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Return of the quince

27 September 2013

By Jamie Cable


A TREE laden with yellow quinces is an uplifting sight on a sunny October day. They went out of fashion in the mid-20th century, leading Vita Sackville-West to ask, after seeing them growing wild in France: "Why don't we plant it in our gardens here, as our grandfathers did?"

To support her plea, she cited ease of cultivation; reliable crops for turning into jelly, marmalade, or cheese, or making "all the difference" to apple dishes; and the beauty of the flowers in May. I would add that those flowers are a good source of pollen and nectar for honeybees, and the leaves turn a gorgeous yellow in autumn. Vita advocates no pruning, while I would dare to suggest some formative cuts in the first few years of a tree's life, to form an open cup shape with four or five main branches.

The quince's popularity is in the ascendant once again, but we need to understand its heritage. Cydonia oblonga is native to central and south-western Asia. The Latin name is derived from Cydon, the ancient name for Khania, on Crete, where the quince was probably imported. The fruit was dedicated to Aphrodite, and symbolised love.

In the sixth century, the Athenian statesman Solon introduced quince into the ritual of marriage: bride and bridegroom were shut in a chamber to eat a raw quince together. We are more familiar with the fruit used in stews and preserves. It adds a lovely fragrant quality to a Moroccan tajine, and the word "marmalade" is derived from the Portuguese for quince, marmelo, although citrus fruits tend to be the main constituent of this conserve today. Throughout the Middle East and around the Mediterranean basin, however, there are situations where quince is enjoyed raw.

It is tempting to think that the long hot summers that go with a Continental or Mediterranean climate are the important factor here, but that is not the whole story. During its migration from its homeland, selections of quince with particular characteristics will have been made in order for different communities with different growing conditions to reap the most reward from this ancient fruit.

Given our desire for sweeteners in cooking, it is no surprise that varieties that ripen freely have been deliberately selected and perpetuated. But, until fairly recently, the cultivars available to a British gardener were limited. Now, thanks to freer trade, and nurseries such as Keepers, in Kent, and Reads, in Suffolk, we have a lot more choice.

The cultivar "Aromatnaya", selected at the research station at Krymsk, in northern Caucasus, cooks as well as other varieties, but can be eaten like a pear. I planted a five-foot tree with no branches in February 2012. Now it proudly displays five fruits, with the characteristic pale down, but smoother and rounder than an average quince.

I welcome the return of this venerable fruit. I have even spotted the knobbly produce in Waitrose - but grow your own if you can.



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