Sunday, 25 October 2009


Quince (aiva in Russian) is a visual hybrid between an apple and a pear; it has a tough pale-yellow skin and an astringent or tart flavour. Following my promise earlier in the blog, this month's pick up from 'Turkit' - my neighbourhood Turkish grocery shop - is this curious little fruit, that is as widely eaten in Turkey (see my travels in Turkish Cappadocia last year, where quince trees are in abundance in the wild, surprisingly similar in taste and look to the cultivated variety sold in shops here), as is in Southern America (made into dulce de membrillo, a paste-like substance often eaten with bread and cheese) and Britain - where it's most commonly cooked into the quince jelly.

I have had the pleasure of encountering this heavy, scented fruit, still on its tree, at Brogdale, the Natural Fruit Collection in Favesham, Kent - one of the largest collection of temperate fruits in-the-world (!). The visit was the first 'field trip' as part of my course in the Anthropology of Food at the University of London - twenty of us travelling to this 'garden of England' (as Kent is often referred to), on a rainy and muggy day, with our little writing pads and big cameras. We wanted to know everything there is to know about The Apple and its siblings - from its origin to its environmental and political story, but the main activity of the day was of course the tasting (in fact, so much and for so many hours, that I was dreaming of apples, pears and quinces later on at night!).

There are over 3000 types of fruit there - just apples come to 2200, but plums, nuts, gooseberries are also in their hundreds. One of the main activities of Brogdale is to collect and conserve the varieties (although the history is tangled and the current situation where the land is privately owned and a number of businesses, rather unrelated to the orchards, are let out on the farm, is rather confusing, making the future of the place quite uncertain...).

Many of the types here are indigenous to the British Isles (such as the omnipresent in supermarkets Cox Orange Pippin and the most popular dessert apple - Russet), but there are many that grow predominately in warmer climates (such as the 'Asian'- very sweet and Russet-looking small apple often grown in Japan, and Decio - an old variety, originated from Italy, pale and delicate, it needs lots of sunshine to be a real contender).

I particularly liked the look of Jonathan:) - apparently, one of the most successful varieties grown in the States. I'm afraid to me this Jonathan tasted a bit too bland and uninspiring - why couldn't they give this name to a big and bouncy, full of flavour and complexity apple I ask!

And the best discovery was a pear from Ukraine - a large and bulbous fruit with intensely lime-y smell and very crisp but juicy flavour. The tree itself is the biggest, the widest, in the collection. Some interesting images pop into mind of broad and steady Ukrainian lads...:)

Despite the fact that the collection is not organic and so the trees are routinely sprayed with chemicals (the fact of which the lovely guide Joan had calmly and openly disclosed - the way that merited a discussion, but not an argument, a rare quality really), I, all of us really, couldn't stop admiring the sheer diversity of the humble apple (and quince, and plum) tree, feeling like small children in a sweet shop, overwhelmed by the choice of colours, shapes, smells and alluring names.

By back to the quince - the tour had started in fact with this tall and leafy tree. The fruit is so under-appreciated in this country apparently that the tree stands outside the main orchard, completely unguarded, all laden with fragrant fruits and looking melancholic under British drizzle. The guide had said firmly that quinces are not be eaten row and that it needs to be shaped into jellies and pastes. I had to disagree! The quinces I had been buying in my 'Turkit' (really not that dissimilar from the ones on display in Kent) were beautiful sliced thinly, to expose the velvety texture of the fruit, the pleasure intensified by the enormity of the quince - one could slowly devour the fruit, a few slivers at a time, several days in a row (as long as one doesn't mind the discolouration caused by air).

I also have a memory of putting dark and syrapy quince jam (pieces of quince almost translucent from the long cooking) onto a warm toast - in Crimea, southern Ukraine, the jam made by my grandmother in chunky three-litre pots. The Crimean climate must be perfect for this hardy fruit - freezing cold in winter and hot and sunny in summer - but strangely I do not recall seeing quinces or its jam since those early days.

I have also stewed sliced quince briefly at home, in a bit of butter, with lots of cinnamon, to be eaten with cold vanilla ice-cream, or - to make use of all the different varieties of apples I picked up walking through Brogdale (above) and to make the tummy of the Englishman warm and happy - cook the chopped quince with sugar and a bit of water to layer the Crumble, the ultimate autumnal pudding...

How do you eat your quince?

1 comment:

DMP said...

Nice blog post! I think you should probably make something with quinces for our Thanksgiving Dinner next month!