Quince, the "Golden Apple"

Not long ago, some friends and I went to dinner at Kirk’s American Bistro in the Central West End. Roasted Garlic Plate was featured as an appetizer, and my friend and I decided to share it as a first course. It was a large platter filled with wonderful roasted garlic, several different cheeses, a lot of delicious ripe fruit and some small purple slices of something I couldn’t identify. When I asked our server about it, he said it was quince, a fruit made into a paste. My friend and I tried the quince on some cheese and were delighted. The flavor was sweet and unlike any fruit we had ever had. I love being pleasantly surprised by food new to me and the quince on that dish did just that. I was excited to share it with everyone else at the table. Then, just the other day, I was at Whole Foods and lo and behold in their fabulous cheese case was quince paste. I decided I had to do some research and find out more about this fruit.

Quince, as it turns out, is one of the earliest known fruits. In fact, it is thought to be the "golden apple" in the Garden of Eden. Quince is native to the Middle East, and was brought to Greece by ancient Greek armies. For over 4,000 years quince trees have grown in Asia and the Mediterranean. Today, quince is also found in Latin America, the Middle East and the United States (California).

The quince is a member of the pome fruit family and a relative of the apple and pear; the flavor of quince can best be described as a cross between an apple and a pear. In the raw form, the rind is rough and wooly, and the flesh is hard as a rock. The taste is very astringent. However, in western Asia and the Mediterranean, the fruit is softer and more juicy.

The quince tree is a small, irregularly formed tree that grows to about 15 feet tall. They are commonly used as a rootstock for dwarf pear trees. The leaves are deep green and the trees have white to pink to red flowers. The fruit is golden yellow and pear shaped.

Since the flesh of the raw quince of the United States is hard and dry, it is rarely used in the raw form. Instead, it is cooked, and its flesh becomes softer, sweeter, and turns light pink to purple. The most common way to eat quince is in jellies, preserves or as a paste. It contains a high amount of pectin, making it great for cooking in this manner. Quinces also tend to hold their shape when cooked, so they are ideal for poaching, stewing or baking as a dessert. Quinces go well with both savory and sweet spices, such as chili, wine, honey, citrus and most meats and poultry. Quince paste and any pungent cheese make an especially good combination; simply cut thin slices of cheese, such as Manchego, and top with quince paste.

Quinces can usually be found in supermarkets from September through January. Select fruit that is large, firm and yellow, with little or no green. A mature quince has a fragrant smell, and the down on its skin can be rubbed off easily. The best way to store quince is in a tightly sealed bag in the refrigerator where it can last up to two months. Whole Foods said they regularly have quince paste in stock.

So there it is, quince in a nutshell. Whenever I am asked to bring a dish to a party, I try to bring something new and different for my friends to try. I can’t wait to introduce them to quince. I think they will love it, and so will you.