quince

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon…
- Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat.


Quinces are the oddball cousins of apples and pears, late season, downy and fragrant. Their golden yellow skin belies the hard, astringent flesh below, but cook the quick-to-brown flesh of this somewhat shy and retiring fruit low and slow and you will be rewarded for your troubles. Still quite common in older gardens and orchards, quinces are a diverse bunch. I see numerous posts on fruit identification sites accompanied by a photo of a large yellow fruit and a “What’s this?” tagline.

In season, you’ll often smell a quince before you see it, on or off the tree. My earliest encounter with quince fruit was in an alleyway between my parents’ shop and the garden of the house next door. I could smell a fragrant, ripe, fruity scent and looked up to spy many large, golden pear-shaped fruit hanging over the fence, out of my reach. I went on the hunt for a suitable tool from the shop to dislodge this bounty, settling on a cardboard tube, the type you store maps or posters in. Despite many attempts, I failed to knock down any fruit, but was successful in sending the cardboard tube over the fence. I don’t know what was inside it (sorry, Mum and Dad, I know you are reading this) and for all I know it’s probably still there, 30 years later.

Over the years I’ve been gifted quince, picked interesting quince varieties from old orchards, and on the block I’ve just left, had access to just the right amount of quinces from two pear rootstocks that re-established as their true selves. If you have a garden with a bit of space, enjoy fruit with an aromatic kick and are looking for a long-lived productive tree with the bonus of showy blossom in spring, a quince tree might just be what you’re looking for.

Quince: a short family history

Closely related to apples and pears, the common quince, Cydonia oblonga is native to the lowland and montane forests south of the Caspian Sea and commonly grown throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Quinces in general are quite a diverse bunch, and on the aforementioned fruit ID webpages, it’s commonly a very large football size and shape fruit that’s the subject in question, not a typical pear-shaped and sized standard quince. Alongside the common or garden quince, we have the Chaenomeles species – these include the flowering quinces, plus Japanese and Tibetan species. The extra-large-fruited, egg-shaped varieties are most likely Chinese quince, from another genus, Pseudocydonia (namely Pseudocydonia sinensis). Fruit from the latter two genera can also be used in a culinary sense, but C. oblonga fruit is though to be superior flavour-wise.

Largely noted for its culinary qualities, and as a mythological symbol of love, fertility and life, quince have also been long-favoured by landscape architects for their attractive spring blossom (notably by the father of North American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead) and also of medicinal benefit for conditions including sore throats, diarrhoea and inflammatory conditions among others. In the Balkan states, a quince tree is planted to mark a child’s birth. In modern times, most commercial cultivation of quince is for use as a commercial rootstock species for many pear cultivars, with or without a pear interstock to improve graft compatibility. An interesting personal observation I’ve noted after a good many years of preserving pears in various forms is that pears grown on quince rootstock can produce interesting deep-red coloured preserves and conserves and I’ve stopped to wonder whether this is a characteristic conferred by the quince rootstock, knowing that quince flesh itself produces jams and pastes of a similar ruby hue.

You will probably struggle to find an orchard of solid quince trees in the antipodes or Europe, but tradition holds that the quince has the right to a place or two in the traditional standard mixed-crop orchard. A striking example of this was in the 18th century New England colonies of North America (New Hampshire, Massachusetts et al.) where a quince tree would commonly be found “at the lower corner of the vegetable garden.” Not a bad adage to follow, I reckon.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

Quince can be grown throughout New Zealand and grow happily in both warm-temperate and temperate climates. Its chilling requirements are less than that of apples or pears, approximately 100-400 hours depending on the species and cultivar. In warmer climates, it is said the fruit can be tree-ripened to the point of being juicy, soft-fleshed and edible fresh, although I’m yet to hear of that being a thing in New Zealand.

Quince are slow-growing but can end up as quite large trees – easily reaching four to five metres or more in height with a similar spread. Allow five metres of space all round if planting more than one tree. It’s not uncommon for trees to live for 50 years or more, so this is an investment for life.

Quince are late-flowering, after their cousins the pears, with the flowers producing blooms after the leaves have burst forth. The showy pale-pink blossoms are self-fertile and insect pollinated, though as for many fruits, produce better when they have a friend nearby.

