Quince isn’t a cash crop—it’s a cult crop.
Quince is hard to love, and that’s because it’s not easy to eat. Unlike an apple or pear, you can’t simply pluck one from a tree and sink your teeth right in; it’s bitter as all get-out. There’s peeling involved, plus cooking, plus sugar. Lots of sugar.
There’s an old story in the Bible about a lady named Eve tempting some guy with an apple. Scholars speculate the fated fruit was actually a quince, though I personally doubt it.
Eve: “Try this, it’s awesome.”
Adam: “What the hell am I supposed to do with this thing?”
East of Eden, quince is hard to find. According to a 1958 County of Sonoma Agricultural Crop Report, Sonoma County boasted all of two acres of quince orchards (one bearing, one non-bearing) that year. To compare, there were 5,744 acres of Gravenstein apples. Quince is not a cash crop. It’s a cult crop.
So, who loves quince? Crazy people. I’m one. You should be, too, as long as you have a good, sharp knife because cutting into the tough interior of a raw quince takes muscle. For all the fuss they require, quinces beguile, offering aromatic floral and honey notes. And their resilient off-white flesh transforms once exposed to heat, developing a deep rosy blush and a supple texture.
Whole quince are gorgeous to look at, with skin that’s bright buttery yellow-green when ready to harvest. Sometimes that skin is lightly flocked with felty down. And they keep in a bowl on the kitchen counter for weeks. Decorative!
Independent grocery stores may start offer quince in late September or early October. A farmers’ market is a better path if you want to talk to the vendor; anyone growing quince doubtlessly has opinions and insights about how to best use them. Leisen’s Bridgeway Farm sells them. So do Dave Passmore and his partner Jim McCrumb of Sonoma Coast Organic Produce, who appear at farmers’ markets to sell quince grown on their Cazadero farm, but only in October and November. Passmore says they have repeat customers every year. He likes to bake slices of quince in the oven with a little water and, he admits, “too much sugar” before enjoying them plain, or with yogurt or ice cream. He also suggests sneaking a few diced quince into apple pie filling.
Perhaps you live close to a quince tree, in which case the average quince-challenged homeowner will bless you for hauling away grocery sacks of the stuff. Just ask first—it’s bad juju not to.
The fruit’s taste is so distinctive that it’s pointless to even consider pairings like lavender-quince or cardamom-quince; that would be too baroque. (A vanilla bean, however, will soften and lift up those floral qualities. That’s the route to go.) Quince is packed with pectin, the substance that makes jams and jellies set. Quince jelly is labor-intensive, messy, and worth doing at least once. Skip the peanut butter sandwiches and spread it on buttered toast or scones. And quince sings when standing in for apples in tarte tatin, the upside-down apple pie of France.
I’m a dedicated poacher. It’s not particularly challenging, and the results can top ice cream, dense pound cake, or panna cotta. To make sorbet, just puree the poached quince with some of its poaching liquid and churn away. (All that pectin makes for a pillowy-smooth sorbet.)
May I be your Eve? I can tempt you with knowledge only. Don’t dilly-dally. Quince lovers have been waiting for these things all year, and they don’t mess around. If you’d like to try some, buy them when you see them.
You must seek the quince yourself, and its metamorphosis from the most astringent of Rosaceae to an otherworldly delight will be all the sweeter for it.
1-1/2 pounds quince (3 large quinces)
2 cups water or light-bodied
white or rosé wine
1/3 cup sugar
1 four-inch cinnamon stick
One large strip lemon zest
½ vanilla bean
1-3 tablespoons honey
Makes about 4 cups
Cooled and covered, this will keep for about a month; it’s a nicely lazy method of preserving.
Rinse off the quince, then peel (a serrated peeler is especially nice for this). Core the quinces and chop into 1/2 inch pieces. You should have about 4 cups chopped quince. (The cut quince may oxidize, but don’t worry.)
Place the chopped quince, sugar, cinnamon stick, and lemon zest in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise; scrape out the seeds, and add the seeds and bean to the pot. Add enough water or wine to cover the quince.
Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce to a gentle simmer. Cover and poach for 10-25 minutes, until a fork easily pierces the quince pieces. Remove the quince with a slotted spoon; set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon honey to the poaching liquid. Bring to a boil and reduce until a rosy syrup forms (if the syrup reduces too much, just add a little water). Cool a bit and taste; adjust sweetness with more honey, if desired. Discard cinnamon stick and lemon peel, though I do like to leave in the vanilla bean. Pour the syrup over the quince; cool. Store, refrigerated, in a tightly covered jar for up to a month.