"People say that for the Greeks and Romans, quinces were the golden apples of the Hesperides..." "In the autumn as you go south, the sun shines on the fruit, which stands out as the leaves fall, like magic apples, gold and dazzling against the blue sky." "Bring the best [quince] into the sitting-room or bedroom, which they will scent with the most heavenly smell." "Quince is about the best flavouring for apple or pear pies and tarts." "Baked quince was Sir Isaac Newton's favourite pudding." Jelly, paste, pies, quail, beef, vodka... the fruit intrigued me with its versatility, its early '80s commercial rarity, its Mediterranean frequency, and the promise of sweetly-scented rooms.
In a city like Toronto, I felt sure I could find out what quince tasted like, and recruited some interested friends to join me. In the end, there was no fresh quince to be had. I called around to the city's top fruiteries, including places where fellow cooking school students promised they'd recently seen it. Its usual season is autumn, until January, and so we missed our opportunity to try the real thing until next year. Nevertheless, six of us gathered on Tuesday night to try a sampling of quince jelly, jam, and paste, both spiced and unspiced.
The jelly and jam smelled like a cross between apples and raspberries. The taste is like spiced apples, but more robust than apples on their own, like cherries with an overlay of cloves. It's not overwhelming though. It's a laidback flavor, a flavor to complement other flavors. I can imagine it might make an apple pie taste more complete, more well-rounded.
As promised, quince paste - in all the forms we tried it - goes very nicely indeed with manchego cheese. I prepare cracker after cracker, a sliver of paste, a sliver of cheese and eat them. It is a complete, whole, satisfying taste, gentle but thoughtful.
When curtana, forthright, saffronjan, her husband, and ballincollig came over, we ate everything slathered on baguette, an easy, fairly neutral taste to spread things on. In retrospect, I think it works better for tasting in small, concentrated quantities, balanced on a small cracker. But it's easy to eat, and for a regular quince-enhanced diet, the variety of dishes which Grigson recommends - and spreading on large slices of bread - would work fine.
I still don't really think I know what quince tastes like - not fresh, whole quince* - but I have a much better idea than I used to. And I'm looking forward to autumn, when I might be able to find out.
* Many people have told me that fresh quince should not be eaten as-is, but should be cooked, preserved, or other made into a derivative confection. I treasure the promise of fresh quince based on Jane Grigson's description from the early '80s - quince grown in northern France and England never ripens enough on the tree (or in the cupboard afterwards) to become fully edible, but further south, in the Mediterranean warmth, quinces can become quite tasty and edible as are.