A century ago there were 40 named varieties of quince growing in Australia, reflecting its popularity at the time. Now there are just 16 varieties available, but you can find every one of them growing in passionate quince grower Cathy Hughes’ orchard in Penola, South Australia.
Tell us a little bit about Quince HQ:
Everyone has their “thing” that brings joy. My quince thing started half-a-lifetime ago when a friend showed me how to make jelly preserves and introduced me to the delights of eating fresh fejoias, both on the same day. Not long after, I was reacquainted with quinces; a fruit I’d grown up with on the family farm but had been somewhat indifferent to.
‘PQR Regional Produce’ was conceived and registered in 2015; a purely symbolic date since quince (pronounced kin-say) in Spanish means fifteen. The choice of ‘PQR’ was to signify a Penola Quince Renaissance – in deference to the provenance and history of my own quinces coupled with a desire to reignite interest in a magnificent fruit.
In 2019 ‘Quince HQ’ was born to share the magic about quinces, and launched at the local arts festival in May.
For the uninitiated, what are quinces?
Though related to apples and pears – which you can tell by their shape – quinces are botanically different. They originated in the Middle East, and spread via the Silk Road trade routes that connected the East with the West. Their fancy name is Cydonia oblonga; one that shouts back to ancient Greece where the very best quinces in the world were growing in Kydonia, on the island of Crete.
A “typical” quince is likely to be described as yellow, wrinkled, furry, large, hard to cut, impossible to eat fresh, and possibly even ugly!
For many people, the wow factor comes during long, slow cooking. That’s because they change colour when heated, magically evolving from cream coloured flesh to amber, then coral, then mid-pink and even a deep plum-black colour, if cooked long enough.
How are quinces grown and harvested?
A relatively small deciduous tree, quince trees are self-fertile so don’t require another quince tree to flourish and fruit, though yields will prosper if cross-fertilisation can occur… and bees help too! They can grow in a shady spot but much prefer a sunny position, and will adapt to a variety of soils so long as the pH isn’t too high.
In terms of harvesting, they are best picked by hand, as they can bruise easily. On the plus side, they store incredibly well, and far longer than apples or pears.
What are the challenges of growing quinces?
Though generally hardy, quinces can be prone to the impacts of humid weather, just like roses are, and will suffer from fungal diseases such as brown rot and quince fleck—a kind of black spot, that is unsightly and leads to premature leaf loss. Cherry slugs are also partial to munching on quince leaves too.
How much do you produce each season?
I’m not a commercial grower, but I can hold my hand on my heart and say that I grow about a tonne per year. That’s because I’ve picked every fruit for the last five years and weighed each one so that I had a better sense of the characteristics and qualities of each variety growing.
Where does your produce go, mostly (local/international)?
I’ve managed to use all the fruits I’ve grown, since young trees don’t come into full production for at least four to five years. Last year was going to be my breakout year when I leased a small commercial kitchen to start manufacturing my first range of artisan Quince HQ products. That wasn’t to be in 2020, so I’m planning to give it a go this year, and make them available online.
How are quinces primarily used?
In Australia, it’s fair to say that the fruits are invariably cooked before being used. Quinces are the perfect ‘slow food’, responding really well to gentle baking/roasting or poaching. But they are also loaded with pectin – a natural thickening agent, which makes them perfect for making all sorts of preserves such as paste, jelly, chutney, pickles, jams and conserves.
Older generations (up to the 1950s) would have used the fruit to make a beautifully translucent, red, quivering quince jelly (preserve) or bottled them for use throughout the year. Younger converts would be more familiar with a deep plum-coloured, sliceable quince paste, served as an accompaniment on a cheese platter.
In other cultures, quinces are traditionally used in a myriad of savoury and sweet dishes and beverages; think tagines, soups, and lamb stuffed quinces as well as pasta frola (quince jam tart), alfajores (shortbread biscuits with quince paste filling), as a spoon sweet, and even a sublime tasting golden liqueur.
What is the best way (in your opinion) to consume quince?
I think the best approach is to simply poach them in the oven in a light syrup sprinkled with spices until they are a deeper pink-red. But ask me that question on another day and there will definitely be a different answer, depending on what I’m experimenting with.
What is something you’d like pastry chefs/bakers to know about the quince?
As one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits, that at one time was the most favoured fruit in seventeenth-century Renaissance Europe, it’s hard to believe that many people have either never heard of it, or only associate it with quince paste.
When it comes to baked goods, quinces are very popular in many cultures, and could be the inspiration for new products. For example, a spreadable quince paste offers the simplicity of being ‘rippled’ through a pull-apart loaf, sandwiched between layers of buttery pastry, or inserted into golden brioche rolls like a traditional pan codoun.