Although they are not as enduring as the diamond in an engagement ring, quinces do have something besides hardness in common with this romantic gemstone. Ancient Roman suitors used to give quinces to their lovers as a sign of commitment. The Greeks associated quinces with romance, too. Mythology holds that the quince was a gift from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and it was a custom in ancient Greece to toss whole quinces into bridal chariots.
Some scholars speculate that quinces may have been the true forbidden fruit, as well. Not only are quinces native to the Caucasus region where the Garden of Eden is thought to have been located, but they also have a pretty apple shape, inviting golden skin tone, and alluring aroma (they’re a relative of the rose) that could easily have tempted Eve to try a bite.
And there is a practical reason why quinces may have developed a reputation for being a fruit forbidden to orchard snackers like Eve. Unlike the apples and pears they resemble, quinces are inedible raw. The pale flesh is pithy and very tannic before cooking, so one bite will genuinely leave a bad taste in your mouth. However, slow cooking coaxes forth a sweet, wonderful flavor―like a perfumed apple―that matches their scrumptious fragrance. With cooking, quinces develop a slightly grainy texture similar to a firm pear and a lovely rosy, amber color. Their complex taste is compatible with flavors like vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and lemon.
While British cooks traditionally use quinces to make tarts, preserves, and other sweet items, the fruit is also a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern meat stews, where they add sweetness, astringency, and texture. In Latin countries, such as Uruguay and Spain, a quince paste called membrillo is often used in tapas dishes that contain Manchego cheese.
Compared to other fruits, quinces are relatively high in pectin, the natural gelling agent that allows jams and jellies to thicken and set. This quality made quinces very popular as a base for preserves in antiquity. In fact, the word marmelo, which is Portuguese for quince, evolved over time into the word marmalade.
Because their season is fleeting―from October to December―you should get quinces while you can. Look for them in large supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and specialty or ethnic stores. They’ll fill an entire room with their enticing scent, and their mottled skins are lovely. They make a good centerpiece for the table. But they’re even better to cook with; try this alluring fruit in the following recipes for everything from hors d’oeuvres to entrées to desserts.