The Mysterious Quince

The quince is something most of us South Africans have heard about but can’t really picture, let alone imagine the flavour of.

Quince’ is such a funny word, and it definitely doesn’t conjure up a fruit related to apples and pears, or one associated with love and fertility. Great news is that quince trees are now available locally, albeit in limited stocks, so hopefully we will all know more about this plant and its fruit in time to come.

The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is an ancient fruit (as opposed to a modern hybrid) and it comes from parts of Asia and the Mediterranean region, where it was first cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Immensely popular in the past, the quince fell out of favour as time progressed.

Quince Varieties

Now, however, there seems to be a revival of sorts in terms of popularity with new quince varieties being grown and making it onto the market. A large number of quince varieties have been identified around the world, but of these only a small percentage are grown commercially. The fruit ranges from pear-shaped to more spherical (apple-shaped), mostly in shades of yellow to golden and orange. ‘Vranja’ is a popular variety overseas and is the only quince to have won an Award of Garden Merit. There’s even a new ‘patio’ variety, but that hasn’t made it to our shores yet.

Locally, the most readily available and suitable quince variety is ‘Portugal’, which has pear-shaped fruit that goes yellow to orange when ripe, offering a mild flavour and soft flesh that turns red during cooking. It is a self-fertile fruit so you only need the one tree (more than one can increase your crop, though), which should be grown in full sun to light shade. Cold weather isn’t a problem, and neither is frost.

Growing quinces

The quince tree itself is small and ornamental, reaching a maximum of 5m in height and 4m in width and becoming a multi-stemmed tree of great character as it ages.

Grow in full sun, preferably in deep and fertile loam that retains some moisture but doesn’t become waterlogged. Add plenty of compost to the soil before planting and apply an organic mulch at least yearly. Fertilise with a low-nitrogen fertiliser, like Atlantic Flower and Fruit, in spring.

The blossoms are beautiful, usually in a shade of pink or white, and very popular amongst pollinating insects. (There are also flowering quinces with red, yellow or orange blooms, if that is your priority.) The flowers first appear in early spring, while the fruit is generally ready to harvest in late autumn or early winter. While still green they are covered in a white sticky fluff, and the flesh is firm and woody. Wait for the colour to change and the white wool to disappear, and the flesh will be softer and have the characteristic floral scent that makes them so palatable.

Diseases affecting quinces

What is a problem for quince trees are diseases, two in particular: fire blight and quince rust.

Fire blight is a big deal and can totally devastate quince trees and its relatives, like apples and pears, as well as other trees. A bacterial infection, it is usually evident in oozing cankers on the trunk as well as blooms, and it can spread to the branches and root systems, sometimes eventually even killing the tree. It can be treated with a copper solution.

Quince rust is a fungal disease, like other botanical rusts, and causes deformed fruit that just won’t ripen and soften. It can spread to apple trees in the vicinity, but thankfully it is easily controlled with a fungicide.

Culinary uses:

Even when ripe, raw quinces are tart and dry and unpleasant to eat off the tree. Cooked quinces are an altogether different proposition, with a flavour reminiscent of both apples and pears and those floral notes highlighted.

In the kitchen it can be added to the fruit ingredients when making apple sauce for an elegant new flavour profile, it can be turned into jellies or preserves, cooked in a sugary syrup to be eaten with yoghurt or cheeses, or cooked down into a paste that lasts for months. The paste is often then eaten with cheese.

Dulce de membrillo

Called Dulce de membrillo in Spanish, and many other names in other parts of southern Europe and South America, quince paste is a popular jelly or jam that forms a block that can be sliced and is excellent with cheese or cured meats. It is also referred to as ‘quince cheese’, with reference to it being sold in rounds like cheese. The fruit has a high pectin content, which allows it to be made into a sliceable jam with a few ingredients, and the colour of a rich terracotta adds to its authenticity.

  • 3 quinces
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Pinch salt

Peel and core the quinces and cut them into wedges. Add the fruit to a saucepan and cover with water, then add the lemon juice. Bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit is very soft. Drain and cool. Using a stick blender or food processor, blend the quinces until smooth, like apple sauce. Measure 2 cups and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with the sugar. Bring to the boil and reduce the heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture changes colour to a rich red and the texture is thick and like a paste that forms a ball. Keep the temperature low to prevent the mixture from burning, and keep an eye on it. Place into an oiled mould and cool. It can then be sliced. Cover and keep refrigerated for several weeks.

READ MORE: Take a look at ten ways you can preserve your strawberries

The Gardener