Strange Fruit

Everyone, meet the quince.  Quince?–Everyone.

What does it look like to you?  A squat pear?  An apple with a growth? 

Quinces are a fruit that used to be much more popular, both in early America and in medieval/renaissance Europe.  They were just as popular as the pear, just as well known as the apple.  There is one major difference, though, and this difference is the reason that quices are almost invisible today: they cannot be eaten raw.

Raw quinces are so rock hard that even a chef’s knife has a hard time cutting through one.  It helps to wedge the knife in somehow, and then bang it repeatedly against a cutting board, using gravity and the force of the whacks to drive the quince up onto the knife, rather than the knife through the quince. 

Once halved (or quartered, or what-have-you), quinces must be cored (very fiddly work–a small knife on an oak-dense interior), and then poached before becoming tender enough to eat.  Unsurprisingly, this is enough to scare away most casual fruit-lovers. 

I can’t remember when I first learned about quinces–surely it was one of my many books on the history of food, but given that most books claimed the fruit was no longer available, I didn’t give it much thought.  A few years ago, though, I found a section of quince recipes in a modern cookbook.  I had just rediscovered how wonderful fresh fruit was, and, intrigued by the idea of expanding my repertoire, copied the recipe down.  I really don’t know what I thought I’d do with it.

At least two years later, Teacherman and I were in a little bodega down the street and I saw–what was that?  A protuberant apple?  It’s color was so uniformly yellow-green.  And the skin was kind of wrinkly.  I looked up at the sign: “Quinces, $2 per lb.”

I bought ten, roughly 5 lbs, and then took them home and put them on the counter.  I stared at them for a few days, while my house slowly became suffused with an intoxicating smell that was both floral and fruity at the same time.  It almost smelled carbonated (if anything can smell carbonated), but it was also reminiscent of perfume–or at least what perfume ought to smell like. 

I bit the bullet and hacked into one, poaching it in a mixture of white wine and simple syrup, with no spices.  The unadorned flavor was a revelation.  The perfume and carbonation carried over into the cooked fruit, which had the texture of a perfectly poached pear–soft, but firm at the same time.  Yielding without being mealy. 

I immediately began experimenting with other poaching recipes.  I added cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, star anise pods.  I poached in white wine, red wine, citrus juices.  I followed medieval recipes and baked it in the oven, tossed it with rosewater, spiced it with the fruity spears of long pepper, crushed into a powder.   

The next year I made jam and jelly, quince paste and puree.  Each batch was different and everyone got some for Christmas.

This year I find that I’m slightly less frantic.  I’ve poached quinces a couple of times, but that’s that.  I grated up two or three and stuffed them into a canning jar full of vodka, planning on a quince liqueur for Christmas.  It was only last week when I read an article on winter fruit desserts, catching an almost hidden, off-hand remark from the author.  Make quince sorbet, he suggested, and I immediately did. 

I peeled and cored three quinces, poached them in water, simple syrup and lemon juice until soft and then pureed them in my food processor.  The mixture was as thick as jelly–quinces have more natural pectin than almost any other fruit–and I added a bit more simple syrup and water to loosen it up. 

We froze it in our ice cream maker, just as it was.  The result was subtle in looks, but stunning in flavor.  The sorbet was a pale yellowish-peach, so pale that it might be better to call it off-white.  In trying to describe the texture, the only thing that comes to mind is applesauce, but frozen and whipped up like cream.  And the flavor?  The same lovely perfume is back, infusing dessert with that indescribable, exotic ‘carbonation.’ 

Quince, meet your match.  Match?–Quince.

Published in: on November 10, 2007 at 6:31 am  Leave a Comment  

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