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Comfort Me with Quinces: Recipes for an Underloved Fruit


Comfort Me with Quinces: Recipes for an Underloved Fruit

Marie Viljoen February 12, 2024

Unloved and perhaps perceived as unlovely, quinces are a curiosity for many cooks who did not grow up with the fragrant fruit. Like apples, they ripen in fall, and come to market at the same time. Unlike apples, they remain an enigma. Chefs might pounce on them, and anyone with quince-eating cultural roots will scoop them up with delight. Owls and pussy cats like them (eaten with a “runcible” spoon). But often, quinces sold in the US languish. Pick up a fruit, and breathe it in. It is intoxicatingly aromatic, and its floral scent translates into flavor when it is cooked. Raw, quinces can be eaten as a lightly spiced sambal.

You’ll find the recipes below.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Pale yellow or light green, quinces resemble bumpy apples, and are sometimes covered in soft fuzz.

Uncooked, quinces are dense and difficult to slice, and their flavor is astringent. Salting the raw, grated fruit tames its tannins, while cooking makes quinces versatile enough to be eaten as a dessert, a preserve, a jelly (like membrillo), or as a savory addition to North African tagines and other meaty dishes. Cooked quinces’ flavor is gently apple-like, and their scent somehow conveyed in each bite.

Above: Local quinces are sold from fall through late winter.

Originating somewhere around Western Asia and the Caucasus, quinces have been cultivated for millennia around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Turkey produces the most quinces for export. The fruit I encounter at greenmarkets in New York City are grown in the Hudson Valley, in USDA hardiness zone 6a. Quince trees are hardy down to Zone 5 and have significant cold-tolerance. While the fruit requires summer rainfall, the humid, tropical summers of the Northeast are not ideal. Humidity encourages fungal infections, and cold winters might also see damage to the tree’s early, beautiful blossoms. Cedar apple rust, hosted by Juniperus virginiania (eastern red cedar), and blight are potential issues on this coast. The quince’s happiest place is anywhere with long, hot, dry summers.

Above: A raw quince sambal.

My own quince background belongs to South Africa, where the fruit is associated with the dusty roads of farms in the Karoo and Overberg regions, and where they hang like fat, pale moons on branches bent low by their weight in late summer.

The way quinces are prepared in South Africa is influenced by Cape Malay traditions, centered around Cape Town. This cooking-style is a blend of Dutch colonial cooking and Afro-Asian influences brought to the Dutch colony by enslaved people and political exiles from the East Indies (present-day Indonesia), Southeast Asia, and Madagascar in the 17th and 18th centuries. Quinces in South Africa are typically eaten as a fruit leather, a sweet preserve served in its pink syrup, in a savory bredie (a slow-cooked mutton stew featuring a single, seasonal vegetable), or a sambal (a refreshingly spicy fruit or vegetable condiment).

Above: Quinces at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan in January.

When I find quinces (usually grown by Locust Grove Farms, New York), from fall though winter at greenmarkets, I do two things: Bake them for dessert, with fresh, home-grown bay leaves and foraged juniper, or with fir sugar; and grate up a spicy sambal, whose recipe comes from a cookbook that is also a piece of Africana: Hilda Gerber’s Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays. It is essentially a transcribed, invaluable oral history, published posthumously from a manuscript Gerber completed in 1949, which was found in her belongings after she died in 1954.

Above: New York quinces atop South African food traditions.
Above: Grated raw quince, ready for a sambal.


From Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays, Helda Gerber.

Recipe: Mrs Hercules, Mark Rd., Claremont

“Peel a quince and grate it. Add salt. Meanwhile pound in a mortar a little piece of garlic and two green chillies. Add this to the drained quince.Add only a little lemon juice, but no vinegar at all.”

Mrs Miriam Gazant, off Vineyard Rd., Claremont, made it a little differently:

“Peel a quince and grate it. Add a little salt. Let it stand a while and then squeeze out all the water. Put the fruit pulp into a little bowl and add a chilli and some red vinegar. You can eat a kwepersambal with anything, fish or meat, and especially with kerrie [curry]. Then you must eat it.”

Above: Fir needles ground up with sugar are a delectable winter filling for baked quinces.
Above: Juniper and fresh bay leaves perfume baked quinces.
Above: A caramelized exterior hides a gentle, cooked quince heart.

Baked Quinces

Serves 4

Resinously fragrant juniper (Juniperus virginiana, in this case) and aromatic bay leaves emphasize the delicious scent of quinces and complement the fruit’s gentle flavor. The interior of the quince turns comfortingly soft while the exterior caramelizes and becomes delicately chewy—a very happy combination.

  • 4 quinces, unpeeled, washed, and halved
  • 1 Tablespoon juniper berries, crushed
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons cold butter, sliced into 8 pieces (substitute olive oil for a vegan version)
  • 6 fresh bay leaves
  • ½ cup water

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Cut the tough cores from the quinces. Place the fruit in a baking dish in a single layer. Mix together the juniper and sugar. Add a generous teaspoonful of the sugar mixture to the hollow of each quince. If there is any left, sprinkle it around the fruit. Drizzle the lemon juice into the filling. Top each filled hollow with a slice of butter (or a sip of olive oil). Tuck the bay leaves under the fruit. Pour in the water.

Cook the quinces for two hours, basting occasionally. If the liquid dries up, replenish it so that you always have some syrup to spoon over the caramelising quinces. Serve hot with creamy yogurt or mascarpone.

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