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The quince tree in my garden is no longer in bloom, but it was pretty while it lasted. Not showy and exuberant like cherry blossom; delicate rather, almost shy, as the individual blooms unravel from their round pink buds and emit a gentle fragrance for the few weeks that they last. In spring and autumn, in blossom and fruit, the quince is a charming tree.
Something tells me, though, that not everyone in Britain is acquainted with this attractive and adaptable species, which is easily grown here and produces plentiful fruit. This obscurity is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the Middle Ages through to Victorian times, the quince would have been as familiar to most people in this country as the apple or the pear, and its fruit as widely eaten. Only towards the end of the 19th Century, at which time it ceased to be customary for all fruit to be cooked, did the quince fall out of fashion, understandably perhaps, since quinces grown in the UK are seldom palatable raw. Nevertheless, they do have culinary uses both on their own and in combination with other fruit. The tree is decorative and of manageable size for all but the smallest gardens. Although there has been a revival of interest in the quince in recent years, it is still not as widely known as it deserves to be.
* Origin of the species *
The quince is native to the foothills of the Caucasian mountains, but by biblical times had already spread south-east through Persia into Asia and south-west through Anatolia to the Mediterranean. Botanically, quinces together with apples and pears form a distinct branch of the rose family (Rosaceae), though to the non-botanical eye their relationship to the rose may appear rather distant; it certainly does to mine. In this respect, though, one has to distinguish between the edible quince (Cydonia oblonga), which looks and behaves similarly to its apple and pear tree cousins, and the flowering "Japanese Quince" (Chaenomeles japonica), which is much more a shrub than a tree and sports rose-like blooms, but no fruit that can be eaten.
It is Cydonia oblonga, the edible quince, with which this review is concerned. The species encompasses a number of cultivars, several of which can be successfully grown in Britain, as will be discussed below.
* The quince in history and legend *
The prominent part played by the quince in legend and mythology has been veiled by the tendency of translators to render as 'apple' all archaic words for any such fruit. Thus, the bait with which the serpent supposedly ensnared Eve in the Garden of Eden may well have been a quince rather than an apple. Similarly, a lot of the fruitier references in the Song of Solomon. Any talk of "golden apples" tends to be a bit of a giveaway, since apples are not by nature golden - no, not even that modern mutant monstrosity mendaciously mis-named "Golden Delicious" when it is neither of those things - whereas ripe quinces have a 24-carat glow to them. The prize that Paris awarded Aphrodite (thus indirectly sparking off the Trojan Wars) was probably a quince, as was the fruit in the garden of Hesperides that Hercules had to purloin as one of his challenges.
The fruit evidently had a bit of a reputation for causing trouble, naturally enough perhaps when, because of the association with Aphrodite/Venus, it was regarded as a symbol of love, and was sometimes even referred to as the "love apple". Some cultures had a custom of a quince being shared by a betrothed pair to celebrate their marriage. I cannot, however, personally vouch for any aphrodisiac qualities. One would imagine that its harsh taste when bitten into raw would have rather the opposite effect. Eve must have been rather easily tempted if she succumbed to a quince. All of which may be only peripherally relevant to the cultivation of quinces in modern Britain, but it gives you something to talk about when visitors ask questions about the curious tree growing in your garden or the funny-looking 'pear' in your fruit bowl.
* Cultivating quinces in Britain... *
...is, I regret to have to confess, extraordinarily easy. Gratifying as it would have been to pretend that exceptional skill is needed, in fact it isn't at all. Quince trees are quite tolerant about soil; ours in planted in clay and has settled in without difficulty. Gardeners with light, chalky conditions should dig in plenty of well-rotted compost when planting - not a bad idea in any case - and keep the roots well-watered while the tree is establishing itself. A bit of top-mulching during the first year or so probably helps too. Sensibly enough, quinces prefer a sunny spot sheltered from the wind if possible, but this isn't essential. They are generally hardy in our climate, though some cultivars suffer in northerly latitudes during a harsh winter of the kind we've just endured. Even here in Kent we had temperatures down to -10°C and some plants failed to survive, but the quince seems to have taken the frost in its stride. To make matters easier still, quinces are self-fertile, so you don't need to worry about having to buy two, or wondering if there's a nearby tree for mating purposes. One tree will fruit quite happily without help.
As a cultivar, we opted for a Meech's Prolific for no better reason than it happened to be the variety in stock at our local nursery. Had we been more diligent, we could have gone to the Brogdale Horticultural Trust a few miles further away in Faversham, which has what is apparently the only commercial quince orchard in Britain today. They stock no fewer than 19 varieties, which is what I call being spoiled for choice, but is nevertheless outdone by the National Quince Collection at Norton Priory near Runcorn; there they grow 23 varieties, though primarily for study rather than for sale, and some they grow are barely viable in the UK.
In practice, there are only a few cultivars that are widely available, and these are the ones that can easily be grown by amateurs. Apart from Meech's (large, very pale pink blossom, big golden fruit, fastish-growing, greeny-grey bark, hardy), the popular ones are: Portugal (allegedly producing the best flavoured though less colourful fruit, also the most vigorous grower but less hardy); Vranja Nenadovic (aromatic golden fruit, good flavour, good cropper, but slower-growing); and Leskovac (the hardiest and a heavy cropper, but with fruit looking more like knobbly apples than pears). If you need detailed guidance on what might suit your conditions, either of the sources cited in the previous paragraph might help, or of course the Royal Horticultural Society.