Ripe in late March to early May, quince generally begin to crop well between four to six years of age and can produce sizeable yields (in the region of 15 kg or more per tree) at around this age. It is not unusual for individual fruits to weigh up to 500 grams each.

Quince can be propagated by cuttings (slow to mature), layering (relatively simple and recommended), or by grafting onto seedling pear or quince rootstocks. Unless you’re after something a bit rare or special, avoid the hard work and head to your local nursery for a healthy, well-established tree of a named cultivar. Having said that, the most interesting quince I’ve come across was in an old farm orchard in Canterbury – the fruit were round, with interesting segmented, capsicum-bottom like indentations around the stem. While researching for this article, I’ve discovered they are likely Constantinople apple quinces, and I’d do anything to hunt one down again. Subsequently, I’ve read anecdotal evidence that round, spherical quinces have better flavour than pear-shaped quinces.

Site selection and planting

Choose a spot in full sun or semi-shade – remember, you’ll require good exposure to sunlight for fruit ripening, especially if you’re in a cooler climate region. The quince’s natural habitats are dry, arid climates and they naturally do better in areas of low humidity. They are relatively frost-hardy, but blossoms may be susceptible to frost damage in areas prone to late cold snaps.

Plant quince trees during the winter months, in the dormant period. The adaptable quince will tolerate a range of soil types and pH, but prefers a fertile loam with good drainage and a fairly neutral pH (6-7)– they won’t tolerate wet feet though. The trees are shallow-rooted, so avoid cultivation inside the dripline.

Culture and care

Quince are fairly drought tolerant but like most fruit crops, perform best with regular, adequate moisture. Give your young, newly-planted trees enough water to soak the ground all around the roots once every 10 days or so. From then on, as long as your normal summer rainfall allows for a couple of centimetres of rain every fortnight or so, your trees should be able to cope.

Fertilise as for pears - plan to make an application of balanced general fertiliser once a year in spring, starting with 250-500 g per year of tree age for young trees, up to a total application of 5 kg for a mature tree age. Apply evenly to the dripline, spreading at a rate of a cupful per square metre, directly before forecast rainfall, or otherwise water in well after applying.

Pruning

A slightly different approach is necessary when pruning quince as opposed to apples and pears. Quince blossom, and hence fruit, is actually produced on short twiggy sections of current-season’s growth. Naturally shrubby in nature, quinces may need some work in their formative years to produce a standard, single-trunked tree. Use the basic structure for establishing a young pear tree (see Your Backyard Fruit Bowl: Pears), then once this framework is established, annual pruning should focus on removing straggly branches and maintaining an open canopy. Ongoing maintenance pruning of a mature tree should be minimal and focus on removing the three Ds (dead, diseased and damaged wood). If you prune off the youngest wood, you will prune off your crop!

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

Quinces are not only long-lived, but hardy to boot. They can suffer some of the main pest and disease issues that affect apples and pears, but the severity is rarely such that requires action in the form of pesticide sprays – quince foliage is actually quite sensitive, more so than that of apples or pears and symptoms of phytotoxicity may develop after insecticide application. The main issues are bacterial fireblight and fungal infections affecting the leaves (which can spread to the fruit), but these are largely issues only likely to be encountered in high-humidity climates, or particularly wet seasons in dryer areas.

Varieties: My top picks

The range of quince cultivars readily available commercially in New Zealand is a little limited. Keep your eyes peeled for anything unusual and collect budwood for grafting wherever possible.

Van Diemen – A reliable cropper with large fruit. Ripens mid-season, hardy.

Smyrna – A popular large-leaved Turkish cultivar. Ripens mid-season, begins to crop when quite young compared with other cultivars. Forms a moderate-size tree. Fruit store well.

Pineapple – Large-fruited cultivar with white-fleshed fruit that have a pronounced pineapple flavour.

I’ve seen the cultivar Champion mentioned in older New Zealand literature, but am not sure if it’s still commercially available. It’s a heavy cropper with lemon-scented fruit, and trees which reach a maximum height of three to four metres, which could make it a good choice for smaller gardens. It’s supposedly a late cropper under New Zealand conditions.

Keep an eye out for mention of the Russian cultivars Aromatnaya and Kuganskaya – I’m not sure if they are in the country, but they can apparently be eaten raw.

