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Questing for quince

A few days ago, over lunch, I was read Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, a classic book first published in '82 about, well, fruit, with notes on finding it, determining ripeness, what other foods it goes with, and recipes. It so happens that I was reading the chapter on quince, from the French coings.*

Now despite the familiarity of the name, I came to realize that I hadn't a clue what quince tasted like. There's only so far that an evocative book description can replace taste. The only product I knew I'd eaten before that was primarily quince-based was mostarda, a spicy purée of quince served with mascarpone and pan d'oro around Christmastime in Italy. The recipes in Grigson's book told me how versatile a fruit it was, how well it went with meats, how it was the best flavouring for apple and pear tarts. The chapter also told me that in the early '80s in northern France, they were difficult to get, for all they grew in the region, and that they thrived better in the warmth of southern France, although they come originally from Central Asia**.

Rumor tells that these are the golden apples for which Atalanta races, and which Paris awarded to the most beautiful goddess, thereby eventually triggering the Trojan War. Of course I was intrigued! (Although equally I'd like to know how far back that "apple" interpretation goes, and from what sources the author found them; she dose not say.)

I've hardly left the house the past several days. My kitchen is well-enough stocked, there's snow and chill outside, and I have a dissertation to write. But the concept of quinces keeps wafting through my mind. I bought some mostarda at a local butcher's the other day. I found a jar of quince jam on Epicureal, a fairly new gourmet food online store based in Ontario. I now know that Whole Foods sells quince paste (membrillo), which is meant to be lovely with manchego cheese. I've run across mentions of quince liquor in other countries. And with fruit markets so richly varied and exotic as those in Toronto, and with their availability listed as August through January, perhaps I could even find an actually quince somewhere in this city.

I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do with all of these leads. Do I buy one of everything and hold a tasting with quince-interested friends? Do I try one or two of them on my own? It'll be an adventure.

* Quince is melimelum in Latin, for those of you who may someday find this useful to know.

More information on the history and use of quince can be found here.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 26th, 2005 06:42 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, I'm a quince-interested friend. I've been curious as to what they taste like for ages :)
Jan. 27th, 2005 12:53 am (UTC)
Oh, good! You're an excuse to go and buy some of the things I've been eyeing. You know - not that I really needed one.
Jan. 26th, 2005 07:23 pm (UTC)
lemur_catta and I went hunting for quince paste before Christmas with no success. All we could find was guava paste. I have no idea if it is similar.
Jan. 27th, 2005 12:52 am (UTC)
Hmm. Were you looking in St. Lawrence market? I only know to try Whole Foods because the Toronto Whole Foods website advertises catering platters which include a cheese tray with quince paste - found via a Google search for "quince paste Toronto", I believe. I would think guava paste would be much sweeter, but having tried neither, I hypothesize.
Jan. 27th, 2005 02:00 am (UTC)
We were looking in the Kensington Market.
Jan. 26th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC)
And once you have graduated from quince class, you could move on to medlars... (I've had quince this and that over the years, but as far as I can recollect medlars remain a closed book).
Jan. 27th, 2005 12:51 am (UTC)
The Grigson book has a meagre two pages on the subject of medlars, and recommends them either fresh or jellied. Of course, one must have medlars on hand first for this to be an option. Traditionally in some part of Franch, around Christmas, there are games played with them, and they are eaten with chesnuts. I'm intrigued.
Jan. 26th, 2005 08:29 pm (UTC)
You don't know me -- I'm here via friends' friends -- but I can't resist chiming in on this one, and I hope you'll forgive the intrusion.

Quinces are often available in good fruit markets during the fall, at least in the northeastern United States where I have the most experience shopping. Sometimes they're misleadingly labelled as "quince pears." While things like quince jam and quince leather are good, you're missing the essential experience if you don't find and cook fresh ones. The best thing about them, to my own mind, is their scent (which is also a good guide to choosing them in the market, since you won't find cues like softness): they have a very rich, spicy smell, utterly distinctive, and you can smell the best ones from some feet away. If you buy them on Wednesday with the thought of cooking them on Saturday, they will perfume your entire kitchen and make you happy to be alive.

You do have to cook them to eat them, which is almost sad when you consider that perfume effect. They need sugar, and will have a faintly gritty bite no matter how soft they get. And they make a fabulous, if non-traditional, tarte tatin.

I wish I had some right now.
Jan. 27th, 2005 12:44 am (UTC)
Thank you for your advice. From the book I was reading on the subject, it sounds as if quinces do sweeten through long storage until they are sweetened enough to eat raw, but fruit grown in northern climates (the north of France in the book) is less condusive to sweet quince - Mediterranean climates are more appropriate. Any quince which has traveled to our sixth of the continent is likely to have been picked early for shipping, and stands little chance of ripening enough before rotting to become that sweet.

If descriptions elsewhere hadn't already caught my fancy, your description of their smell and taste certainly would have. If I can find some around here - and enough - your suggestion of baking a tarte tatin sounds like a good one.
Jan. 26th, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC)
Honey apples, yes! The cafeteria at work sometimes serves a winter fruit compote made with some combination of quince, pear, apples and stewed cherries.
Jan. 27th, 2005 12:45 am (UTC)
That sounds very good. If I can find some quince, there's certainly plenty I can make with it, it seems!
Oct. 24th, 2006 05:29 am (UTC)
Willing to try it...
I'm lucky to find your blogg...
I actually *have* a Quince tree out in the orchard of the old farm house we moved into about three years ago.

The first year I eagerly cut one open, and, intrigued by the smell, took a bite. A month or so later, when I finally got my mouth turned right side in again, I said "well, that was interesting," surely there must be a use, or they'd not have planted the tree.

Last year we had an early spring, and virutally no friut of any kind...

This year has been bountiful.

I'm not much of a jelly/jam sort of person, but some kind of compote for a meat roast tickles my fancy- something for pork maybe? Especially if it has apples, or pears, as I have lots of those too.

Would love it if someone would email me a recipe...
Thank you.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )