Quince: A Path to the Past

December 9, 2011
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A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio.

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Quince from Dave Turner's quince trees.

I hesitate to invoke the famous Marcel Proust time-travel tale one more time, since uncountable references to that story have ricocheted across food literature like pepper-spraying cops across the Internet. But for those whose reading habits haven’t myopically focused on food and culture, I’ll briefly recap:

In the novel Remembrance of Things Past by French writer Proust, the narrator had an absentminded taste of “one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell,” which teleported him back to his long-forgotten childhood. Proust explores this food-induced teleportation for nearly 1.5 million words, examining what he called the “involuntary memories” invoked by something as seemingly innocuous as a scalloped cookie.

Boisean Dave Turner knows all about taste and memory, if not Marcel Proust and his madeleines. The catalyst that shot Turner into his past was quince, a fragrant apple-like fruit.

“Somewhere when I was between 6 and 10, my grandmother used to make this quince jelly,” the 60-year-old Turner said as he opened a gate and walked me into his suburban back yard. “I never knew what a quince was, all I knew was it was the most marvelous-tasting jelly I ever had.”

With an aromatic, apple-pear-citrus flavor, the quince was prized by Puritan settlers who brought it to America in 1629. The quince thrived in colonial communities and eventually spread across the country–even to Mountain Home, where Turner’s grandmother made her memorable jelly in the ’50s.

Dave Turner with his quince trees

As Turner grew older, though, he forgot about quince. Like most of us, life piled up on top of his childhood memories, and for a quarter century, quince never entered his mind. Then that forgotten taste resurfaced. Sometime in his 30s, Turner quietly began obsessing over his grandmother’s quince jelly.

“I was kind of thinking back on how wonderful that jelly was,” he said with a fond, far-off gaze that made this graying Idaho native suddenly seem 6 again. “I looked around but you couldn’t buy it. Nobody even knew what it was.”

In America’s early days, everyone knew what quince was. The fruit was more popular than the apple, according to author Barbara Ghazarian in her recent book Simply Quince.

“Within a century, however,” she wrote, “the apple snatched the spotlight and the popularity of quince steadily declined.”

Although delicious when cooked, the quince can’t compete with an apple plucked fresh from a tree. With the first bite of raw quince comes promise: a satisfying crunch followed by a burst of flavor. But almost instantly that bright rush is sucked away by a cotton-like astringency that fades into the flavorless finish of moist cardboard.

Despite the limited charms of raw quince, the fruit was prized as a potent source of pectin, which is used to set and thicken all kinds of fruit jams and jellies. But that attribute was made irrelevant when mid-20th century scientists developed artificial pectin and quince was quickly tossed into America’s forgotten-fruit bin.

Although Turner’s memory of quince had returned by the 1980s, he couldn’t find anyone who sold the fruit, the trees or even knew what he was talking about.

“I started hunting around the Treasure Valley, calling different nurseries looking for a quince tree. And they pretty much thought I was nuts,” he said.

None of the nurseries he talked to had heard of culinary quince, just the ornamental, flowering quince bushes that weren’t even a member of the same genus.

But not everyone in Idaho had quince amnesia.

Luisa Bilbao making membrillo or quince paste.

Quince has long played a prominent role in Basque cuisine, having arrived in the Basque provinces of Europe in the 15th century. Quince is still prepared in the Basque Country in both sweet and savory dishes, but most typically in the form of membrillo–a firm, rose-colored quince paste that, in its most traditional paring, gives a sweet, floral counterpoint to sharp Basque sheep milk cheeses like idiazabal and manchego.

Basque immigrants Luisa Bilbao and Carmen Lete also used quince to stir up memories of the past. The pair had little trouble recognizing quince trees when they arrived in Idaho in 1956 and 1957, respectively.

On a recent November day, Lete showed a couple of younger Basques how to make membrillo. She has been making quince paste in Idaho since at least the mid-’60s, back when she was cooking for a sheep camp in Marsing.

“I don’t know where I got the quince,” she said, with a Basque lilt as she stirred a bowl of near-molten quince puree. “That’s too long to remember.”

To this day, Lete and Bilbao make numerous trays of membrillo every fall from quince they gather from Basque friends who have nurtured backyard trees through the years.

But back in the ’80s, Turner wasn’t lucky enough to have friends with quince trees. He futilely searched local nurseries for two years without finding a single quince. Then one day, Greenhurst Nursery in Nampa called with good news: They’d found Turner some trees.

“So I took the afternoon off and I ripped over there and I bought two trees,” Turner said.

A ripe quince on Dave Turner's quince tree

Twenty-five years later, Turner showed me how those specimens had grown into a pair of handsome shade trees, full of ripening, greenish-gold fruit. The trees laced the air with a delicate, ineffable scent–pear, lemon, honey and nutmeg–a scent I found hard to pin down, but one easy to imagine haunting Turner’s memory.

Anyone might mistake those trees for apple trees, except for the fact that the large, lumpy fruit was covered in both wax and an unruly white fuzz, like lint on an old sweater.

“The fuzz protects them,” said Turner, as if defending a friend’s bad hair day. “If you remove the fuzz, they oxidize very quickly.”

That pubescence, as horticulturalists call it, is also thought to repel pests.

“They’re not really plagued by worms; you don’t have to spray them,” Turner said. Nor do squirrels or birds seem to covet quince.

Some biblical scholars suggest the quince was the Garden of Eden’s true forbidden fruit. After all, quince was first cultivated in Mesopotamia. Homer and Virgil later waxed poetic about the virtues of quince. Other Greeks and Romans used quince to avert the evil eye or make air fresheners.

Many of the world’s cultures never forgot about quince. In Simply Quince, Ghazarian wrote that the fruit is called “marmelo” in Portuguese, “coing” in French, “quitte” in German, “ayva” in Turkish and “sergevil” in Armenia. “Across the globe, the fruit-bearing quince tree (Cydonia oblonga) is cultivated and prized for its versatility in the kitchen.”

To prove that versatility, Ghazarian offers recipes for poached quince, baked quince, quince seed tea, quince pickles, curried quince with lamb, bay scallops and shrimp with quince, and for dessert, quince compotes, buckles, crisps and crumbles.

With limitless culinary possibilities, and trees that telegraph their intriguing scent every fall, Dave Turner said he has no trouble turning friends and neighbors into quince fans.

“There are some people that are so in love with quince, I get phone calls and they say, ‘Are they ready yet?'” Turner said as he rolled a ripe quince between his hands. “They’re hooked on them, like I am.”

Turner gives away fruit, ships boxes to friends in places as far away as Ohio, and sells a good amount at Boise Co-op. But did his long quest for quince give him that Proustian madeleine-moment he was looking for, his own edible path to the past?

“It took four or five years before they started producing fruit,” he said of the trees we stood beneath. “But once I got fruit off of it and made this jelly using Grandma’s recipe … the flavor come right back. It just took me way back to when I was 6 or 7 years old.”

About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
Website:http://www.guyhand.com
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One Response to Quince: A Path to the Past

  1. Janie Burns on December 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    I’m whipping up a batch of membrillo as your article plays on the radio. It’s always a great winter treat.

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