The quince: The fruit that started the Trojan War?

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The quince rarely gets its due. Fruit expert David Karp has the lowdown on this luscious, rosy fruit.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What is a quince?

David Karp: It's a pome fruit, related to apples and pears. Most ripe quince are bright yellow, and look like fuzzy, short-necked pears. The fruit's unique fragrance, hinting of pineapple, guava and Bartlett pear, can perfume a room. All commercial varieties are too hard, sour and astringent to eat raw, but the quince's whitish-yellow flesh softens and turns an attractive pink when cooked. Its high-pectin content makes it ideal for preserves, and its sharp, distinctive flavor complements a wide variety of dishes.

LRK: Where are quinces from?

DK: The quince is native to the Caucasus and northern Persia, but cultivation spread to the eastern Mediterranean basin. Many suppose that the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden was a quince. In Greek legend Helen of Troy bribed Paris to award a quince to Aphrodite as the prize in a beauty contest, starting the Trojan War.

Medieval cooks regarded the quince as the most useful of fruits and spiced it with pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. At medieval courts and banquets, nobles enjoyed quince jelly for dessert: cotignac in France, cotogna in Italy, and carne de membrillo in Spain, all still popular. In Tudor and Stuart times, quince marmalade, wrapped in gold foil, was regarded as an aphrodisiac.

Today, the quince is especially popular in subtropical climates, such as parts of Mexico and Latin America, where deciduous tree fruits like apples do not thrive.

LRK: How are they used in cooking?

DK: The persistent tart flavor of quinces counteracts the greasiness in meat and fowl dishes in rich cuisines, notably in Germany, Latin America and the Middle East. In Persian cooking, with its tradition of meats and sour fruits cooked together, there are many recipes for meat and quince stews. In Britain quince sauce is a traditional accompaniment to partridge, and the French roast quail with slices of the fruit.

In America quince have been popular since Colonial times for making jams and jelly, since they're very high in pectin. Another common use is to add slices of quince to apple pie, which adds a fragrant, spicy dimension to the flavor.

LRK: What varieties of quince are available?

DK: The main variety at commercial markets is the Pineapple, from California, where about 300 acres of quinces thrive in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno. The light-skinned, white-fleshed Pineapple quince supposedly tastes like its tropical namesake, though it is often picked too green for best aroma and flavor. The season runs from August into January or February, when a few quince are imported from Chile.

As for other American varieties, a few small growers offer Orange quince, which actually includes several similar varieties of nearly round, bright-colored fruit. A late-season variety is the Champion, a very fuzzy, pear-shaped, delicately flavored variety. Then there's the very rare Portugal, which I thought was extinct in America until I saw one recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. It's a giant, bulbous, football-shaped behemoth, like the quince in engravings from the 17th and 18th centuries, with a particularly deep, rich flavor.

LRK: Are there any quinces that can be eaten fresh?

DK: For years I'd heard tantalizing tales of varieties so sweet and juicy they can be eaten like apples but were found only in distant places like Latin America or Central Asia. Then a few years ago I met Edgar Valdivia at the California Rare Fruit Growers Festival of Fruit in Los Angeles. He had a non-astringent fruit that grows in southern Peru that smelled like a quince, had a true quince flavor, but was sweet and juicy and closer to an apple in that regard than a quince. For people who like quince flavor, it's a revelation.

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