Chances are quince has escaped you. Perhaps you have heard about quince jelly, maybe even tried it, but you have no idea what quince, a little known, underappreciated, and misunderstood fruit looks like.
That may be rapidly changing. There are an increasing number of dedicated quince aficionados around the country that are spreading the virtues of what is truly a magnificent fruit. Locally, heirloom Sonoran quince is being nominated for inclusion in the Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, a living collection of distinctive and meaningful foods that could be in danger of extinction
In my case, it wasn’t until I moved to our current home, once an old homestead/farm, in southeastern Arizona that I fell head over heels for this obscure fruit. Although I eventually found that it adds marvelous depth, dimension, and diversity to our kitchen whenever it is in season, for several years I did little else but watch abundant quantities of this yellow, pear-like, sour and astringent fruit, from two different thickets of bush-like trees, fall to the ground and provide a bountiful feast for the local wildlife. I had not a clue what they were, much less any idea of what to do with them. Finally, it was Canelo old-timer Alex Gonzales, whose father had deserted Pancho Villa’s army during the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, who demystified the fruit for me. He told me: “Son membrillos y son riquisimos”—they are quince and they are delicious. In that moment, I got a glimpse of what they were. In my youth, it was what I had known as cajeta de membrillo, a deep red or maroon colored sweet paste from Mexico, that was irresistible when served with Sonora’s queso fresco (homemade unheated cheese). However, I still had no idea that membrillos were the same things as quince and that I could give some to Alex’s wife Elizabeth who would make something similar to the Mexican cajeta. Shortly thereafter I made the connection, learning that membrillos were quince, Cylonia oblonga.
The trees on our property are remnants of a time when quince trees were common in the backyards and orchards of Mexican Americans in southern Arizona. At the very latest, our trees date to the 1920s. These are true heirlooms, vegetatively propagated over the centuries from trees that originally arrived in Mexico in 1536 and came to Arizona and Sonora between 1687 and 1706—the era of Padre Kino, which means they are genetically related to the trees planted at the Tumacacori mission and Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace Mission Garden.
Quinces were once common in every colonial garden and orchard here in the States. Most likely, quince was primarily used for making marmalade and jelly as well as providing pectin for other types of preserves. In ancient times, quince was viewed as the symbol of love and happiness; today, it is mostly forgotten. One questionable estimate puts the total amount of acreage in this country dedicated to quince trees at approximately 250 acres compared to more than 350,000 acres for apples. The point being: There are very few quince trees in comparison to other fruit. One of the major contributors to quince’s demise was the arrival of Knox gelatin at the turn of the century that took the place of pectin. Interestingly, today, the Mexican Hawthorn, Crataegu mexicana or Tejocote, is the largest source of pectin used in this country and in Mexico, often grown in the same orchards as quince.
When it comes to the region of Baja Arizona, all one has to do is cross the border and head to the area around Magdalena, most notably to the historic town of San Ignacio, to find quince trees that are still flourishing. The quince tradition of San Ignacio owes much of its quince fame to 95-year-old Señora Josefina Gallego, affectionately known as Dona Chata, who could be easily be considered Sonora’s very own Reina de Membrillo (Queen of Quince) as she makes the finest cajeta de membrillo in the region. Of course, it might also be due to her charm, perfectionism, and dedicated hard work. In October, the town of Magdalena held its first Feria de Membrillo (Quince Fair). To the east, in the Rio Sonora Valley, the town of Arizpe is also known for its quince. Further south, the region around Alamos is another production area. Cajeta can be commonly found at any of the food stands in both these areas.
In Mexico, quince is typically prepared as a fruit that has been poached and bottled in syrup or as a paste called cajeta. Cajeta is made by cooking quince over a long period of time with sugar; it’s sold as small brick-like blocks or in a variety of molded shapes. As a liqueur it is sold as crema de membrillo, produced by the company Tequila Orendain. Quince is prepared in much the same way throughout other parts of the world. It is known as dulce de membrillo in Spain, galeia de meleo in Portugal, quince cheese in England and quince candy in France. All can vary slightly with the addition of spices, lemon, and other ingredients.
At first glance, many confuse quince fruit with apples or pears and are often disappointed when they discover, instead of a sweet and juicy fruit, something rather dry and tart. But, in combination with quince’s exquisite fragrance and unique taste, these are the very characteristics that make it a most versatile culinary ingredient. The world of quince is broad and extends far beyond marmalades, preserves, pastes, and jellies that incorporate sugar and sweeteners. In the Middle East, quince is used in stews; in the famous spiced tagines of Morocco, chutneys in India, an exquisite fruit tea in Korea. Here in our home, we have used it to make vinegar, wine, and salads. A favorite fish uses tomatoes, onions, garlic and quince, baked in a clay pot with chicken or tofu.
In addition to its place in the culinary world, quince is also renowned for its health benefits. Loaded with pectin and fiber, vitamins B and C, it has traditionally been used in different cultures to treat cough, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammations of all types, cardiovascular complaints, upset stomach, and ulcers. And it is reported to be full of antioxidants.
