Pale yellow, and shaped like a flattened pear, quince is one of those fruits which wasn’t even in my vocabulary up until the past few years, much less on my table. It sounded old fashioned and maybe even undesirable, like some kind of jelly that ancient Aunt Millie might bring out on Thanksgiving with her mincemeat pie.
But then I heard that quince (Cydonia oblonga) were related to roses, that a few slices would imbue other fruits with a rich, floral aroma, and that it worked some kind of kitchen alchemy, changing from white to ruby red when cooked. It also happens to be elusive: its season in late Autumn is short-lived, and you don’t always find it in grocery stores. I spotted it last year at a natural foods co-op, decided to think it over for next time, and then found that it was all sold out when “next time” came around. So I waited an entire year for another chance to find quince.
One day in mid-October, there it was, a small bushel basket sitting without fanfare among brimming mounds of California grapes, persimmons, and avocados. I asked the produce guy how to pick out a good quince. He grimaced thoughtfully. Usually he had answers at the tip of his tongue, but not this time. “I’m not really sure,” he admitted.
They were all similar, with multiple convex slopes, heavy, and hard as a rock. I just picked one out and added it to my cart.
At home, I had an entire lug of beautiful fresh crop pears (Packhams) from my friends at Valley View Farm in Zillah, Washington. Quince and pears both belong to the same general fruit category called Pomes, which share a common trait with apples: a waxy, papery core which encloses its seeds. Botanists even consider quince the ancient cousin of pears, which were probably similar before they were domesticated and selectively bred to meet our preference for all things sweet and juicy.
I decided to keep things simple for my grand experiment. I peeled, cored, and chopped five good sized pears and dropped them into a stainless steel pot. Then I turned to my lone quince, rather flushed with anticipation. I peeled it, finding its skin on the gritty side against the edge of my peeler. The interior was colorless, like a sheet of manila school paper, and about the same texture. Unlike the pears, it had no juice, and no scent, either. It was the driest, most unpromising piece of fruit I had seen, but I cut out its sliced it into small, thin pieces, and added them to the pears. I decided against any sweetening and used no seasoning or spice, hoping to find out whether I would coax out the promised floral scent and flavor.
Thirty minutes later, my pear-quince mixture was bubbling cheerfully on the stove when I lifted the lid for my first peek. It was light tan, just like a luscious pot of cooked pears. Their scent was lovely: full and sweet, but also decidedly “pear.” The quince pieces were perhaps a little more on the yellowish side compared with the pears, but otherwise unchanged. My disappointment drove me to look around online, and poke around my reference books while the pot continued boiling. Learning that quince’s magic was slow acting, I turned down the burner to a simmer, sat back and waited.
Another thirty minutes passed before I checked again. This time, I noted that the entire pot of sauce had taken on a definite pink blush. Drawing near, I checked the scent again. This time, there was a change: a light honey fragrance. Encouraged, I set the lid back on the pot and found something else to do for yet another thirty minutes.
When I lifted the lid, my pear-quince medley was a gorgeous salmon-red. The warm, sweet pears were also infused with an intense honey-floral flavor that I thought a little like jasmine, but softer. Over the next couple of days, my family and I added pear-quince sauce to oatmeal, to creamy whole milk yogurt, and pancakes. Warm or cold, its honey perfume remained, and we marveled at the miracle of quince.
The kitchen science behind quince and its color change is also remarkable. It’s a rather complex transformation. The fruit is high in tannins, which give it an astringent, bitter taste in its raw form. A long, slow heat and acid break down some of the components in quince (proanthocyanidins) so that oxygen can react with these and morph them into another, highly pigmented compound (true anthocyanidins) . Anthocyanidins are the same plant chemicals which give a dark purple / red color to highly pigmented foods like chocolate, blueberries, elderberries, and purple cabbage. So in short, the pale quince is able to manufacture a highly colorful pigment while it is cooked.
Next time quince season comes around, I am going to try simmering them in simple syrup, alone, and unpeeled, since certain authorities (like Nostradamus, who apparently was fond of quince) suggest that color and flavor are even more pronounced when the peel is left intact. And I might even make some quince jelly.