Quince: A Culinary Love Story

Sunday, December 7, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Quince is an uninviting fruit—fuzzy on the outside and woody on the inside—until you cook it.
In late October, my mother e-mailed me with a link to a Baltimore Sun article about quince, which included a recipe for a North African quince tajine. "Thought of you when I saw this," she wrote. "Do you see quince in the market? Loveya, Mom."

Of course my first thought was, What on earth is a quince?

Ever interested to expand my repertoire of Moroccan recipes, I looked up "quince" in my Arabic dictionary, poked around online a bit, and kept my eyes open. Within a few days, I noticed it—tucked between the tangerines and tomatoes at a nearby produce stand—a lumpy yellowish-green fruit covered in a distinctly unappetizing fuzz. "Waash haadu as-sfarjel?" I inquired.

"Ayyeh," the fruit seller confirmed. Love at first sight it was not, but I had found my first quince.

* * *

The quinces I took home that day matched the descriptions I had read—a little bigger than an apple,
but knobby, rock hard, and covered in a furry nap. Sitting in a bowl on our kitchen table that afternoon, the gnarled balls seemed rather unremarkable.

Perhaps I had let my hopes rise too high, urged on by the small but enthusiastic community of quince fanatics that exists in cyberspace. They were universally fawning in their description of this supposed "fruit of the Gods." Several over-eager enthusiasts had managed to write quince into every story that ever contained a fruit of ambiguous description. Could the unnamed fruit that tempted Adam and Eve have been a quince? Were Homer's lotus-eaters really wooed by quince's intoxicating flesh? What about that "apple" that Paris gave to Aphrodite, igniting the Trojan War?

Over the next few days, however, the temptations began. Gently at first, the quinces started to secrete a distinctly sweet, musky perfume reminiscent of strawberries and the medina's spice stalls. It was time to attempt my first recipe.

* * *

I combed a few cooking websites that Jacqueline recommended, and picked out a Quince, Ginger and Pecan Conserve.

From the start, the quinces played hard to get. I scrubbed off the outer fuzz, then slowly hacked away at their leathery peels. Inside, the cores proved to have the approximate consistency of an oak door, and cutting them was tough going. Though the fruits are an occasional ingredient in local winter dishes, my dull Moroccan kitchen knife was clearly not designed with quince in mind. As I dug into one particularly woody fruit, the knife balked, dodged away from the core, and came to rest snugly in my thumb.

After a few minutes of cursing the offending quince, I finished chopping with help from Jacqueline ("This is like trying to cut an unruly potato") and a hastily wrapped bandage. The next evening we held a housewarming party in our new dar, and served the completed quince conserve with fresh goat cheese and sliced baguettes.

When I tasted my first bite, I forgot my thumb's throbbing and momentarily grasped the impetus behind the quince's enthusiastic following. Quince simply has more flavors than any other fruit I've tasted. One quince recipe roundup accurately described it as "the only fruit that can be cooked simply and still result in a mouthful as complex as a great wine." The quince conserve was the surprise hit of the evening.

* * *

Quince originated in the Caucasus, at the intersection of modern-day Iran, Armenia, and Turkey. Thanks to the fruit's unique flavors, it spread far and wide as an ingredient in traditional dishes, and features in cuisines from Afghanistan to Latin America, including Morocco's. Today quince are still grown locally here, as they also are in the eastern US, where they can be found in fall and winter at farmer's markets or specialty food shops. The fruit is difficult to choke down raw, due to its bitter taste and grainy consistency. As a result, almost all recipes call for the quince to first be boiled in sugar water for at least a few minutes, and up to several hours. As the quinces soften, they release an enticing aroma, and at the critical two-hour mark, their pale, pear-hued flesh suddenly begins to break down and darken. The zesty orangey-red mash that results provided the base for both the conserve and a decent quince applesauce I made a few weeks later.

In traditional Moroccan recipes, however, quinces are sliced and baked beside meat and vegetables in a tajine oven. Without the added sugar, their tangy zip goes a long way in balancing out rich meats like lamb. I didn't think much of my own homemade Lamb and Quince Tajine but I'm sure a true Moroccan preparation (which I'm still searching for) would be better. I had far more success in my attempt at Spiced Lamb Steaks with Poached Quince, served on a bed of couscous. This one was to die for.

By the time Thanksgiving arrived, I was fully smitten, and began preparations for our Moroccan-influenced Turkey Day with quince on the brain. There's no cranberries in Morocco? No problem, we'll have quince sauce. Can't find pumpkin pie filling either? That's ok, I’ll whip up the Apple and Quince Crisp with Rum Raisins for dessert. In the end, the sauce—a tangier take on the conserve I made a few weeks earlier—paired nicely with our scrawny but flavorful Moroccan turkey and Jacqueline's camel meat stuffing. And I dare say the dessert, served warm with vanilla ice cream, was divine.

* * *

Now thoroughly obsessed with quince, where will I go from here, as the fruit sellers' supplies dwindle in the coming weeks?

In truth, life in a medieval city grows dull quickly without a hobby. My recent trysts with the quince have provided more than just delicious eating, so why should the culinary diversions end with the quince season?

Don't tell the quince, but these last few days I've started to notice a strange new fruit in the markets, and I think it's a persimmon.

1 comment:

Ted Farrand said...

Hey Andrew, great story. I have not worked with quinces, but remember having them a couple times growing up.
How are your Mom and Maggie? Are you having a good time?
Cut up any goats lately?
Uncle Ted

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