Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Quince: The Flavor and Fragrance of Autumn

In November the colors of fall saturate the landscape with hues of red, orange, and yellow. The season’s scent is crisp, dusty and honeyed, a generous perfume offered before the last parched leaves drop in a finale of confetti. As trees grow bare and breezes turn into winds, harvest fruits find their way to the hearth. Raw or cooked, the aroma of quince embodies the flavor and fragrance of autumn, offering surprising insights into the molecular world of color and scent.

Quince is a primitive looking fruit that resembles a pear morphed with a fuzzy yellow apple. When permitted to rest in a bowl, quince will fill a room with a flowery perfume reminiscent of pear, apple, guava, musk, coconut and violet. Milky lactones and violet-like ionones derived from carotenoid molecules are responsible for the floral scent that exudes from the skin of fresh quince. Not only are carotenoids the same molecules responsible for the yellow, orange, and amber colors in fruits and vegetables, they’re also accountable for the yellow, orange and amber colors in autumn leaves. When chlorophyll production in a tree’s leaves dwindles, existing carotenoid molecules become visible. Thus fall foliage and the perfume of quince are intimately linked.

Quince is firm and astringent when raw, but the fruit grows soft and yielding when cooked with honey and a touch of lemon juice. The cooking process coaxes vast stores of pectin from the fruit; a gel-like substance that gives jams and preserves their thick texture. Prolonged simmering causes the pale flesh of quince to turn pink in poetic homage to the rose family of which quince is a relative. Cooking transforms colorless phenolic compounds into anthocyanin pigments, which is why the quince turns pink. These pigments are powerful antioxidants commonly found in red and purple fruits and vegetables. Coincidentally, anthocyanins in tree leaves evolve as chlorophyll production fades and are responsible for a variety of brilliant red and purples hues in autumn leaves. Evidence of this scientific fact is hard to miss in the northeast as the turning of the leaves has proved exceedingly rich and colorful this year.

The evolving blush of cooked quince and its sensual “jelly” may have led Queen Mary Tudor of England to use the fruit in an aphrodisiac recipe that included quinces, orange peel, sugar, almonds, rosewater, musk, ambergris, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and mace. The inclusion of aromatics and raw materials associated with perfumery were likely of Arabic origin as these ingredients commonly appear in the repertoire of Arabian cooks and physicians. The wrapping of quince paste in edible gold foil was a common practice of the Tudor and Stuart courts of England as was the use of the confection in affairs of love. If one reads “The Sixty-First Night” in The Arabian Nights, one wonders if Sharazhad’s recitation may have influenced the Tudor Queen's passion for quince:

“…And I saw pears sweeter than sugar and rosewater and more aromatic than musk and ambergris, and saw quinces of which the poet said:
The quince has gathered every pleasing taste,
Thereby the queen of fruits she has been crowned.
Her taste is wine, a waft of musk her scent.
Her hue is gold, her shape, like the moon, round.”
—From The Arabian Nights, W.W. Norton and Company, 1995, p 130.

In the 15th century the Portuguese imported solid quince marmalade (marmelada); this was sliced and flavored with rosewater, musk or ambergris. Today quince paste, known as membrillo in Spanish, is served neat alongside anise-scented fig cakes and Marcona almonds; foods that complement the Spanish cheese plate.

The quince season begins in August and lasts thru early February. Stewing the fruit is less labor-intensive than making membrillo and affords the home cook an opportunity to add exotic ingredients that would not work as well in the sweetened quince reduction. The recipe for Quince and Rose Compote harkens back to a time when fragrant materials like rose were part of the courtly table. Quince and Rose Compote may be eaten plain or added to oatmeal, yogurt or ice vanilla cream. The recipe was created for the readers of Glass Petal Smoke by the editor.

Quince & Rose Compote
(Serves 6-8)
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

4 cups of water
3 large quinces
Juice of half a lemon
½ - ¾ cup light honey (orange blossom, clover or acacia)
2 tsp China cassia cinnamon
2 vanilla beans (Madagascar variety, split)
¼ cup dried organic rosebuds
1 tbsp rosewater (Cortas brand or “Maward” from Lebanon)
7 oz. dried unsweetened black cherries

· Peel quince using a vegetable peeler.
· Using a sharp knife cut the quince into quarters and remove the seeds and core.
· Chop the quince into one-inch pieces. Place in a large, non-reactive, salad bowl.
· Squeeze the juice of a half lemon over the fruit and mix by hand.
· Fill a 2-quart pot with 4 cups of water and add chopped quinces.
· Set the flame under the pot to medium-low.
· When the water begins to boil add honey, cinnamon, dried cherries, vanilla beans and rosebuds, reducing the flame to a low setting.
· Mix ingredients together and simmer for an hour and a half, stirring every 15 minutes.
· Remove from heat and add rosewater.
· Allow to cool, with the lid on, for 30 minutes.
· Spoon into glass jars and refrigerate.


Painting of “Autumn Leaves - Lake George N.Y. 1924” by Georgia O’Keefe.

Photo of Quince by CG Mora from A Cooking Life.

Photo of cooked quince with ice cream from In Praise of Sardines.