Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pears? Nope!

In our front yard is a tree that has become a tree of note in the neighborhood, not because it is beautiful but because of its fruit.  People are forever asking me "What kind of pear tree is that".  My reply, "It's not a pear its a quince" which usually brings about puzzled looks and more questions.  It is not the more common "Flowering Quince" we see blooming in early spring but Cydonia oblonga, an actually tree that is quite hardy and relatively pest free.  I purchased the tree for myself as a gift (from my husband) about 8 years ago and it has been the source of many conversations since.
Its not a pear its a quince fruit.

I first became acquainted with quince trees during my stint volunteering in the garden at the Zimmerman Heritage Farm Park in Gresham Oregon, where  the world of plants and the Oregon Trail Pioneers that brought them opened up to me.  It is a fascinating historical study and one I highly recommend as there are many heart warming stories as well as practical aspects of plants and their importance to this period of time.  Its also interesting to see how many of those plants are still in favor in our gardens today.  Most all of what the pioneers grew had to be able to do well without too much fuss and made this wild new place feel more like home.  This appealed to my practical sensibilities and so when I discovered quince trees I decided it was a must for my garden as well.

Quince are a related to pears and apples and actually looks more like a pear. A word of caution though...they are not sweet like their cousins but quite tart and very firm making them perfect for preserving and baking but hardly a fruit to pick off the tree and just take a bite of.   Sauce made from this tart fruit is a favorite at our house and is perfect on waffles or toast or to use in banana bread or other baking as it works like applesauce if you are trying to reduce the fat content in recipes.  I must also make at least one Quince tart with pastry cream which I decided must be the traditional harvest celebration dish each year.  The fruit because it does not get mushy when cooked makes really good chunky quince bread that is similar to apple bread only the quince has a great tang to it.  (Apologies here as pictures of that will have to wait as the fruit is just now cooking and there is not tart yet.)  If you like tangy fruit you will love quince.
Quince pie using frozen fruit and store bought crust
I remember when I bought my little sapling tree.  I was so happy!  My husband, who thinks that all trees without leaves look like twigs was pretty disappointed in my choice.  He did a fair amount of speaking his mind about my choice and to this day I think he would rather have a fir tree in the front yard than a fruit tree.  He is however, quite thankful for the sauce and pastries that show up when the fruit from that tree that bothers him so much is turned into some of his favorite food, a thing I too am thankful for.

Yesterday I harvested the fruit from our tree.  This takes a bit of doing as the leaves are so large the eclipse the fruit making it a real hunt and peck exercise.  I have this great fruit picker tool that has really helped as the tree is now too large for us to reach it all from the ground and the branches so low that its a challenge to get a ladder beneath.  It took me a good half hour to pick what I could reach with two fruit being completely unreachable and left for my taller husband to get.

Its time to gather the fruit in when they begin to fall from the tree.  Around here that would be in late September or possibly earlier if the winds are blowing a lot.  If you are in a windy area like we are you may find it a good idea to pick the fruit a bit green.  The variety of quince I purchased has fruit that is quite large so it tends to blow off pretty easily if I'm not attentive to harvesting it before the wind forces the fruit off the branches.  You don't want to get hit by a falling fruit, they hurt!  I got clobbered by one yesterday that I probably should have left for my dear husband to pick.  I think it left a lump too.  (ouch!)

A couple years ago the tree was at its peak in production and we had so much fruit the branches were nearly breaking.  Well actually one did break off three years ago.  I used to walk every morning and as I left I made a mental note to prop up that branch so it wouldn't break but before I could get back home it began to mist and just that little bit of extra weight caused that rather large limb to snap from the trunk.  I will never again wait to prop up a fruit laden branch again.  My hubby, who complains about the tree, sprang into action to try and safe the branch and finally ended up cutting off the torn branch and pinning the split trunk back together with a plastic coated bolt which worked quite well.  Our poor tree has never been the same since and is finally getting back to some good level of fruiting.

Peppermint candy buds
The first spring the tree bloomed I was delighted by the appearance of pink spiraling buds that reminded me a lot of peppermint candy and which turned into these pink marshmallow-like flowers at the tips of the branches.  The blooms are much larger than apple or pear trees making it quite a show when in bloom.

