince is as equally helpful outside the kitchen as it is inside one. In her book titled The Book of Difficult Fruit, Kate Lebo gives a recipe of a bandoline, aka a gel-like substance that helps to keep hair in place. Her recipe includes combining 20gr of quince seeds with 800gr of water and leaving the mixture overnight. The following day, pectin forms a glutinous cloud around the seeds that should be extracted by straining. The resulting goo can then be used to control hair or even to soothe sore throats – yet another miracle property of this majestic fruit, a truly quintessential fruit of all fruits.
Dr. Irina Mikhailava, a chef and a good food champion, happily residing in the Algarve and eating all over the world with an appetite for learning, sharing and writing. Instagram: incompanyoffood