You could be forgiven for mistaking a quince for a pear, especially one of the golden-skinned, chubby sort, like a Starking or a Comice. They are of a roughly similar size and both dangle from gnarled, shade-giving trees. The traditional habit of scattering quince trees among those bearing other fruits would only add to the potential confusion. Bite into one, however, and the difference is quickly apparent. While a ripe pear bursts with sweetness and tumbles juice down your chin, all but the very ripest of quinces is hard enough to make your jaws ache and has a flavour to make you wince. In Turkish, its extreme sourness is referenced in the saying ‘ayvayı yemek’ – meaning ‘eat a quince’ – a rather forthright way of explaining the outcome of any unfortunate situation that would best be avoided.
Not good raw
While some claim to enjoy gnawing on raw quince, this fruit, unlike the pear, is best enjoyed cooked or preserved. Its unique flavour and hint of pink make an interesting addition to any apple pie. While pears make bland jam, quince preserve is flavoursome. High in pectin, it is the main ingredient of the original marmalade. Oranges didn’t make an appearance until the late 18th century. In the Middle Ages, quinces were boiled to form a thick purée that was poured into animal-shaped moulds. This survives today in Spain as ‘membrillo’. In Iran, quinces are added to meat dishes for a sour fruity note, reminiscent of medieval European cuisine before the definitive divide into sweet and savoury.
Both fruits are members of the vast Rosaceae family, which is found in every part of the globe and which takes in other fruits including apricots, plums, cherries, raspberries, strawberries and almonds, as well as the roses it takes its name from. The subgrouping Maleae (poetically known as the ‘apple tribe’), from the Latin ‘malum’, is restricted to the milder climates of the northern hemisphere and contains apples, pears, quinces, loquats, crabapples and hawthorns among others.
Though these orchard fruits are redolent of English country gardens, their cultural histories go much further back; both are among the oldest of cultivated fruits. Some theories place the genesis of the pear in the mountains of China. They have been known to the world’s oldest continuous culture since its beginning, and were valued commodities along the trade routes west into central Asia and Europe.
Quinces have been around for even longer – since at least the time of the ancient Mesopotamians. As some historians claim quince cultivation predates that of the apple, and as historical documents are notoriously vague on detail, this might mean that the ‘apples’ on the Tree of Knowledge, and the fruit offered to Aphrodite by Paris, were in fact ‘golden apples’ – another name for the quince.
Pronounced mem-BREE-yo, this floral and fragrant quince paste is a traditional Spanish favourite. Serve it with equal sized squares of manchego cheese in a combination known as Romeo y Julieta. It makes an easy dessert, or a great addition to a buffet lunch.
• 1.5kg quinces
• 1 vanilla pod
• caster sugar
• 1 large lemon
Scrub, core, peel and slice the quinces. Cover with water in a large pan. Split the vanilla pod and add to the pot along with the lemon juice and zest. Boil for 30-60 minutes until the quinces are very soft, then drain. Fish out the vanilla pods and scrape the seeds into the fruit mixture. Weigh the drained quinces and measure the same weight of caster sugar. Blend the fruit with a hand-held blender until very smooth, then return to the pan with the sugar and boil for 60-100 minutes until thick and a deep ruby in colour. Pour the paste onto a greased baking tray, cover with parchment paper and refrigerate overnight to set. Or bake the paste on a low oven for an hour to speed up the process. When set and firm, cut into squares.