Quince, the magical fruit

Quince HQ has a focus on educating about the forgotten fruit. Picture is mounds of green quince fruit, some in blue and white bowls, some in cake stands. There are a number of bowls close to the camera while further away are blurred piles.

With a culinary history that stretches back centuries, quinces have long been a popular fruit around the globe. Baking Business Magazine caught up with Cathy Hughes from Quince HQ to find out more.

Quince HQ was born in May 2019. Can you share the story about how it came to be?

By way of background, I grew up on a farm in the Mallee region of South Australia where my parents would rally my siblings and I to help pack dozens upon dozens of bottles of summer fruits that were eventually stored in our pantry. They formed the basis of virtually every dessert for the rest of the year. We did have a little old quince tree that provided a rare bounty of fruits; usually to be stewed and served with custard. It wasn’t until my late 30s when a friend showed me how to make a feijoa jelly preserve. One thing led to another … and I rediscovered quinces.

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 on our farm in Penola coupled with a desire to reignite interest in a magnificent fruit.

In 2019 Quince HQ was born to share the magic about quinces.

What drew you to quinces?
Firstly, I love the history associated with the pome fruit (it’s related to apples and pears). 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. Now, through the passage of time, they are found in lots, and lots of countries and cuisines across the world.

Secondly, as a former TAFE lecturer working in the food and health space, I was drawn to the myriad ways quinces were being used in other cultures, and in many cases, had been for centuries. Eventually, I began to think there was enough information to either write a book or a PhD thesis. Part of my resolve involved setting up the orchard in 2013.

Cathy Hughes from Quince HQ stands a ta market stall. She wears a red apron and hat over a dark long sleeve shirt. Her dark hair is cut short.

Cathy Hughes from Quince HQ Image: Quince HQ

Can you tell us a bit about the process of growing and harvesting quinces?
Firstly, I need to qualify that Quince, cydonia oblonga, is regularly confused with other species – previously included in the genus Cydonia, which are now classified separately; Psuedocydonia sinensis, or Chinese Quince; and Flowering Quinces, Chaenomeles, which are native to Japan, Korea, China, Bhutan and Burma.

A quince tree is a relatively small deciduous tree and is self-fertile (they don’t require another quince tree to flourish and fruit).

They are resilient trees that can grow to a ripe old age; even 100 years. They can have a tendency to grow into a somewhat scraggly, gnarled fashion – often exacerbated by the weight of the maturing fruit, which in some varieties can be a whopping kilogram or more. An average ripe quince usually comes in at around 350-500g, is golden in colour and sometimes with a light downy covering.

Our trees are all espaliered on a simple T-shaped cordon, with each row supporting five trees (give or take some exceptions) of each variety. By looking at quince trees growing side-by-side it’s easy to spot the differences. Some are strong growers, other varieties sucker more readily, while some varieties like Smyrna, Pineapple and De Vranja have enormous leaves and fruits compared to early-ripening Portugal and Powell’s Prize.

The quince tree orchard. Pictured is a row of trees with yellowing leaves. On the ground are brown leaves.

The orchard at Quince HQ Image: Quince HQ

Can you share a bit about Quince HQ with us? How many quinces do you grow on average each season? Is there a process for harvesting?
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 of each variety for at least five years, and weighed each one so that I could gain a better sense of the characteristics and qualities of each variety.

There is quite a bit of difference between varieties. In my experience, when I mention that I grow quince fruits lots of people have a mental picture of a large, yellow, wrinkled, heavy fruit that is hard to work with. That’s probably an apt description of the ever-popular Smyrna variety that has been growing in home gardens and commercial orchards for over a century. But other varieties such as Portugal and Powell’s Prize produce fruits that are apple-shaped, much smaller, with a smooth velvety skin, and a fluted base.

In terms of harvesting, the fruits are best picked by hand as, quite surprisingly, they can bruise easily. They have a short ‘quintage’ (my word for a quince vintage) of about two months, but given that there are early, middle and late-ripening varieties, my season extends from early March to late June.  On the plus side, they store incredibly well, and far longer than any apples or pears.

How is the fruit generally 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, conserves and molasses.

Pink quince flowers are on the bush. Underneath is a basket of loose pink petals.

Quince fruit flowers.
Image: Quince HQ

For bakers keen to experiment with quinces, what advice would you offer them?
Please do! As one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits it’s hard to believe that many people have either never heard of it or only associate it with quince paste or jelly.

As British food author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall astutely observes in his book River Cottage A-Z, ‘Quince is as much a spice as a fruit’.  It pairs beautifully with a range of foods and spices, including vanilla, almond, hazelnut, cinnamon, cloves, lamb, blue cheese, wine, pork, fennel, star anise, ginger, lemon, apple and pear.

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