Won't someone take this poor, unloved fruit under wing? Jonathan Hayes wrote "Only a poet could find the quince, with its ungainly shape and unpromising mantle of gray fuzz, the most beautiful on earth." True, the quince definitely doesn't have the great eye appeal of a shiny apple or the brilliance of a persimmon. Its rather pale yellow, mottled skin, sour taste and lumpy shape isn't enticing either. But...the quince makes great marmalades, jams and jellies that have been revered for centuries throughout the Middle East, Europe and here in our region of Mexico. A quince (or membrillo in Spanish) is a fruit that looks like a yellow cross between a pear and an apple.And, since we are spotlighting the fruit here in Mexico (and since we are lucky enough to live in Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos), we will refer to the quince as membrillo!
A good, ripe membrillo has an amazing floral and sweet aroma, and when eaten raw has a very sour "green apple" taste. High in natural pectin, membrillos are frequently used to help thicken and set other jellies. If you thicken it enough, you get a paste solid enough (like the consistency of the insides of a gum drop) to slice. The membrillo, apple and guava all produce this natural pectin, which, when cooked, make it ideal for jelling. Yet, while these other fruits are turned into jams and preserves, outside of Mexico, commercial jam companies have yet to bring a jar of membrillo marmalade, jam or jelly to market. However, membrillo preserves are readily available in Middle Eastern markets throughout the U.S. This interesting fruit can also be eaten cooked or raw and is a good source of vitamin C. The fruits are so fragrant that a single fruit can fill a room with its rich fruity scent; which is why membrillos were once popular as room deodorizers.
The membrillo was actually cultivated prior to the apple and reached Palestine by 100 BC. Guess what? Reference to the apple in the Song of Solomon may not have been an apple at all but might have been a membrillo instead. Plutarch reports that a Greek bride would nibble a membrillo to perfume her kiss before entering the bridal chamber, "in order that the first greeting may not be disagreeable nor unpleasant." I'm going to have to test that theory!
Did Eve really bite into an apple that she plucked off the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden? No specific name is given to the fruit she tasted from that tree, though apples are mentioned later in the Bible. Some historians believe Eve's fruit of temptation might have possibly been a membrillo. But please don't hold that against it!
Unpopular in the United States, the membrillo has been more successful in some Latin American countries. A Spanish explorer of the nineteenth century visited Chile and wrote they were quite acidic and astringent, but that they developed a sweetness if allowed to fully ripen on the tree. This may explain why the common practice of eating raw membrillos in South America and Mexico surprised early explorers.
Here's some more interesting facts about the membrillo:
Wine and cider can be made from the fruit. The wine was popular when membrillos were very common in Britain in the 19th century, and the wine was reputed to benefit asthma sufferers.
In Medieval times, quince marmalade was popular in Britain. This required peeled and quartered fruits which were boiled in red wine, strained, boiled again in honey and spiced wine, then after cooling and setting, sliced into pieces and served as a dessert in the same way as ‘Membrillo’ (quince jelly) is in Spain today.
Quinces have long been used as an herbal medicine, as an infusion to treat sore throat, diarrhea and hemorrhage of the bowel. It is effective against inflammation of the mucous membranes, intestines and stomach. They are also used in the cosmetic industry and for medicinal cosmetics. Long used in Chinese medicine, the stem bark is used as an astringent for ulcers, and the fruits used for their antivinous, astringent, carminative and peptic qualities. The seeds, soaked or boiled in water, release the mucilage from the seed coat and make a jelly-like consistency, which has been used for sore throats and eye lotions.
Bill and I know the following to be true without a doubt: The fruits are so fragrant that a single membrillo can fill a room with its rich fruity scent; indeed, quinces were once popular as room deodorizers. We forgot a bag (of four or five) in our car one hot day, and when we returned, the minute we opened the door, it was as if a team of cleaners had been scrubbing the daylights out of our car! It was quite refreshing!
Important: To store fruit, lay them in a single layer, preferably not touching, on slats or straw-lined trays, and keep in a cool dry shed; they should store for 2-3 months. Don’t store them near apples or other fruit as these will gain a "quincey" flavor.
Some of you may be thinking "what does this have to do with the lakeside area?" Just a short distance from the lakeside (around 9 kilometers) toward Guadalajara is Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos (most people here just call it Ixtlahuacan). This city of around 25,000 inhabitants was once a major producer of the membrillo and membrillo products. Today there are still Membrillo orchards in and around Ixtlahuacan and the fruit remains an important part of the economy.
As you go toward the airport and drop down into the valley where the city is located, you will find several stands that sell many of the products produced from this somwhat forgotten fruit. So, as you are heading to the airport or just out for a drive in our direction, remember, to discover the membrillo is to immerse yourself into thousands of years of history.
If you're not quite ready to devour a fresh membrillo, here are a few recipes to tempt your tastebuds into at least trying a bit of history!
Manchego Quince Skewers
1 pound quince paste (can be found in cheese shops or Latin markets)
1 cup almonds, roasted and finely chopped
1 pound Manchego cheese, see note
1 bunch watercress
Cut the quince paste into 1-inch cubes and roll them in the crushed almonds.
Cut the cheese into 1-inch cubes.
Put a quince cube onto a toothpick, then a watercress leaf followed by a cube of cheese.
Place on a platter and serve.
Quince with Honey
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup water
1 pinch salt
1 cup flour
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup honey, preferably chestnut
Powdered sugar to dust
In a 2 to 3 quart saucepan, melt butter in water.
Add salt, bring to boil and stir in sifted flour.
Cook until the mixture pulls away from heat. Transfer to a mixing bowl and allow to cool.
When cool, beat in eggs one at a time.
Heat 3 to 4 inches of oil in a 6-inch deep sauce pan to 375 degrees.
Place honey in a small saucepan and heat over low heat.
Using 2 tablespoons, form almond-sized balls of dough and drop into hot oil. Fry 3 or 4 at a time (leave space they will double or triple in size) until golden brown on all sides, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove and drain on paper towels.
Continue until all the balls are done. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, drizzle with honey and serve.
Quince Marinated Pork Ribs
36 American-style pork ribs
250g quince paste, chopped
1/2 cup port
1 cinnamon stick
juice and grated rind of 1 orange
Combine quince paste, port, cinnamon stick and orange rind in a saucepan and stir over a low heat until quince paste melts.
Simmer for 3 minutes, then pour over ribs, turn to coat well.
Leave to marinate for 1-2 hours.
Barbecue for 15 minutes or until cooked through.
Serve with rice and a green salad