Catching up with quince

Photo by Susie Safford

Thanksgiving wish

Cold weather has arrived. Various shellfishing and hunting seasons are underway, and the slaughter of livestock too. The holidays are beyond gardening: if you had a garden, it is all leading up to these feasts — food season in overdrive! It seems as if everyone and everything is in a bustling mode that revolves around gathering, preparing, and eating. My Thanksgiving wish is that all aspects of these rituals are shared and enjoyable.

The garden as live larder

Real life may turn much of that pleasant bustle into quite the opposite: overwhelming, over-hyped, and over-rushed stress. Let me back up a bit. There is nothing instantaneous whatsoever about growing and making good food.

However, marketing strategies have been designed, over several American generations, to convince the opposite: that instant-without-effort is the acceptable norm; that it is modern, the way of the future. I. e., instant coffee is the same as or superior to brewing up a fresh pot.

But, as has been noted, we needed to be overrun by fast food before we could have Slow Food. Many were not co-opted by those marketing strategies, and the multitude of eaters committed to real food with no shortcuts has grown, until now it is itself a marketing phenomenon.

Nowadays most of us work, most of the time, so who is going to grow food? Therefore, the following are mostly theoretical questions, but not entirely: Why go to the store? If we are what we eat, is sufficient quality entering our mouths? Why hand over responsibility for feeding your family and yourself to others?

Many years ago in the bad old days there was rampant corner cutting of watered milk and flour adulterated with talcum powder or other unwholesome ingredients. Today many of us wonder: what else is in our food, unwanted and unwholesome? Moreover, what has been removed from it?

My concept of the garden is that it has become, more and more, a live larder, which involves food production and is also beautiful, although the conventional idea of “gardens” and “gardening” creates images of places and activities that are largely ornamental and flowery by nature.

Orchards belong in my idea of a garden, as do fish ponds, rabbit warrens, poultry, vegetables both perennial and annual, compost piles, simple feasts, and as many flowers as possible. A conspicuous facet of this idea is using what is on hand. “Waste not, want not,” which brings to mind quinces.

Quinces — Cydonia oblonga

From classical antiquity onwards the quince has been the symbol of love, happiness, and fruitfulness, but frequently heard in connection with quinces is the lament: they are so hard! How does one use them?

My friend came from California to visit her quince tree (well — there was a little more to it than that); she harvested the fruit and gave it to me because she knows I still mourn the venerable, destroyed quince orchard at our old home.

Delectable quince paste (marmelada) is just one of many interesting recipes for cooking them. It is from the Portuguese word for quince (marmelo) that the word marmalade came into the French and English languages. Quinces are used in poultry and game cookery, and are also made into desserts and sweets. Our Thanksgiving turkey is to be stuffed with quince, onion, and celery.

The late Elizabeth David’s recipe for Quince Paste from her French Provincial Cooking (Penguin, 1969) is well adapted to traditional slow cooking. Somewhat quaint-sounding, it is as follows:

“Rub quinces with a cloth to remove the down. Put them whole and unpeeled into a big, tall earthenware crock or jar, without any water. Leave them covered in a low oven until they are soft but not breaking up. When they are cool enough to handle, slice them, without peeling them, into a bowl discarding the cores and any bruised or hard pieces. Put the sliced fruit through the food mill. Weigh it. Add an equal quantity of white sugar. Boil in a preserving pan, stirring nearly all the while until the paste begins to candy and come away from the bottom as well as the sides of the pan….

“Continue stirring after the heat has been turned off until the boiling has ceased. With a big soup ladle, fill shallow rectangular earthenware or tin dishes with the paste. [Other recipes recommend lining with parchment paper or buttering the receptacles.] Leave to get quite cold. Next day put these moulds into the lowest possible oven of a solid fuel cooker, or into the plate drawer of a gas or electric stove, while the oven is on for several hours, until the paste has dried out and is quite firm. Turn out the slabs of paste, wrap them in greaseproof paper or foil, and store them in tins in a dry larder.”

Quinces originated in the Trans-Caucasus and were intensively bred and cultivated in Turkey and Persia, an area that continues large production of the fruit (as do Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay). They were brought west to Europe by Charlemagne and are recorded as having been planted in the British Isles by around 1275. Early New England colonists planted quince in every orchard. Their high pectin content is a boon in preserve making.

Quince produce grafting stock especially suited to dwarfing pear scion-wood, which bears heavier and earlier when grafted onto quince rootstock. Perhaps because of quince trees’ susceptibility to fire blight (devastating disease of apples, pears, and other members of theRosaceae) or a taste-shift to sweeter fresh fruit, quinces inexplicably fell from popularity by the turn of the 20th century, although trees are still likely to be found in ethnic neighborhoods. Further information about quinces is found in Arnoldia,


There will be no December meeting of Homegrown due to proximity to Christmas.