Set the Table with Quince
Written onNovember 24 , 2013
The first time I met a quince, I was immediately smitten. There were plenty of beautiful apples around, but that box of quince enticed me with its sweet, exotic aroma. Could I possibly describe the complex fragrance? Why hadn’t I seen or tasted one before?
Quinces are yellow and shaped like a plump pear. They are covered in protective fuzz, almost as a peach is, but the soft fuzz is easily wiped away to reveal a bright yellow skin. The flavor of cooked quince is very unique, with hints of apple, raspberry, pear, and guava. Quince grown in our climate never ripens enough to lose its tartness, so it is more often cooked or preserved than eaten raw—and when cooked it turns a lovely pink color. The resulting red pigments are powerful antioxidants, and coincidentally, the same pigments are to be thanked for Vermont’s colorful autumn foliage.
My first quince came from Scott Farm in Dummerston, where they grow 90 different varieties of apples and many other fruits. When I returned home, I was determined to make quince paste.
Quince paste is a common preparation of the fruit in Spain, where the paste is called membrilloand is often served with cheese. Imagine a dehydrated jam, thickened enough to be cut into slices. In my version I used only quince and honey, and the paste was delicious paired with Vermont farmstead cheeses.
That day, I envisioned making Vermont quince paste for the masses, prepared with local quinces, offering the perfect complement to our amazing local cheese. Nan Stefanik of Newfane had a similar idea, but also had the skills and knowledge to transform her dreams into reality. She launched Vermont Quince in 2012 and now crafts homemade quince products with local quince and organic ingredients.
Nan was traveling in Nerja, Spain when she first encountered quince paste. She loved it, but didn’t think about making it until she entered a friend’s cellar one fateful fall afternoon. Seeing a basket of fuzzy yellow fruit, she inquired and was told that it was quince, grown in Putney.
A veteran tomato and applesauce canner, Nan quickly started experimenting with quince in the kitchen. For the next three years, she procured the fruit from the three Putney trees and made a variety of quince products that she trialed as gifts for friends and family. Their positive feedback helped Stefanik revise recipes, and she ultimately began researching local orchards for raw fruit and all that is involved with starting a specialty food business in Vermont.
When Nan officially launched Vermont Quince Company, she made use of the kitchen facilities and resources at the Vermont Food Venture Center. Now she sells quince paste, quince jelly, and quince mustard, as well as quince “splash,” a sweet juice that is delicious in a sparkling drink or vinaigrette. Nan continues to experiment and had made a fresh batch of quince-crabapple-ginger preserves the day I visited her. She is also jumping onto the fermentation train with trials of quince vinegar.
The quince jelly, by the way, requires no additional pectin, as there is so much naturally occurring in the quince. This was the main reason for quince’s popularity in the past. A little quince went a long way for American colonists making preserves; back then, almost every garden claimed a quince tree. But as long ago as the 1920s, quince had been all but forgotten. In 1922, New York pomologist U.P. Hedrick wrote that “the quince, the ‘golden apple’ of the ancients, once dedicated to deities, and looked upon as the emblem of love and happiness, for centuries the favorite pome, is now neglected and the least esteemed of commonly cultivated tree-fruits.”
After quickly surveying friends, young and old, I concluded that not much is known about the quince in Vermont today. However, articles about quince have appeared inThe New York Times and L.A. Times in the last several years. Perhaps quince will become the next kale and everyone will want to try this fine fruit.
That is certainly Nan’s goal and social mission: to promote quince and to help more people learn about it. She has chosen to sell her products at farmers’ markets and small local stores, where she can offer tastings and have conversations about quince. She is growing seven quince trees of different cultivars, with hopes to plant 20 more in the spring.
In 2013, Vermont Quince made an agreement with Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, NH to buy all of the wholesale fruit from their 75 trees. They are planting 50 more trees to keep up with Nan’s projected demand. Last year, Vermont Quince used 1,500 pounds and had to carefully manage inventory to be able to supply quince products to wholesale customers throughout the year. To satisfy an unexpectedly large demand for her quince mustard, Nan bought Chilean quince, and is very transparent about doing so, posting sourcing information on Vermont Quince’s Facebook page. Her goal is to use as much regional fruit as possible. She even drove around Vermont in 2012 posting “Got Quince?” flyers, hoping to find as many backyard trees as possible.
A backyard growers program is in the works, including a reward for referrals. Nan got the idea after learning about a tree in Guilford that is 65 years old and yielded 100 pounds of quince in 2012. Now she knows of roughly 10 quince trees scattered around the area, but the owners of the trees don’t sell all their fruit to Vermont Quince. The bounty from one nearby tree, for example, is split amongst neighbors and used to make preserves, a longstanding tradition. The harvest of another local tree is transformed into prized hard cider for a group of old-timers.
If you’re interested in trying the fruit, a handful of local orchards grow quince, including Scott Farm and Alyson’s Orchard. Harlow Farm in Westminster recently planted their first trees, while Windfall Orchard in Cornwall is harvesting from two trees and is considering a quince hard cider. Ask for the ripe fruit in October.
For green thumbs, Elmore Roots Nursery in Elmore sells quince trees. David Fried of Elmore Roots said, “It used to be we could not grow them up here, but someone in Russia developed one called Aromatnaya that is fragrant and hardy and you can even eat a little of it fresh.” Elmore Roots’ quince has been growing and fruiting for approximately seven of the nursery’s 33 years of operation.
Whether you’re a gardener or not, quince is a fruit not to be missed. Until next October’s quince harvest, the fruit can be enjoyed any number of ways from Vermont Quince. Stash away this recipe below, and ask your friends and neighbors if they know about quince. If you find a story, it’s sure to be a good one. If you find the fruit, even better.
Vermont Quince products are sold at farmers’ markets in Putney, Brattleboro, Newfane, Londonderry, Townshend, and Walpole, NH. They’re also sold by local retailers and at specialty food and wine shows in Vermont. For a detailed list,