What to do with your crop

Quince fruit has been popular for centuries, and given its somewhat short harvest season, valued highly, with many attempts to prolong consumption of this delicacy through various long-winded preservation methods. The Roman-era cookbook De re coquinaria or Apicius recommends submerging perfect, unblemished fruit in a mixture of honey and concentrated wine…only a few steps from the tedious process of boiling quince flesh with copious amounts of sugar to produce quince paste or membrillo, beloved accompaniment to many a cheeseboard. I personally can’t be bothered with this process, but appreciate it’s a yearly ritual for some.

Harvest your quinces when they are a uniform golden yellow and become aromatic on the tree, taking care to keep the stems intact if you plan to store them for any length of time. They will store for up to three months in cool, dry location. One quince in your fruit bowl will perfume an entire room.

European palates are probably most accustomed to quince as a dessert fruit and sweet accompaniment, but Middle Eastern cuisine makes the most of these aromatic baubles as a complement to savoury, meat-based dishes. Persian recipes see quinces stuffed with a spiced mutton mixture, much in the same fashion of the stuffed capsicums of Mediterranean persuasion.

Generally too sour and astringent to be eaten raw, quinces are somewhat hazardous to prepare, sort of like the culinary fruit equivalent of a pumpkin. The flesh can be rock hard and full of stony sclerenchyma deposits, so mind your fingers. If you want to avoid hazardous coring, opt for gentle roasting or slow-cooking of whole, peeled fruit (the skin can sometimes be bitter), scooping out the cores after cooking. Most famously used to make jelly, jam and fruit pastes, I personally don’t have the patience for tending a pot of plopping, burning hot, sticky quince pulp that burns on the bottom of the pot the minute your back is turned anymore, so personally eschew making sugary quince paste (though I accept small quantities as gifts!). I am told there is a microwave method, quite successful for small batches out there, but I’ll let you research that.

I think the quince’s greatest quality is as an aromatic flavour-booster when combined with other fruits. Include a thinly-sliced quince when stewing pears or apples for a crumble and keep your guests guessing. Ditto when preparing purees for dehydrated fruit leather or bottling your crop.

A number of quince-flavoured liqueurs are produced throughout Europe and the Middle East, including ratafia variants, eau de vie and digestifs. They also produce flavoursome fruit vinegars and being high in pectin, are a useful addition to low acid, low pectin fruit mixtures to increase the natural setting capacity.

Here’s a different take on quinces for dessert, using them in a rich-coloured sorbet offset by the fresh sharpness of new-season limes.

Quince sorbet with lime

Adapted from a recipe by Australian food writer Pat Churchill

1 kg quinces
2 cups boiling water
1 cup sugar
Zest and juice of 2-3 limes (to taste)
2 tbsp of a citrus liqueur – lime if you have it, limoncello or an orange liqueur, or plain vodka at a pinch.

Make a simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the boiling water and then simmering for five minutes.

Pour this into an ovenproof casserole or the bowl of your slow cooker.

Peel the quinces, quarter them, and core if you can be bothered and add to the dish or bowl.

Either cover the casserole dish with foil and bake at 150°C for two to three hours, or pop the lid on your slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until the fruit is tender.

Cool the fruit, then scoop out the cores, if you haven’t already.

Puree the fruit in a food processor or blender and then stir in the liqueur or vodka and lime zest and juice.

Ideally, process the mixture in an ice cream machine until smooth. Alternatively, if you don’t have an ice cream machine, pour the mixture into a couple of two litre ice cream containers, freeze for two hours, remove and beat each portion with a whisk or hand beater to break up the ice crystals. Return to the freezer and repeat the process every half hour or so until the desired texture is reached. You could also use a food processor for this method.

Pack into a freezer-proof container and freeze until ready to use. Remove from the freezer 10-15 minutes before serving for ease of scooping.


Disclaimer: The information supplied above is general and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates, and further region-specific information.

Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association which endeavors to grow and preserve as much of her fresh produce as possible.  When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.     

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organization promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage, and other productive crops.  Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

Image credits

Quince fruit – Image by innviertlerin from pixabay.com
Quince in bowl - Image by simonfritzfotografie pixabay.com
Quince blossom- Image by Yıldırım ÖZDEMİRa from pixabay.com
Quince growing in tree - Image by congerdesign from pixabay.com