Merchant’s wife on the balcony – by Russian painter Boris Kustodiev, 1920
Quince (Credit: Wikipedia)
Growing up, I had heard of quince (Cydonia oblonga), but never actually tried this “exotic” fruit until I was studying Russian in Moscow several decades ago. I was having tea at the apartment of two elderly ladies I’d befriended, and they gave me a jar of homemade quince jam (варенье из айвы – “varen’e iz aĭvy”) to take back to my dorm. It was delicious, and a tinge of sadness crept over me when it came time to scrape the last remnants off the sides and bottom of the jar. After that, I started noticing quince in Moscow’s big city markets. Much of that quince hailed from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, areas within the quince’s native territory of SW Asia, Turkey, and Iran. And during a subsequent trip to Tbilisi and Yerevan, serendipitously at harvest-time, I saw quince everywhere—along with an abundance of grapes, apples, and other fruits.
Per Wikipedia, today’s top producers (in order) are Turkey, China, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Iran, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Spain, Serbia, and Algeria. Most quince you find in the US, if you can find it, comes from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. While, it can be found in orchards in places like Oregon, its general scarcity in the US is allegedly related to the reluctance of commercial growers to cultivate quince due to its susceptibility to ‘Fire blight’ disease.
Cydonia oblonga – copyright exp’d due to image age (Source: from ”Koehler’s Medicinal-Plants” 1887)
Can you eat quince raw? I bought a kilo at a Moscow market, and quickly discovered that they are very tough, sour, and generally unpleasant that way. That said, I’ve since learned that some cultivars do exist that are okay to eat raw, e.g., ‘Aromatnaya’ and ‘Kuganskaya’ from Russia, and ‘Mellow’ from Ukraine
On the surface one might think that jams, jellies, butters, and preserves are the formats in which the highly aromatic quince shines most brightly. However, enterprising cooks have come up with other uses, e.g., syrups, liqueurs, butters, and wine, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you search for quince-related blog posts around the web, you’ll find dozens of recipes from just the past few weeks–for pies, tarts, stews, curries, breads, cakes, and more, demonstrating that this fruit has fans worldwide. While how often you run into the actual fruit offline, in the real world, seems largely to depend on where you live, via online shopping the quince can come to you in the form of jam, jelly, paste, relish, balsamic vinegar, chutney, marmalade, and even throat lozenges.
View of the West Front of Monticello and Garden, depicting Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren at Monticello, watercolour on paper by Jane Braddick Peticolas 1825
Our ancestors living in Colonial times would have been very familiar with quince trees. Jefferson had one in his gardens at Monticello. Quince seeds are an excellent source of pectin for making preserves so it was considered essential to have at least one on your property. But the appearance of Knox gelatin toward the end of the 19th century changed all that, and the quince’s decline began. For an interesting and entertaining article that includes those little factoids and much more, read the May 2, 2012, New York Times article: In Praise of the Misunderstood Quince.
Basket of Graphes, Quinces and Pears – Claude Monet, 1882-1885
Today’s blog post includes a 1903 column by Madame De Ryther on making quince preserves and plum jam, and a 1904 article on salads. Obviously, 110 years ago, the quince still had a place in mainstream American cuisine. The article on salads appeared in spring, but I thought I’d include it here in the run-up to Christmas, since it’s always nice to include something lighter on the table during this season of heavy eating. I’d hoped to try making quince preserves, but no grocers in this area sell the fruit; one of them offered to special order some for me, but I did not want to deal with the added expense.
As for the salads, Madame De Ryther has tons of interesting ideas and tips on combinations I’d never considered. The one recipe that stood out to me the most was the one for cucumber salad since that is the way my father always made his cucumber salad, and I am sure he picked up his technique from his mother (b. 1882) who was a passionate cook and baker and would have followed columns like Madame De Ryther’s with great interest. Or perhaps that is just the way her own mother made cucumber salad. So much that goes on in the kitchen is passed down from one generation to the next.
If you end up trying any of Madame De Ryther’s recipes, please leave a comment! Best wishes to all for a good week ahead.
Still Life with Dish of Quince – Francisco de Zurbaran, 1633-1664
Quince – some resources:
Indianapolis Journal, October 18, 1903
New York Press, 12 June 1904