The Delicious Quince Fruit: Jam, Jelly, and Membrillo
A Delicious and Useful Fruit
Quinces are aromatic yellow fruits that taste lovely when cooked. A raw quince tastes sour and astringent and has a white or pale yellow flesh. When the fruit is cooked for a long time, however, a magical transformation occurs. The flesh darkens and turns into an attractive orange color and the fruit develops a very appealing flavor.
Quince fruits are high in pectin, the chemical that enables both quinces and citrus fruits to gel when they're cooked. Quinces are used to make jams, jellies, and sweet pastes such as membrillo. They are also baked, poached, and stewed. Cooked quince slices are added to sweet dishes as well as to cheeses and meats. They are sometimes used to make wine, cider, or liqueurs.
The History of Quinces
Quince plants are very popular in some parts of the world today and were once common orchard trees in North America. Individual homeowners would often have a quince tree growing in their garden.
The plant is an ancient one and likely arose in Asia Minor. It was in common use in Ancient Greece and Rome. It's been suggested that the fruit that tempted Eve was actually a quince instead of an apple. The golden apple given by Paris to Aphrodite, the Grecian goddess of love, may have been a quince as well. Quinces were used to fill homes with a fragrant scent and were often considered to be a symbol of love.
The first marmalades were made from quinces instead of oranges or other citrus fruits as they are today. The name “marmalade” comes from the Portuguese word for quince, which is “marmelo”.
How to Cut a Quince
Flowering Quince or Japonica
Quince fruits look like a cross between an apple and a pear, to which they're related. True quince plants have the scientific name Cydonia oblonga. There are related plants that are also known as quinces, however, including the so-called flowering quinces which are grown mainly as ornamental plants.
Flowering quinces are shrubs belonging to the genus Chaenomeles. They are valued for their beautiful red, orange, pink, or white flowers. One popular species is Chaenomeles japonica. The species name "japonica " is sometimes used as a common name for all flowering quinces.
The fruits of a flowering quince are small and have a golden yellow color. Some varieties produce edible fruits that can be used to make quince jelly, just like the larger fruit of their relatives.
Quince trees are highly branched and sometimes grow as shrubs rather than trees. They have attractive white flowers that are tinged with pink. The fruits are green when unripe and become bright yellow when ripe. They often have a lumpy appearance.
Quince trees are said to be easy to grow, although they are susceptible to some parasites. They live for a long time, which is why some can still be found in old North American orchards and gardens. As they age, the trees often develop an interesting gnarled and twisted appearance.
It may not be possible to pluck a quince fruit from a tree and eat it, as we can do to an apple or a pear, but quince fans today are rediscovering what North Americans of the past knew well. Patiently cooking the fruits produces a versatile food and yields ample rewards.
Making a Jam and a Jelly
To make a jam, quinces are first peeled, cored, and cut into pieces or coarsely grated. Some cooks prefer to leave the peel on the fruit. The peel may have a fuzzy coating, which can be removed with a wet cloth.
The quince pieces are covered with water and boiled. Sugar is added to taste, usually after the quince has cooked for a while and has softened. Most recipes suggest between a 2:1 to 1:1 ratio of quince chunks to sugar.
Quince cores contain pectin. The cores can be placed in a muslin or cotton cheesecloth bag and then suspended in the boiling water to add extra pectin to a jam. Another way of adding extra pectin is to partially cook quince slices which still have their cores intact. When the slices have become soft but haven't disintegrated, the cores should be removed. The slices should then chopped into smaller pieces and cooked until the jam is ready. Quince jelly can be made from water in which quinces have been boiled.
One test that can be used to check whether a jam or jelly is ready to remove from the stove is to place a spoonful of the mixture on a very cold plate. If the mixture wrinkles and doesn't flow when it's touched, the jam is ready. Finished quince jam must be placed in sterilized jars and should be processed in a boiling water bath to ensure that bacteria and mold are destroyed.
How to Make Japanese Quince Jelly
Membrillo, sometimes known as dulce de membrillo, is a sweet quince paste. "Membrillo" is the Spanish word for quince. The paste is especially popular in parts of Europe and Central and South America. It's spread on bread, toast, crackers, and cheese and is used in pastries.
Membrillo is made from a mixture of quince, sugar, and water that has been slowly cooked. Although membrillo is referred to as a paste, it actually has a dense, jelly-like texture. It's sold as a block of gelled quince that maintains its shape. The block is sliced as needed. The slice softens as it's spread over food.
In North America, membrillo is most likely to be found in ethnic or gourmet food stores. It may also be found in health food markets—especially those belonging to large chains—and in farmers markets.
Membrillo is often paired with Manchego, a Spanish cheese made from the whole milk of Manchego sheep. These sheep traditionally live in the La Mancha region of Spain. They graze on plants growing on a high plateau that is located about 2,000 feet above sea level.
Manchego cheese has a unique flavor that is sometimes described as "nutty". The flavor becomes more intense as the cheese is aged. The inedible wax rind on the surface of true Manchego cheese has a distinctive zigzag pattern that resembles the weave of a basket. Originally this design was created by the grass press used to make the cheese, but now it's applied artificially.
Like membrillo, Manchego cheese is available in specialty stores in North America. Some markets temptingly display the cheese and membrillo next to each other.
Cooking Quince Fruits
Where to Find Quinces
In North America and Europe, quinces are available in autumn in farmers markets, specialty produce stores, and occasionally supermarkets.
Some people have quince trees or flowering quince bushes growing in their gardens and can harvest their own supply of fruits. Others may know someone who grows the plants but doesn't want to cook the fruits and is willing to donate the quinces from their garden.
If a person doesn't want to make their own quince products or doesn't have time to cook the fruits, they can buy quince jam, jelly, and membrillo both in stores and online. Canned fruit is also available.
Nutritional Benefits of the Fruit
Quinces are rich in vitamin C, but much of this vitamin is lost when a quince is cooked. Unfortunately, most quinces are far too sour to eat in their raw form (although researchers are creating new, sweeter varieties of quince that can be eaten when they are raw). It takes the magic of cooking to change an unappetizing raw quince into a delectable food.
Quinces provide fiber, especially if the peel is left on. They are low in fat and sodium and contain a significant amount of iron, copper, and potassium. Quince fruits are low in calories, but the sugar that is sometimes added to them increases the calorie count.
A Heritage Fruit for Today
There seems to be a renewed interest in quinces in North America. They are definitely worth investigating. Their delightful aroma fills a room with scent and the lovely, sweet, and slightly tart flavor of the cooked fruit goes well with many foods. It requires a bit of effort to coax a quince to produce its wonderful taste, but the effort is well worthwhile.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Linda Crampton