Quince – Perfume of the Autumn

Quince is quite a peculiar fruit. Among all the fruits grown in this little part of the world, it's the only one I know that can't be eaten raw, straight from the tree – you have to process it.

Looking like a beefy pear with a nice sweet smell, this pome fruit is simply too hard, tart and tart for consumption. You can try and bite into it, but the experience is not a pleasant one. Yet, it is certainly represented in our culinary tradition, even though not on a massive scale as some other, more common fruits.

“Looking like huge mutant apples or pears, quinces are actually more related to roses.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

Still, often it does not even make it to the kitchen – in the old days quince was used as natural home fragrance and decoration. People would place it on top of a cupboard or something similar to fill the air with its lovely aroma. There’s a verse from a popular Croatian oldie: “You are my old love, you are a quince from the cupboard.” Even my mother, and we were just ordinary city folks living in a modern building, would place half a dozen of quinces all over our home. It just has a nice feeling to it.

“Quince is the perfect fruit for making jams.” Image credit: Helena Varendorff

OK, but there's definitely more to quince than its decorative features. First of all, you can drink it. Quince rakija, or dunjevača, is a fine spirit, although it's more common to Serbia and Bosnia than Croatia. Fermented quince mash is distilled to make a transparent and strong but wonderfully aromatic drink that needs to be sipped and enjoyed slowly. (Can you tell that I'm a big fan of dunjevača?) If this is too much for you, you can also drink quince in an alcohol-free version. The flesh is tough and sinewy and needs to be cooked, when it turns into a tender and sweet material, therefore it's the ideal fruit for kompot. Similar to the French dessert compote, but slightly different, chunks of fruit are cooked in water with spices (clove, cinnamon, star anise) and sweeteners such as sugar or raisins. Served either hot or cold, it's actually an old method of preserving the fruit in winter days. You can eat the fruit from a bowl together with the juice in which it was cooked, or you can just drink the liquid, kind of an ancient homemade fruit juice.

“Quince can also come in the shape of brandy, to warm you up from inside.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

Kompot has a very old-fashioned ring to it and I don’t think I have seen it anywhere for at least twenty years. But as I was growing up in the 1980s, it was popular because it's was cheap and easy to make, the perfect substitute for expensive and scarce fruit juices from the supermarket. I remember my dad used to make it and I hated it when it was served for dessert instead of more appealing things like ice cream or pancakes. “Dessert for the poor”, you might say. On the other hand, the juice without the fruit I liked very much. Sweet and aromatic, it was way better than water or lemonade.

“Quince jelly is a healthier candy alternative for kids.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

Quince is rich in pectin, the natural gelling agent, so it’s often used to make jams and marmalades. Though you can also make a quince pie, its toughness and high fibre don’t make it everyone’s favourite. More usually it’s added to apple and pear pies to add extra flavour. But there’s one traditional dessert that bring out the best in quince – quince cheese. That’s kotonjata on the coast (coming from the Italian cotognata), or kitnkez in Zagreb (coming from the German Quittenkäse). Basically, it’s a thick, red jelly you get when you cook quince flesh for a long time with sugar and lemon juice. When it cools down, it’s firm and can be shaped with moulds easily or just cut in cubes. Some recipes include chopped walnuts, which is a welcome bonus. Quince cheese is very sweet and filling, so a thin slice more than enough to satisfy your sweet tooth. Princess patisserie in downtown Zagreb is one of rare places where you can find it.

“Quince cheese shaped with moulds – a traditional but almost forgotten dessert.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

I hope I succeeded in bringing your attention to this often neglected and not well known fruit. You can find it on farmers’ markets these days, but not in huge quantities. Quinces are affordable so accept the challenge and experiment with them. And remember to save a few for the cupboard.


Header image credit: Taste of Croatia

Author: Taste of Croatia / Morana Zibar