Now that we are deep in true winter, it’s time to get into old-timey fruit. Back before apples and pears were luscious and crisp all year long, people relied more on the Quince. It’s an ancient fruit, and goes back so far that some historians think it was probably the “apple” referred to in the Bible. If you take a bite out of one, you might wonder what the big temptation was, since the raw Quince is hard, mealy, and tannic to the tongue.
Turns out, the Mediterranean versions might well have been a little softer and juicier,but only a little. The contemporary quince is probably a good example of what pears were like before we started changing them to suit our tastes. The gritty texture is also a characteristic of pears, if you get a bad one. If you’ve ever bitten into one that felt scratchy instead of smooth, you were experiencing stone cells. Stone cells are hard structures filled with soft flesh, and they form a network so that the fruit feels porous and mealy to the bite. The hard stone cells are actually an advantage when you press the fruit for cider. Some heirloom cider pears are still grown that have these coarse textures, because old style presses have an easier time extracting the juice.
The big advantage of the stone cell in quinces is that the structures are full of pectin. That makes quinces perfect for preserves and pastes, such as the famed Membrillo of Spain. The cooked fruit breaks down and then, ever so helpfully, jells itself.
But the real showstopper when you work with quince is it’s unique, perfumey smell. Harold McGee identifies the scent as “violet-like ionones and lactones, all derived from carotenoid molecules.” Whatever is happening in there, the scent of the cooking fruit is genuinely floral, and adds to the impression that it’s old-fashioned, kind of like your Grandma’s hand lotion.
Then there is the magical color change.
As you can see in the picture above, the flesh of the cooked fruit is pink, but when it went into the liquid, it was a pale beige. If I had kept cooking until the fruit broke apart, it would get rosier and rosier. This, too, is a chemistry trick, with phenolic compounds being transformed into anthocyanin pigments (McGee, again.)
So, are you ready to try an ancient fruit, one with more than a few tricks up its sleeve? You’ll be rewarded with a fascinating food, with a satisfyingly meaty texture for a fruit, a seductive perfume, and a gorgeous tint of pink. Check out my simple recipe for stewed quinces, on toast.
Oh, by the way, quinces were thought to be a fertility fruit by the Ancient Greeks, so maybe all these sexy qualities will add to your love life.
Vanilla Stewed Quince with Pistachios
2 medium quinces
2 cups water
1/2 cup agave syrup
1/2 vanilla bean ( I used one I had in a bottle of vanilla)
(you can add a cinnamon stick, some cloves, etc, whatever sounds good, I went pretty plain.)
8 slices baguette
8 tablespoons tofu or regular cream cheese
4 tablespoons shelled pistachios, chopped
Peel and core the quinces. Be careful, they are tough to cut and your knife may slip, so pay attention. Slice the fruit in quarters or slices. In a one quart saucepan, combine the water, agave and vanilla bean and stir. Add the fruit and bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer for about an hour. When a paring knife inserted into a piece meets no resistance, they are done. Cool in the syrup.
To serve, toast the bread and spread with tofu cream cheese. Drizzle with a little of the syrup, then top with quince slices. Sprinkle with pistachios and eat.