* Growth and fruiting *
The label still attached to one of its branches tells me that we bought our tree for £26.99 four years ago. You could almost certainly find a sapling for less, even today, but ours was a well-developed specimen, probably already two or three years old and over a metre in height. It is now three metres tall and still growing. Characteristically, Meech's grow to about four or five metres, and the foliage bushes out to a similar diameter as the tree matures. Portugals, I understand, can grow quite a lot larger, up to twelve metres, so if you have plenty of space and are looking for a sizeable tree to fill it, that might be the cultivar to cultivate.
Our tree has been given very little attention, apart from watering during prolonged spells of dry weather. Quinces are resistant to the most deadly diseases (which was one reason we chose it over a flowering cherry or plum, for example, since they are vulnerable to the honey fungus is rife in our area), but they can develop a few problems of their own. Ours almost certainly had a touch of Leaf Blight last year, but despite detracting from the appearance this has no serious adverse effects. Arguably, the tree needs spraying with fungicide, but we're reluctant to use chemicals, especially when we aim to eat the produce. Failure to spray won't help the leaves, I regret to say, which at their best open out from silvery buds in spring before mellowing to an even, gentle green with a slightly velvety feel during summer. My wife will probably prune out any badly affected branches, judicious pruning being good for the tree in any case. The other ailment you have to watch out for is Brown Rot - a worse but rarer nuisance than Leaf Blight, though still not life-threatening - which renders the fruit putrid and inedible.
Our tree started fruiting when it was about four years old, with just two fruit, but each as large as one could wish for, about six inches (15 cm) long and plump with it. The crop doubled to four the following year, and - clearly working to a geometrical rather than arithmetical scale - to fifteen or sixteen (I'm not sure exactly since we lost one or two as windfalls) last autumn. If the tree goes on increasing its output in the same progression we will evidently soon have more fruit than we know what to do with.
* Using the fruit *
Actually, we already have more fruit than we know what to do with. The trouble with quinces grown in this country is that you can't really eat them raw. Even those cultivated in warmer climes don't generally ripen to a succulent sweetness. In Britain there is practically no chance, and the golden glow that quinces assume as September mellows into October is deceptive; under the seemingly soft skin they will still be hard, in texture more like an uncooked potato than a pear. The flesh is barely sweeter than that of an uncooked potato either. Not without flavour - hinted at by their subtle and pleasing aroma - just a little sour and very tough to chew.
So what can you do with them? You can bake them, as you would with cooking apples, perhaps stuffing some brown sugar and raisins down the middle and studding them with cloves. You can chop them up, boil them with a little sugar and use them as the equivalent of apple pie filling or apple sauce; indeed, cooked in this way they are best mixed with apple, which is sharper than quince while the quince rounds out the flavour of the apple. The trouble is, in our household, we don't really do baked apples or apple pies, so we don't have much use for their quince equivalents either.
Quince jelly is a well-known condiment, and is said to be very good with game or roast meats. I did consider making some last year, but in the event the whole business of straining and clarifying seemed too much of a chore, so I settled for quince jam, knowing that quinces must be suited to jam because they feature on "L'Art des Confitures", one of the French culinary prints that decorate our kitchen. It proved to be not only possible but very straightforward. Quince has plenty of pectin, so all one has to do is boil up the chopped fruit with sugar (I also added some apple and a splash of lemon juice to give it a bit more bite) until it mashes down and eventually reaches jamming temperature; it is then spooned into sterilised jars. The outcome was a good pinkish jammy jam, perfectly palatable on bread or toast, but, I have to admit, tasting rather bland. Maybe I didn't add enough lemon, or maybe I added too much, overwhelming the delicate quince flavour in the process. Or maybe the quince flavour is too easily lost in the extended boiling necessary for jam. I shall have to experiment. I might also attempt the Spanish confection known as Dulce de Membrillo, which is like a hardened jelly and apparently goes well with cheese.
Finally, quince cider or wine might be an option, but, since it is one that has only just occurred to me, I shall have to report back on that too another time. I see there is a recipe in my home-made wine book, and if I'm feeling up to the task this coming autumn I'll give it a go.
* Where to buy the trees *
The two best-known specialist growers have already been mentioned: Brogdale and Norton Priory, though the latter appears to be much more geared up for visitors than for selling plants. Brogdale has an online catalogue (http://brogdaleonline.co.uk/GROW_Winter_Catalogue.pdf) which includes several cultivars. I also see from the net that Chris Bowers Nurseries at Wimbotsham, in Norfolk stocks several varieties that you can buy online (www.chrisbowers.co.uk) for home delivery. www.trees-online.co.uk also has a couple of cultivars listed. In Scotland, I understand J Tweedie Fruit Trees of Dumfries is a good source.
Or you could just do as we did and take pot luck at your local nursery or garden centre. More and more such outlets are stocking them, unsurprisingly perhaps, as I understand from articles in newspapers and gardening magazines that, after more than a century of neglect, growing quinces is at long last coming back into fashion. Even the ubiquitous Monty Don has waxed lyrical about it in the Daily Mail. And talking of lyrical, quinces may well have been what W B Yeats had in mind when he wrote:
"...and pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun."
Well, one of the things he had in mind, anyway.
© Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011.