Quintessential quince

Over an old garden wall in Midhurst, Sussex, used to trail the branches of a quince tree, whose crop seemed to embody Keats’s “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Boys were often tempted to steal a fruit that no one appeared to want, ignorant of how to transform sour inedibility into a food fit for the gods.

Some scholars believe that quinces were the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the biblical Garden of Eden. In the legend of the Judgement of Paris it may have been a quince and not a golden apple that Paris gave to Aphrodite as “the fairest” of the goddesses. In art, Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart, Venus, is often depicted with a quince in her right hand.

In a masterpiece of culinary drooling, journalist and broadcaster Nigel Slater writing in The Guardian (29 November 2009) had this to say:

“The quince is the fruit of frosty mornings and blackened leaves, keeping in sound condition through the cold months. I sometimes bake a few in a low oven with a glass of Marsala and a thick trickle of maple syrup or honey. They emerge, a good couple of hours after you put them in, a translucent glowing amber. They never fluff up like an apple, but take on the texture of melting fudge. Cream is called for, though only a little. […] You cannot hurry a cooking quince. They are ready when they feel like it. I have known them to take half an hour or more to poach to tenderness in a sugar syrup. But the scent of them cooking fills the house with a rich, mellow sweetness, especially if I have used a glass or two of wine in the poaching liquid.”

The quince is the sole member of the genus Cydonia (of the rose family) and native to the warm-temperate climes of the Caucasus region. It is a small, deciduous tree related to the apple and pear that bears a globular fruit which is bright golden yellow when mature. Quince, like the apple and guava, produces a natural pectin when cooked and makes a brilliant rose-colored jelly.

In Britain, quince found a place in pies and tarts, often being combined with apples to give them a unique flavour and a hint of pink colour. The British concocted a sauce from quince and it became a traditional accompaniment to roasted partridge.

Quince has interesting medical properties. In parts of the Middle East, the dried pits of the fruit are used to treat sore throats and to relieve coughs. The pits are soaked in water and the viscous product taken like cough medicine. In Iran and parts of Afghanistan, the quince seeds are collected and boiled and then ingested to combat pneumonia and lung disease. In Malta, jam is made from the fruit and according to local tradition a teaspoon of the jam dissolved in a cup of boiling water relieves intestinal discomfort.

The Australian poet David Campbell (1915-79) wrote a wonderful poem called “Boy Eating Quinces”, as evocative of the past as it is of the fruit itself:

“A quince tree in my mind
Is lit by yellow fruit
And there a barefoot boy
Is fumbling with his hand.

He picks the downy fruit
And rubs it with his thumb,
And like a lamp it shone
Before he bit and ate.

The tartness of the quince
I savour with my thought
And like the barefoot boy
Pucker my mouth and wince.

I stand beneath the tree
And rub the yellow fruit,
A boy who years ago
Began creating me.”

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