(Lamb and Quince Stew)
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," said Juliet of her Romeo. While the hybrids of today can be fragrance-free, the original varieties were intoxicating indeed. Aside from gardens, bouquets, and perfumes, roses have also found there way into the kitchen. They have been candied for use as cake decorations, and have been turned into fragrant jelly. Roses are still commonly used in North Africa, in the form of rosewater, to enhance refreshing dishes, such as sliced oranges with rosewater and cinnamon. But there is more to the rose family than glorious, fragrant blossoms.
A rose by many other names is good to eat. You may not realize how often you eat members of the rose family. The smallest rose sibling is the strawberry; apples and pears are the largest. Actually, on close examination, you can usually see the family resemblance. Between these two extremes are raspberries, blackberries, all the stone fruits (plum, peach, cherry, apricot, nectarine), and quinces.
Of all these rosy relatives, the quince is the one least used today, at least in the U.S. It was once vastly popular, but began to decline in the West when sugarcane was discovered, and suddenly everyone wanted everything to be sweet. Quinces are tart, fragrant, refreshing, flavorful—but not really sweet (though some varieties are less tart than others).
The quince is a native of Persia and Anatolia, where it still grows wild. It has been cultivated for more than 4,000 years. Records trace its popularity from Mesopotamia to Greece, Crete, and Rome. In Greece, it was a symbol of fertility, and in Athens, quinces were tossed into the bridal chariot as the groom conducted his bride to her new home. The wedding cake that greeted her would be flavored with quince, as well as sesame and honey.
The quince came to Rome from Cydonia on Crete, and the Romans called it the Cydonian apple—which is how it picked up its scientific name, Cydonia oblongata. It was also called the golden apple, and there are those who think that it may have been the golden apple of the Hesperides.
In the Middle Ages, it was considered to be the most useful of all fruits, and formed the basis for a farmer's preserving for winter. It was so highly esteemed in France that presents of a quince preserve called cotignac were commonly given by royalty to honor towns they visited. When Joan of Arc arrived to lift the siege of Orléans, she was greeted with a gift of cotignac. (Orléans was particularly famed for the making of this royal preserve.)
Quinces appeared on menus at the Vatican and in early cookbooks in England. Chaucer knew about quinces, though he calls them "coines," which indicates French influence, because the French word for quince is coing. (And actually, in Middle English, when things were still a bit fluid, coine was sometimes spelled quyn, and one version of plural was quynce—which is suddenly beginning to look a little more like our current name for the fruit.)
The best quinces available during the Middle Ages came from Portugal. Portugal also made preserves of quinces (quinces are high in pectin, so they make great preserves and jellies). The Portuguese word for quince is marmelo, and the preserves made from the marmelo were called marmalade—a term that has since been applied to non-quince fruits. (In fact, marmalade was not made with oranges until 1790, when the first orange marmalade was manufactured in Dundee, Scotland.)
The quince made the crossing to South America with Spanish and Portuguese settlers, and was soon growing there. It reached North America with the first English settlers, and actually knew a period of popularity during Colonial times. However, though quinces have not remained hugely popular here in the United States, there are plenty of countries where they are still popular, though usually for cooking or preserving.
The quince is golden when ripe, and looks something like a cross between an apple and a pear, only a bit lumpier. It ripens late in the season, and is most likely to be available in stores during the winter. The quince's flesh is yellow, but turns pale pink when cooked. The texture of a quince actually improves with cooking. While apples tend to get mushy when heated, quinces seem to get stronger, denser, smoother.
In addition to being a useful fruit, quince is also gorgeously floral, looking a great deal like a large rose bush when in bloom. It makes a wonderful decorative plant.
The recipe below is from Turkey. Quinces are popular in stews and meat dishes in the Middle East and North Africa. This dish is best accompanied by a simple rice pilaf. If you don't have a pilaf recipe, there are a dozen packaged versions, even in standard grocery stores (check the rice aisle) that are simply lovely. Enjoy.
(Lamb and Quince Stew)
2 lb. boned lamb shoulder
2 Tbs. light olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
8 fl. oz. pomegranate juice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (divided)
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
2 quinces, peeled, cored, and halved
2 Tbs. butter
pinch of ground cloves
3 Tbs. sugar
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Trim excess fat from the lamb and cut it into 1 inch cubes. Heat the oil over high heat in a large saucepan or small stew pot. Brown the lamb in batches, removing it to a plate when browned. Reduce the heat, add the onion and cook gently for about 5 minutes, until onion softens. Add the pomegranate juice and stir well, to mix in the browned juices. Return lamb to the pan and add ½ tsp. cinnamon, the allspice, salt, and pepper. Cover and simmer for one hour.
Cut each quince half into quarters. Melt the butter in a frying pan. Add the quinces and cook over medium heat for several minutes, turning the pieces from time to time. Sprinkle with ½ tsp. cinnamon, cloves, and sugar, and place on top of the lamb in the pan. Add the lemon juice, cover, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, until the lamb is tender, shaking the pan occasionally.
Adjust seasoning to taste. Also, adding a bit more lemon juice (maybe another tablespoon) brings out the sweetness. Serve hot.
Pomegranate juice is fairly common at ethnic grocers who carry foods from the eastern Mediterranean. If you can't find juice, you can use pomegranate syrup and dilute it, 4 tsp. of syrup mixed with water to make 8 fl. oz. As a last resort, you could use a tablespoon of tomato paste mixed in water, again to make 8 fl. oz. It won't be quite the same, but it will still be tasty.