When entering the marvelous world of quince, the first challenge will be to find some. This can be difficult. It is not an item commonly found in the grocery store, although Food City markets often carry a small amount of it in the fall, as well as some Middle Eastern. Another option is to locate a tree in someone’s yard, typically in an older, Mexican American neighborhood. On a good year, when our quince blossoms have escaped late frosts, we have an abundance of fruit, which we happily give away. In the fall, quince is easily found in the towns of Magdalena, San Ignacio, and Arizpe, Sonora. The only snag is that they can’t be legally imported to the States. What to do about this will remain your decision.
Quince paste is easily the most commonly available quince product. It can be found just across the border in the area around Magdalena and Imuris at almost every food stand. You can also find the bottled poached fruit at these locations. Another source for the bottled fruit is the Ishkashitaa Refugee Project in Tucson.
One of the best options for finding quince is to plant a tree. Quince is a compact, attractive, and self-pollinating tree that doesn’t take up a lot of space. It has a culture similar to apples and pears, and may be grown successfully in both cooler tropical locations and colder temperate regions. Quince trees are not very particular about soil, and tolerate a wide variety of conditions, but they are susceptible to fire blight.
To my knowledge, there are about 20 commonly available types of quince tree. Joseph Postman of the USDA curates a quince collection in Corvallis, Ore., where the germ repository contains 50 to 60 varieties. Check out his article, Unappreciated Quince to learn more. Orange quince, which is favored for its size and good flavor, is a great option; two others, both Luther Burbank cultivars, are Van Deman and pineapple quince. Many consider the pineapple quince to be the best to eat without cooking; in Mexico, slices of fresh quince are frequently eaten with lime juice and chile powder. For the dedicated horticulturists, the only book about growing and cultivating quince, called Quince Culture, was written in 1888 by the Rev. William W. Meech.
For those in the southern Arizona region, the most convenient place to buy quince plants is Desert Survivors Nursery; they offer a Sonoran quince heirloom variant called Kino Heritage Quince. Should you find a local tree, one of the easiest ways to propagate is from a root division of a dormant tree. Other options for a variety of quince cultivars include One Green World Nursery, Bay Laurel Nursery, and Wills Orchard.
Quince combines beautifully with a variety of spices and other ingredients. For most uses, quince needs to be cooked; cooking quince helps release its finest qualities, with the flesh changing to a deep amber or burgundy color. Although one of the upsides of having a bowl of quince in the kitchen is that they give off a perfume like fragrance that can permeate the room, the downside is that the fragrance is so delightful that it can actually discourage one from cooking them.
The recipes that I have listed below will give you a basic idea of just how flexible quince can be. I still am fascinated by how many different ways it can be used. If you are eager to explore the world of quince, you should consider buying the recently released cookbook dedicated entirely to quince: Simply Quince by Barbara Ghazarian. I heartily recommend it. In fact, I would say that it is essential. The book is packed full of great recipes, offering a nice balance between both traditional and innovative recipes, and contains information on the history, culture, and background of the fruit.
This has been the household favorite for years. The ingredients can vary according to your taste. For that matter, once you’ve tried the basic recipe, try adding different spices and ingredients. I’ve included the chicken in the recipe below that, but depending upon preferences, it can be left out.
Sauté onion until transparent. Add garlic to onions and cook for a minute or two. Add diced tomatoes and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Return chicken peices to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes. Add tomato puree and bake all the ingredients together in glass pan (covered) at 350º for 45 minutes to an hour. The best versions of this recipe I have done use a Romertopf clay pot.
Many desserts and side dishes require that the quince be poached ahead of time. They can also be served as thin slices by themselves or in conjunction with other foods. Nothing complicated here; just a little slow cooking time on the stovetop.
Bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar and continue cooking on low heat. This will take about an hour. It is done when the quince is tender and has changed color.
Warm the vinegar until hot, just short of simmering, and remove from the heat. Put the quince in a glass bowl and pour the warm vinegar over it and mix well. Let the mixture cool and put the ingredients into a sterilized glass jar and covered with plastic wrap. Let stand for approximately one month in the refrigerator.
After aging, sugar can be added to taste by dissolving it in a small amount of heated aged vinegar. Finally, the vinegar mixture can be strained through a sieve and then a coffee filter before bottling. It can be stored at room temperature. (Note: If your screw cap is metal, there should be distance between the lid and the vinegar as corrosion is possible. Plastic lids are an option as are old wine bottles with corks and screw off lids.)
This is version is close to the Mexican cajeta de membrillo or the Spanish dulce de membrillo. This is a condensed version from Barbara Ghazarian’s book Simply Quince. If you want to replicate the “real thing” of Sonoran cajeta, in late September and early October, drive down to the town of San Ignacio. Get get there early in the morning so you can ask who is making the cajeta.
Typically this is eaten cut into small slices and is fantastic with cheeses such as manchego, but here, close to home, many of the Mexican cheeses are great. It also goes well with a dry white wine, aged meats, and a rustic loaf of bread.
Simmer the quince and water uncovered for about 1½ hours until mushy. Stir occasionally. Remove from the heat and cool for no more than 10 minutes. Transfer to a food processor, add lemon juice, and puree until it resembles applesauce. Pass through a sieve and return to a heavy bottomed pot. Approximately 3 cups should remain. Add ⅓ cup of sugar for every cup of quince. Cook for one hour over moderate heat, stirring constantly until it forms peaks and pulls away from the sides. Pour into an 8-inch non-stick cake pan and let stand for about 8 hours. Cut into small squares and let sit for another two hours. Wrap in wax paper and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.