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The unfashionable quince

James Beattie

James Beattie

June 26, 2012

Whenever I recommend to someone below the age of 40 to plant a quince tree I am often met with a blank stare. It seems that like the washboard, hatbox and moustache wax, quinces have been relegated to the dustbin of history. This is a shame and I think it’s now high time for a quince revival.

(photo by jespahjoy)

They are not fussy plants by any means, producing fruit in abundance as well as bearing beautifully delicate flowers in spring. Their low-fuss, high-yielding character was perhaps the main reason for their popularity in the past, when times were simpler and gardening was more of a utilitarian practice than a statement of fashion. I suppose that a lot of people might be deterred from growing them due to the length of time it takes to cook them as they are by no means a fruit that you can eat raw. Several hours of broiling or poaching are required to render the hard fruit edible but the transformation their flesh goes through during this process is nothing short of spellbinding. Once pale yellow, astringent flesh transforms into a deep burgundy and tender jube-like consistency, perfect for pies, muffins, or having on top of your morning porridge.

Spring flowers on Chinese quince, Pseudocydonia sinensis

The first time my partner cooked with them I was sceptical that the lengthy cooking time involved in their preparation was going to be worth the end result. That was until I took my first mouthful of oven-poached quince. From that point on I became a quince evangelist, enthusiastically talking them up to all who’d listen. But here’s the rub – I don’t currently grow any quinces myself. Friends in the country have a Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis) in a garden border that fruits prolifically every year, with a little help from yours truly, so I guess you could say I grow them by proxy. In the coming year I’ll be transforming my backyard into a mostly productive garden and I have plans for a quince or two in the design.

Quince tree photo rfarmer

Quinces are members of the Rosaceae family and are relatives of apples and pears. There are three species of quince that are cultivated for their fruit. The first is the most familiar species, Cydonia oblonga, and grows to around 7-10 meters. This species of quince is monotypic, meaning that it is the only species in its genus. The Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis) is another monotype species, closely related to the Cydonia genus as its name suggests, but differs in both its leaf margin and eventual height. The Chinese quince will grow anywhere form 10-15 meters tall and looks superficially like C. oblonga but for a serrated leaf margin. The Chinese quince flowers are a light pink colour and quite showy, making it a great tree for its spring flowers. Finally, the Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is the least common in Australia. It grows to only about a meter tall, so it is the perfect species for smaller yards.

photo Maggie Hoffman

All these quinces can be used in the culinary arts and respond to the cooking process in the same way. The colour transformation they undergo during cooking is nothing short of miraculous. The flavour between species is pretty much the same. Quinces were once treasured by home preserve makers for their high pectin content, meaning they’re ideal fruits for making into jams and jellies. With the advent of powdered pectin in the late 19th century the quince slowly fell out of fashion and into obscurity. If you’re looking for a tree or shrub that is both ornamental and edible then perhaps once of the quinces is the plant for you. The fruit lasts for months after being picked, with the added bonus of scenting entire rooms with their sweet, spicy aroma while languishing in a fruit bowl. You can even make quince brandy by soaking a whole quince in it for a couple of weeks before straining.

Poached quince with pear icecream

I’m yet to try this last recipe, but with this year’s quince harvest in full swing I think I’ll give it a go. On a final note, here’s a recipe for quince jelly I made this year that turned out splendidly. Making a jam or jelly with quinces is the only way to realise their full, pectin-packed potential in my opinion. Give it a go if you can get your hands on some quinces, it’s well worth the effort.

Until next time, happy gardening.

Simple Quince Jelly

2 kilos of quinces

2 litres of water

60ml lemon juice

Castor sugar

Roughly dice the quinces (cores, seeds and all) and add them to a large pot with the water. Bring to a boil then simmer for around 45 mins. Use a potato masher to mash the now soft fruit up then Continue to simmer for another 30 to 45 minutes, until the fruit is nice and soft and pulpy.

Line a colander over a large bowl with doubled-up wet muslin. Pour contents of the pot into the colander and allow the liquid to drip through overnight (don’t push the fruit through – it will make the jelly cloudy).

Measure the liquid the next day and combine with the same amount of warmed caster sugar in a large pan, as well as the lemon juice, and heat the mix to dissovle the sugar.

Bring to a rapid boil for 25 mins, stirring frequently.

Test for setting point. If not set, boil for another 5 mins then test again. Skim scum off the surface of the mixture at this point too – it’ll make your jelly perfectly clear and glistening.

Once setting point is reached seal into warm sterilised jars. Invert jars for 2 mins then turn them the right way up and leave them to set.

Best stored for a few months before using, but can be used right away too.

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Karen Hall
11 years ago

Nice to hear from a fellow quince enthusiast. Of all the fruit in our garden, it is the quince we look forward to most of all. You are right – it’s about time there was a revival and here in Tasmania I think it is beginning. We have the wonderful Woodbridge Fruit Trees here who have nurtured and propagated many varieties and made them commercially available, so hopefully before long they will be in abundance.

Janice Stewart, Aberdeen, Scotland
Janice Stewart, Aberdeen, Scotland
11 years ago

It was great to read your really informative quince blog. You echoed my own thoughts on your attempts to use them-that first time is a challenge to keep going hoping something edible will result in the end!! There are wonderful Middle Eastern recipes, and look up Membrillo, Spanish Quince cheese, which is a must with Manchego, their famous cheese cheese!!
-and I made my attempt at Membrillo from, admittedly small,quinces grown right here in Aberdeen. The plants grow wonderfully well, the challenge is having a growing season long enough to ripen them, but if they can manage here, it must be possible to grow them anywhere.

James Beattie
James Beattie
11 years ago

That’s great, Karen. Do you know anything of their suitability to being espaliered at all? I’m thinking of torturing one in such a way to see how it goes.

And Janice. The quince cheese looks very interesting! Making the Jelly is easy but I do have a twinge of guilt. The amount of pulp I threw out was quite wasteful. Perhaps making quince cheese with it would be a better use of it than just throwing it in the compost!

anne latreille
anne latreille
10 years ago

James, I agree with everything you say. My own quince tree is around 35 years old. It is indestructible. We’ve amputated arms and hands and parts of its main trunk to extend the house. It just keeps on growing. Scrambly but nice. During the last drought in Victoria we had around eight years with scarcely any fruit. Then – a bumper crop, I was cooking for weeks (and aren’t they hard to carve up?!) Do you need a quince chutney recipe? I have a good one. Last year – no fruit – the possums and pear slugs got the lot. This year it has flowered beautifully. Here’s hoping.

Anne Thingvall
Anne Thingvall
3 years ago

Great blog! Thanks for sharing tips on how to take care of my quince crop. This is the first crop from my Pseudocydonia Sinensis I planted last year. I bought a large tree, approx. 4 metres high and planted it in my garden in Gothenburg, Sweden. Currently waiting for some “real” frost and the ripening. I would really appreciate some jam recepies!