A quince is a fruit resembling a pear that was first cultivated in the Middle East. In fact, the proverbial apple offered to Adam by Eve may actually be more accurately translated as a quince. This fruit cannot be eaten like pears or apples, with the exception of the less cultivated pineapple variety, but need to be baked or frozen to eliminate their acidity.
Once ripened, the yellowish fruit still has a hard exterior, much like a winter squash. If one is not using them immediately, cooking guides recommend storing them in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. The seeds can be poisonous in large quantities, so many people discard them. The core of the quince is very hard, but using a sharp paring knife will divest it of both the unusable core and the seeds.
Though the interior of the quince is white when raw, cooking will turn it a deep red. Like apples, this fruit contains a lot of pectin, so it is frequently used for jams and jellies. Modern American recipes also suggest replacing one third of the apples in an apple pie with quince slices to add a bit of tartness and interest to the traditional pie.
In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, traditional recipes over a thousand years old call for stewing quince with pork, lamb or goat. Cultivation of the fruit moved westward with the expanding Roman Empire, and countries like England and France made jams and fruit paste with it. In the Middle Ages, England's first marmalade was made not with oranges, but quinces.
The French developed a fruit preserve with the fruit in the Middle Ages called Contignac d'Orleans, and one legend states a gift of it was given to Joan of Arc when she ended the siege of Orleans. Germany makes a fruit juice from quinces that is said to blend well with sweeter juices.
Colonists brought the fruit to the Americas, but it was vulnerable to fireblight, which can destroy a whole orchard in one season. There are now few orchards in North America. They fared better in South America, and the fruit is abundant in Uruguay and Argentina.
In Western cultures, quinces fell out of popularity in the 19th century, when tropical fruits had become more readily available and were preferred. The fruit is making a comeback, however, and fine chefs are using the it again to create varied and interesting recipes, or reviving usage based on Middle Eastern cuisine.
Quinces are seasonal and can be found in autumn to early winter. Since they are not frequent ingredients in most American cooking, a shopper may have to look for them in Middle Eastern or Hispanic food markets. One reward of a bit of extra shopping, however, is the pleasant release of a perfume-like aroma as the fruit ripens. Women in ancient Rome were said to take a bite of one before their first kiss with their husbands.
Distinct from the fruit-bearing plant is the ornamental quince, a herald of spring for many in the US. These hedges bloom in mid January and have deep pink petals, which are a pleasing contrast to the dark, bare wood. The ornamental plant bears no fruit, and survives well in North American climates. In contrast, fruit-bearing varieties have white or light pink petals, and when in bloom, as either hedge or short tree, they are both lovely to view and functional for the fruit they provide.