The one tree that we do not have in the orchard is a Quince but I was lucky enough to be presented with a basket of them by a neighbour. They are an odd fruit but they have an intoxicating exotic perfume that makes them well worth using in cooking. They look like a squat, fat, misshapen pear and are too sour to eat raw - and if you tried you would probably break your teeth as they are really hard. However once cooked they are heavenly!
The quince is actually part of the rose family, Rosaceae, that includes pears and apples. The tree is small compared to other fruit trees (usually only about 12 to 20 feet in height) and has beautiful blossoms in the spring. If you cooking with quince it's best to discard the seeds as they are toxic (like apple pips) if a large quantity is eaten.
The homeland of the quince lies between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, a mountainous region called the Caucasus that touches northern Turkey and Iran as well as Southern Georgia. The ancient Greeks used the quince at weddings and the Roman writer Pliny mentioned it when he described the Mulvian variety, a cultivated quince, as the only one that could be eaten raw. The Roman cookbook of Apicius gives recipes for stewing quince with honey, and even combines them with leeks. Apparently the quince was actually cultivated prior to the apple and reference to the apple in the story of Adam and Eve may not have been an apple at all but might have been a quince instead.
Charlemagne was partly responsible for introducing the quince into France with his orders in the year 812 to plant trees in the royal garden. Chaucer mentioned the quince in 1232 using the name coines, a word that comes from the French word for quince, coing. It's thought to have been brought to Britain after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and is known to have been a favourite fruit of King Edward I as he ordered 4 quince trees to be planted around the Tower of London in 1275.
Quinces are used to make jam, jelly and can be roasted, baked or stewed. The flesh of the fruit turns red after a long cooking time. The very strong perfume means they can be added in small quantities to apple pies and jam to enhance the flavour. In fact Marmalade was originally a quince jam and the word is derived from "marmelo," the Portuguese word for this fruit. Orange marmalade didn't arrive on the scene until 1790 when it was created in Scotland in Dundee.
In France from the15th century to the present, Cotignac d'Orleans (a clear gel made from boiled quince juice and sugar) is set into small wooden boxes to form confections. These treats were originally presented to French royalty in honour of their visit to cities and outlying villages. Cotignac is still available in some areas of France and is known by other names in Spain and the Middle East. When Joan of Arc arrived in Orleans in 1429 to liberate the French from the English, she received the honoured gift of cotignac.
The English, during the 16th and 17th centuries, delighted in preparing many variations of quince preserves which they called quidoniac, quiddony, marmelade or Paste of Genoa. The preserves formed a thick paste that could be shaped into animals or flower forms. Though the quince paste is rarely found in England today, a coarse version, called membrillo, is a favourite treat presently served along with cheese in Spain.
Wine and cider can be made from the quince. The wine was popular when quinces were very common in Britain in the 19th century, the wine reputed to benefit asthma sufferers. In the Alsace region of France and the Valais region of Switzerland Liqueur de Coing is made from quince and used as a digestif. In the Balkans and elsewhere quince brandy is made.
I split my quinces into two batches – one of which I stewed with some sugar to add to apple crumbles (you can also make a quince sauce which is traditionally served with roast partridge – or use as a glaze with roast ham). I intend to use the rest with a meat dish (this used to popular in Medieval England). Moroccan cuisine incorporates the quince in its highly seasoned tagines which are stew-like combinations of meats and dried fruits often spiced with cinnamon and cloves. However I have found a Greek recipe that I think would be great over the Christmas break.
(Kydonia - or Cydonia - is the name of the ancient city of Chania in Crete (founded by King Cydon, son of Hermes and of the daughter of King Minos) – quinces were once known as Kydonian Apples as the best quinces were thought to originate there, hence their Latin botanical name of Cydonia oblonga.)
1 kg beef (brisket would do)
1 cup olive oil
1 kg quinces cut in small pieces
salt and pepper
3 sticks cinnamon
1 chopped onion
1 chopped clove garlic
1 can tomato puree
Cut the beef in small portions and stew them for an hour to soften. Then strain them. In a casserole, sauté the chopped onion and the garlic and then add the pieces of beef. Once it is sautéed, add the tomato puree, pepper, cinnamon and some water. Leave it for a while to boil. If it is necessary, add some water. Half an hour before the meat is ready, add the pieces of quince, salt and more water. Leave the meat to stew until the quinces are soft. You can serve this dish with fried potatoes, rice or pasta.