Quince harvest 2010
Quince fruit, though firm, tend to bruise quite easily and will rot quickly if they are damaged so today I was busy dealing with about a third of the fruit that I had harvested.  This picture may not look like much but some of the fruit weight as much as one pound each and are the size of grapefruit.  Also good to note here is that it takes some strength just to cut them up because of how firm the flesh is.  Be sure you have a stable work are and a good sharp knife.

You may notice the flower end or bottom of the fruit getting a brown patch in on it.  Those need to be processed right away so the fruit won't totally spoil.  I still need to find out what causes this.  I know that bruising does this easily to the fruit when they fall.  I found a beautiful huge quince on the ground spoiled as I didn't see it until it was too late.  I just hate when that happens.

I use a large chef's knife to cut into mine.  Sharp is a very good thing when it comes to knives and a dull knife is a dangerous knife, especially when cutting into quince.  Don't be surprised when the flesh browns easily even if put into a bath of water and lemon juice, that's just the nature of this fruit and honestly I don't worry one fig about it.  Once the fruit is cooked it takes on more of a pink color anyway so the browning will be a distant memory.

On trick I learned to get the fruit as pink as you can is to cook it with the peel on.  They say you should also include some of the seeds while cooking as they are coated with a lot of pectin and can help thicken the liquid in the pot.  Historical factoid time....The ladies in the late 1800 used to save the quince seeds and put a few in a bowl with a bit of water to create the first hair styling gel.  Now that is making good use out of all the fruit I'd say.  Keep the cook looking pretty and the family well fed.  I tried making the gel once and found the seeds are indeed coated with quite a bit of pectin and when enough of them are added to a small bit of water it does produce a gel.

Another characteristic of the fruit is that it's flesh is rather grainy in texture, especially near the core and even after being cooked.  Its not a bad thing, just different.  I would recommend for those of you who don't like this type of texture to strain the fruit in a wire sieve to get a smoother product.

Fuzz rubs off easily
Leaves are fuzzy on the bottom and smooth on the top.
Quince leaves and fruit have this fuzz on them that can be quite annoying if breathed.  As I was picking yesterday I found myself coughing a lot because of it and wishing I had put on a particle mask before I began.  It was more annoying than dangerous though so I just kept going and did fine.

Wetting the fuzz to keep it from flying around.

To get off the fuzz on the fruit I put it in a water bath to wet the fuzz so it won't float around as I'm removing it from the skin.  I use a cotton dish rag to wipe away the fuzz and then rinse the fruit under running water to remove the loose particles left over.
Note the granular texture of the flesh in this picture
Next I cut the tops and bottoms off so I can slice down the center easier (Remember this is a very firm fruit and having fruit that can roll out from under the knife is a dangerous thing.)

Note the browning even though they were in lemon juice and water.

I cut the fruit in large-ish chunks, removing the bruises and core, popped them into a water and lemon juice bath (a habit from working with apples), drained them and put them into the crock pot for processing.  These take a while to cook so a crock pot works really nicely and frees you up from being tied to watching a pot on the stove.  One thing to note here is that if you want to peel the fruit prior to chopping up go right ahead.  The finished product will not be as rosy colored is all.

Crock pot full of goodness
Finally I add a couple cups of sugar to sweeten these very tart fruit, a bit of water to the bottom, put the lid on and go about my day.  I love the freedom the crock pot gives me from having to watch a pot on the stove.

Once the fruit is done cooking I will run it through my food mill for sauce or butter, which takes a bit more cooking and reserve any liquid in the bottom for reducing into a nice syrup for glazing, pie making or adding to fresh lemonade.  For those of you who like jelly, this fruit makes fine jelly and because of the pectin content.

So I just checked the crockpot and the fruit has gone from greenish skins and brownish flesh to a wonderful more even golden color.  My mouth is watering and I'm off to find that tart recipe I used last year.  Oh and one more thing...this cooked fruit freezes really well too.

Now its time to go make dinner.  Stay tuned for the finale and happy gardening!

To learn more about the Zimmerman Heritage Farm Park at

Copyright © 2010 by Patty Hicks

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