By Audrey Stallsmith
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
Song of Solomon 2:5
Scholars believe the tappuac or "apple" extolled in scripture is probably actually the quince, which originated in the mountainous Caucasus region that includes parts of Turkey, Iran, and Georgia. But the praise bestowed upon it in the Middle East puzzles some of us in colder regions, where cydonia trees produce fruits that are hard, lumpy, and extremely impalatable when raw.
In fact, Louise Beebe Wilder wrote in The Fragrant Path that "to turn from the luscious perfumed peach to the quince is to leave enchantment for harsh reality, for the quince, the quoin of olden days, is a forbidding and cross-grained fruit, repelling us by its bitter acidity and ungiving quality. . ."
Its appearance has, in fact, often been compared to that of a lumpy (and fuzzy) pear, though there are also rounder apple-shaped varieties. "The fruit," John Gerard writes in his 1597 Herball "is like an Apple, saving that many times it hath certain embowed & swelling divisions: it differeth in fashion and bigness; for some Quinces are lesser and round, trust up together at the top with wrinckles, others longer and greater. . .; they are all of them set with a thinne cotton or freese. . ."
But the quince reportedly loses that fuzzy rind--sometimes as hard as winter squash--in warmer climates where the fruit can be allowed to hang on the tree much longer. Though here we require frost to "blet" (soften) this "apple," time apparently makes a far more effective substitute! So the fruit can be eaten raw in tropical countries. And even Wilder admits that it invites us with "its powerful pressing fragrance."
That strong aroma--sometimes compared to honey and roses--is also controversial, however, being loved by some and hated by others. Gerard describes it as "hurtfull to the head" and also mentions the fruit's "choking tast."
Nevertheless, quinces are believed to be the legendary "golden apples of Hesperides, supposedly given by Paris to Aphrodite. So they figured large in Greek wedding ceremonies as a symbol of love. (Cydonia derives from the Greek for "Cydonian apple," as the best quinces supposedly came from Cydon in Crete. Cydonia eventually degenerated into the French coin, then quin and quins.)
Perhaps this golden fruit was also Eve's downfall in the garden of Eden, and cursed to its present sourness and ugliness as a result! At any rate, there must be some reason it stands for "temptation" in the Language of Flowers.
The fruit does reportedly taste much better when sweetened and cooked. It also turns a pretty pinkish color then. And, since it produces its own pectin, it is a natural for jams and jellies. Especially for marmalades, in which tart fruits can really strut their stuff! And quince compotes were probably used to improve digestion of meats long before applesauce was ever heard of. Gerard writes that "The Marmalad or Cotiniat made of quinces and sugar is good and profitable to strengthen the stomack, that it may retain and keep the meat therein until it be perfectly digested."
Also, the quince makes a very decorative small tree with its large, apple-like, white, pink, or pink-striped blossoms, and peeling bark. It is, however, not the same plant as the ornamental Japanese bush called "flowering quince," whose official name is chaenomeles.
In the Middle East the pits (seeds) of the tree are soaked in water until they dissolve into mucilage, and imbibed to treat such ailments as sore throat, coughs, pneumonia, and lung disease. A spoonful of quince jelly dissolved in a cup of boiling water is said to relieve indigestion as well. And the astringency of the fruit will help cure diarrhea. Perhaps due to these medicinal qualities, a dream about quinces supposedly presages good health and good fortune.
I've never actually tasted quince myself. But I did plant a tree from seed several years ago, and am still waiting for it to blossom. For someone like myself who actually likes tart foods, the contradictions in the fruit's reputation are more intriguing than off-putting. I guess I will just have to wait until I can judge for myself!
Cydonia vulgaris image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.