Since we moved to this property fourteen years ago, we’ve wondered what to do with the quince tree that was stubbornly holding up a corner of the landscape, not to mention the rock-hard fruit that ripens on it each fall. The tree itself is more of a bush; multi-trunked and messy, and the spiders seem to love it. The only recipe we ever found for the fruit was jelly - and it required so much sugar to make it palatable - and we so infrequently ate jelly - that we never experimented with it.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate our quince tree for things that have nothing to do with its fruit. For one thing, it requires no irrigation. I suspect that the roots are spread out far enough that it gets the water it needs from nearby flower beds. It’s super nice to have drought-tolerant trees that produce food in the landscape. The chickens use this bushy tree as a shady place on hot summer days, and it offers them protection from hawks flying overhead. Its looks are nothing to speak of, but once a year the tree blooms, and it has the most beautiful blossoms. And no matter how often I hack it back, it regrows, flowers, and fruits the next year.
So the tree has earned its place in our landscape.
But every year, we see this fruit hanging there, and wonder what we could do with it besides throw it in the compost pile. It never gets soft. Quince requires cooking to make it palatable. And I guess we just always preferred fruit that we could pop into our mouths right after picking. But we’ve also become big fans of jam. Tom makes between 5-10 batches of jam every year from our own fruit trees and vines and farmers’ market fruit. We use it on toast and sandwiches of course, but we also stir it into homemade yogurt, or mix it with granola. So this year, we began to look at the quince a little differently.
Quince used to be very much in favor as a fruit used for cooking. The tree requires few chill hours (between 200-300), handy for our mild California winters, is self-fertile (meaning you only need one tree), and bees love the blossoms. The fruit has had a bit of a resurgence in popularity due to the permaculture movement and it’s flexibility in both sweet and savory applications. But it takes a different mindset to work with quince.
First of all, it’s very hard to prep. The fruit remains extremely hard, even when ripe, and Tom cut up about 3 pounds of the stuff yesterday and had a very sore hand afterward. So use care when preparing! Then, the fruit needs to be cooked down for hours, with equal parts sugar, which leads to a golden wafting haze of deliciousness coming from the kitchen. At one point I asked Tom, ‘Are you making cookies?’ Quince, while cooking, smells divine, like maybe the edge of clouds. The flesh also turns color from a pale yellow/white, to a golden orange, to a pink orange, and apparently eventually to red. This is because the tannins and pectins (both extremely high in quince) are breaking down and becoming palatable.
About halfway through the process, Tom ladled off a jar to use as ‘quince butter,’ and we put that in the fridge. It tastes amazing. I can’t compare it to anything I’ve ever had before. The texture is a little different, a little gritty, but not off-putting. And the flavor more than makes up for it. And isn’t it gorgeous to look at?
Tom continued cooking the rest of the pulp down to make membrillo, a sort of jellied paste. After cooking it for hours, you put it in your dehydrator for another hour, and it comes out like this.
It has the texture of a gummy bear. It’s used in Spanish tapas, sliced thinly and eaten with charcuterie and manchego cheese.
Wouldn’t it be funny if the fruit we have been ignoring for all these years turns out to be our favorite? I’m now interested in researching how to use quince in more savory applications.
For more interesting information on quince, please check out this article in Heirloom Gardener magazine, and this one in the online magazine Render. And, if you’ve been enjoying quince and have recipes, please share.
P/S I forgot to mention that you need to puree the pulp sometime in the middle of your cooking process.
P/P/S I just cleaned the kitchen. Cleaning up dried splattered quince pulp is a drawback to this project. I recommend cleaning oven surface and cabinets above DIRECTLY AFTER cooking.