Looking at a quince fruit for the first time, you might be forgiven for thinking it is a misshapen apple or pear. Quinces are a similar size and golden yellow colour to their better-known cousins, but where the apples and pears we buy in supermarkets are smooth and shiny, the quince is lumpy, irregular, and, it has to said, somewhat unappealing in appearance. And the differences don’t end there. While you can grab an apple or pear straight from the fruit bowl and take a bite, quinces are inedible raw, with a sour taste and tough, woody flesh that is hard to cut with a knife, let alone bite.
So why eat quince? The clue is in the quince’s irresistible, heady perfume. Imagine the ripest, most fragrant apple you’ve ever eaten, with notes of vanilla, citrus and soft, aromatic florals. To release these delicious flavours simply requires cooking, and the results are very much worth the effort. Quince is high in pectin, and tastes great in jams and jellies, or added to apple pie and apple sauce for an extra burst of flavour. The taste of quinces has a strong association with autumn or fall, as they are not grown in large amounts commercially, so can only be enjoyed as a seasonal treat.
Quince fruit: history
Quinces have been cultivated since ancient times, and in Greek mythology the fruit was a symbol of Aphrodite, representing love and fertility. Quinces were eaten at wedding feasts and baked into wedding cakes, and it was customary to toss a quince to a newly-married couple as a symbol of their love. Because of the association with Aphrodite, some scholars think that the legendary ‘golden apple’ given to the goddess by Paris may actually have been a quince. Others have even suggested that the apple given to Eve by the serpent in the Old Testament could refer to a quince, as quinces were better known and more widely used than apples right up until the middle ages.
The Romans also used quince in their cooking, and it is featured in the oldest known cookbook ‘De re coquinaria’ (On the Subject of Cooking), written by Apicus in around the 1st century AD. It is thought that the Romans discovered the gelling properties of pectin because quince requires cooking before you can eat it, and because of this, the earliest jams or jellies were probably made of quince. We even get the word ‘marmalade’ from the Portuguese word for quince (marmelo), as the first marmalade recipes were made with quinces rather than oranges.
How to eat quince
There are lots of ways to use quince, but the simplest way to prepare it is to core and peel the fruit, cut it into quarters and gently poach in a sugary liquid. The fruit will turn a delicate rosy pink as it cooks, filling your kitchen with its delicious aroma. You can poach quince in red wine or water, but be sure to add plenty of sugar, as it can be quite bitter. Add your favourite spices to the poaching liquid to enhance the flavour; vanilla bean, fresh ginger, cinnamon, lemon peel and star anise all complement sweet flavours well, and if you’re thinking of using quince as an accompaniment for meat, try a sprig or two of rosemary.
Once your quince is cooked, you can eat it as a snack, drizzled with yoghurt, or use it as an ingredient. Perhaps the best-known quince recipe is membrillo, a delicious quince paste from Spain that pairs perfectly with cheese. Like apple, quince enhances the flavour of rich meats like pork and venison, and is also great for baking, adding a fragrant twist to hearty fall favourites like pies, tarts and cobblers. Make sure you keep hold of the fragrant poaching liquid, too, as this can be used to make jams and jellies, or reduced to make a sweet syrup that tastes great added to drinks or desserts.
How to cook quince: recipes
If you would like to try quince for yourself, here are a few of our favourite recipes:
No collection of quince recipes would be complete without a recipe for quince paste, or membrillo. This complex, fragrant paste is simply made, using just quince, sugar and lemon, and aged for 4-6 weeks to intensify the flavour. The perfect accompaniment for your favourite cheese.
For a satisfying autumnal dessert, try this hearty quince pudding, made with quince, spiced with cinnamon and poached in port, then topped with a golden brown buttermilk pudding. Serve warm, with crème fraîche, ice cream or custard.
A quick and easy way to use your leftover poaching liquid is to make it into a delicious quince syrup. This sweet treat can be used in a variety of different ways. It tastes great added to your morning oatmeal or drizzled over pancakes, and can be added to cold water to make a refreshing cordial, or to cocktails for a fragrant fall twist.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the usual jams and jellies on offer, try this delicate and aromatic quince jelly. Flavoured with lemon and star anise, it tastes great on toast and crumpets, and makes a delicious sticky glaze for ham.
Quince fruit: all the benefits
We’ve all heard the saying, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ but it looks like the apple’s odd-looking cousin might be good for your health, too. Quince, like most fruit, is low in calories and rich in vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre, and while it is not exceptionally high in any one compound, it does contain a wide variety of nutrients, including vitamins A, B, and D, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc, phosphorus, calcium, iron and magnesium.
Quince has been used in folk medicine to treat digestive disorders for centuries, and early laboratory tests suggest that our ancestors may have been onto something. Animal experiments reveal that quince may help prevent stomach ulcers and reduce tissue damage associated with inflammatory bowel disease, while human participants who were given quince syrup reported a reduction in the symptoms of acid reflux and pregnancy-induced nausea.
As well as aiding digestion, quince may be able to help support your immune system. Various test-tube studies show that it has antibacterial properties, and can limit the growth of harmful bacteria like e.coli, while its high fibre content encourages the growth of healthy bacteria. Vitamin C also plays an important part in maintaining a healthy immune system, and quince is high in this essential nutrient, with one fruit containing around 15% of your recommended daily allowance.
It is important to remember that most of these studies are still in early stages, and more evidence is needed before we can say for sure, but at the very least, quince offers a wide variety of essential vitamins and minerals for just a few calories. And of course, it tastes pretty good too.