Heirloom quince trees grow by our creek, down where the old settlers once lived. Closer to the Shedquarters in our veggie patch, a happy pineapple quince spreads its gnarled branches and marks the seasons.
Come autumn, we watch the fruit transition from green to yellow. When those fat golden dumplings start to impart their magical fragrance, and the parrots flock, we bring the fruit indoors, where they continue to ripen and add colour and sweet aroma to our spaces. Not quite an apple, nor a pear, the quince gives us great joy.
Native to western Asia, Greece and Iran, the yellow knobbly fruit has played an important role in history. As Adam and Eve swanned around the Garden of Eden, there was a chance that quince, not apple, was the forbidden delectable they plucked from the tree. The cultivation of the quince links back to ancient Babylon, and they grew wild in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains between Persia and Turkmenistan. Many trade routes crisscrossed this region, spreading the fruit westward and eastward.
From ancient times to the late Middle Ages, quinces were, in most places, more widely used and better known than apples or pears. They are entwined in Greek mythology (known as Aphrodites fruit and linked to fertility and marriage), and it is said that Mary Queen of Scots ate quinces to combat seasickness when crossing from Calais to Scotland in 1561. When Joan of Arc arrived in Orleans in 1429 to liberate the French from the English, she received the honoured gift of Cotignac d'Orleans, a fruit jelly made from boiled quince juice and sugar, set into decorative wooden boxes.
For all its significance in historical narratives, the popularity of the quince has waned over time, especially in Australia. There are 16 known varieties grown in our country today, a drop from the 40 varieties reported in the early 1900s. It's an adaptable plant that thrives in certain areas – from the cooler parts of our subtropics to cool temperate regions – yet it is grown commercially here in small quantities.
Raw quince is tart, woody and tough, but the flesh becomes sweet, soft and delicious once cooked. A heady aroma fills the kitchen, and the fruit turns a luscious ruby hue. They are perfect for poaching, stewing and baking, and their high natural pectin content means they easily transform into jams, marmalade and paste. Quince paste paired with a strong blue cheese? Heavenly. Poached and added to yoghurt in the morning or ice cream at night? Yes please. A quince cake is on our winter baking rotation (we love the quince frangipane tart from Sophie Hansen’s In Good Company) – we live for a slice with a hot cuppa on a chilly afternoon. It is also at home in flavourful meat-based dishes – think Moroccan tagines or Khorsh-e Beh, a popular Persian quince stew.
A heady aroma fills the kitchen, and the fruit turns a luscious ruby hue.
Cooking versatility aside, the fruit boasts total sensory appeal. There is something about a bounty of quinces tumbling over a generous bowl on a table. The lumps, bumps and curves are sensual and organic, and that glorious quince yellow (somewhere between chartreuse and a pale sunrise) translates beautifully in photographs. We enjoy styling quinces into vignettes are much as we love cooking with them!
And the exquisite scent that builds as the fruit slowly ripens? It’s a whisper of something sweet and sublime – notes of delicate vanilla, citrus and herbaceous apple combined. Victorian-era household manuals suggested storing quinces in flat trays at the top of the linen cupboard to allow their fragrance to imbue the fabrics. How delightful! Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and take in an orchard of sun-soaked blossom, a summery snippet captured in a wonderful autumnal fruit.