Update: The quinces pictured actually ended up in a totally gorgeous, tangy, flavorsome marmalade-like set jam (recipe here). And there was much, much rejoycing!
The first thing you notice about the quinces – from afar – is their gorgeous deep golden yellow color, shared across the three genera to which the plants belong, but it is not the color that is their main characteristic – it’s the scent. If you have never smelled a quince, you are really missing out. It is really like nothing else – deep and honey-sweet with a strong citrus or pineapple note and a rather exotic spiciness all in one. The best way I’ve been able to adoringly describe it myself, is that it smells of pineapple and heaven. I would go as far as to say it is the best of fruit scents, with passionfruit (which I also love) being the runner-up in this contest.
I think the reason that quinces are not better known is that they aren’t eat-raw kind of fruit. They are hard like a wooden board, and taste tart and tannic and very astringent if you do manage to bite into one raw (watch the teeth!). As such, and as fruit in the conventional, ‘fruit bowl’ sort of understanding, they are very disappointing – and it is in preparations where they are heat or otherwise treated, that they truly shine.
There are more famous uses for quinces than the ones I favor – one notable such being the Spanish quince spread membrillo, usually suggested as pairing for manchego cheese. If you manage to get your hands on this, by all means, do try it. It’s wonderful. Another amazing use for them is stewing them with meats in Central-Asian style plov-type meat-and-rice dishes, or even in simple stews. They hold their shape very well and tend to perfume the entire kitchen, not just the cooking pot, with their fragrance.
But, what I like to do with quinces at home is one of three things – one being leaving them in a bowl to decorate my home and scent it, but that’s neither here nor food.
My all-time favorite thing to do with quinces is plunk them into good-quality white or golden rum or into plain vodka for a few months along with a couple of cloves and a bit of sugar, to impart their gorgeous fragrance on the alcohol. Quince-infused rum is a specialty of mine that all friends, even those who dislike rum as a rule, love. After a few months, even white rum takes on a beautiful delicately gold color, and the scent, carried by the alcohol, is truly out of this world. If you do want to try this, there are general, but very detailed instructions on how to do that here.
The other favorite quince product for me is Glyko Kythoni – a Greek preserve of quinces, often made with a touch of lemon juice or peel and rosewater. When cooked in sugar, quince flesh slowly goes from being a pale cream to a remarkable rosey orange shading to a deep red (depends on the quince harvest and cultivar I suspect), and all the fragrance is preserved. I will most certainly write about the preserves as soon as I’ve gotten my greedy paws on some fresh quinces of this kind and made them, so that’s for the future.
I use the word “quince” interchangeably, but as there are a few species – and indeed, genera – of quinces, the differences are as follows.
The true quince, Cydonia, is a large fruit resembling a lumpy cross between apple and pear in a bright yellow-gold color. It is the fruit of my choice when making quince preserves – mainly because it is larger and easier to handle when peeling and coring – but also because its scent is sweeter, and to me, more appropriate to the use. This variety is a warm-climate fruit, and though I’ve seen them growing well enough in the United Kingdom, I suspect that the best ones still do come from further South. It is certainly not hardy enough to grow in Sweden. Hence, market as source.
The family of flowering quinces (named so not because other quinces don’t have flowers, but because of their remarkable red flowers for which they are most often cultivated), Chaenomeles, has smaller fruit and are quite hardy enough even for Sweden. In fact, the bowl of the ones on my table has been harvested from some bushes growing near where I live. The fruit are (obviously) much smaller, and the scent is more astringent and spicy rather than pineappley and sweet. I have not tried using these before (I’d always buy the larger variety), but the scent is remarkable, and in my thoughts, will go amazingly well infusing in alcohol, and that’s the impending fate of the fruit in the above photo. So, that’s now in the planning – just need to buy some alcohol and more containers to infuse it in, and then I am good to go!
In short, if you’ve never noticed the existence of quinces – of any variety – it is my not-at-all-humble opinion is that you should. You may or may not love them as much as I do, but one thing is for sure – you really have no idea what they are like until you’ve tried. And it’s very much worth it.