Quince Bread, also known as Quittenbrot, Chare de Quences, or Pâte de Coing, is a confection made from quince apples or quinces. Quince trees, Cydonia oblonga, are small fruit trees in the Rosaceae family. They are closely related to apples and pears. Quinces were grown in West Asia and around the Mediterranean since antiquity. Quinces remained popular fruit trees throughout medieval times.
Image: Roman painting of a quince tree in the Casa die Livia, probably 30BC
Like other pomefruits, quinces do not do not come true from seed. Desirable genotypes need to be propagated by grafting. Grafting was well known to the Romans. At the time of Gaius Plinius Secundus, AD 23–79, better known as Pliny the Elder, many different varieties were grown, several of which Pliny mentions by name in his natural history:
Chapter. 10. (11.)—The Quince. Four Kinds of Cydonia, and Four Varieties of the Struthea: Next in size after these are the fruit called by us “cotonea,” by the Greeks “Cydonia,” and first introduced from the island of Crete. These fruits bend the branches with their weight, and so tend to impede the growth of the parent tree. The varieties are numerous. The chrysomelum is marked with indentations down it, and has a colour inclining to gold; the one that is known as the “Italian” quince, is of a paler complexion, and has a most exquisite smell: the quinces of Neapolis, too, are held in high esteem. The smaller varieties of the quince which are known as the “struthea,” have a more pungent smell, but ripen later than the others; that called the “musteum,” ripens the soonest of all. The cotoneum engrafted on the strutheum, has produced a peculiar variety, known as the “Mulvianum,” the only one of them all that is eaten raw. At the present day all these varieties are kept shut up in the antechambers of great men, where they receive the visits of their courtiers; they are hung, too, upon the statues that pass the night with us in our chambers. There is a small wild quince also, the smell of which, next to that of the strutheum, is the most powerful; it grows in the hedges. (Pliny)
In modern times, various named quince varieties propagated by grafting are available to the gardener. However, quinces also serve commonly as dwarfing rootstock for pears, resulting in the mature pear tree reaching only about 40-60% of the natural mature height. (Elkins, Bell, Einhorn, 2012, Journal of the American Pomological Society 66(3):153-163). These quince rootstocks along with occasional chance seedlings are the source of feral quinces found in the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn. In the work presented here, I compare quince bread made from fruits of a named cultivar, ‘Orange,’ with quince bread made from feral quinces and a third variety that attempts to combine the benefits of both.
Quinces are considerably more heat tolerant than apples, hence their historic popularity in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. However, many varieties are cold hardy to USDA zone 5 and thus can be grown successfully in Myrkfaelinn and neighboring Baronies. Quinces do well in sun and partial shade. Unfortunately, Quinces are plagued by two pests. Quinces are extremely vulnerable to Fireblight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. Fireblight is the main reason quinces are no longer widely grown. A local apple and pear grower (Ian Merwin of Black Diamond Farm) explained to me that he was avoiding quinces to prevent the likely fireblight infections jumping over onto his pear trees. The round headed stem borer (Saperda Candida) also causes damage to trees. Both of these diseases have caused loss of quince trees in my garden.
Quinces tend to flower later than apples, in my garden at the end of May, which usually protects them from damage by late frosts. Quinces also tend to ripen later than apples. Unlike apples and pears, quinces are self-fruitful. There is no need to grow second variety for pollination. According to the Trinity Encyclopedia compiled by an anonymous writer in the 1400s in England, the quince season starts at Michaelmas (September 29th) and lasts till Martinmas (November 11th).
§62 Chare de quences.
Forto make chare de quences. Take þfayre quences in tyme of yeer, as between Mihelmasse and Martynmasse… (Clarke 2016)
In my garden, quinces ripen around Halloween. I found that quinces harvested but not quite ripe yet, can ripen a bit while being stored indoors. However, since quinces can’t be stored much longer than a month, only so much post-harvest ripening can be had. I would advise any quince grower to leave the fruit on the tree, until they have fully changed to yellow/orange color, unless a severe frost is threatening the harvest.
Image: Late medieval rendering of a quince tree, probably 1300-1400, in the Tacuinum sanitatis, by Ibn Butlân
As Pliny the Elder described, the Romans valued quinces particularly for their smell. A single quince can easily fill a small room with its fragrance. Most quince fruits are hard and sour and not delightful, when eaten raw. ‘Aayvay yemek’ or ‘to eat quince’ is a Turkish expression used to describe unpleasant situations. The Mulvanium is a rarity for being enjoyable in raw form. Even today, there are very few quince varieties available that can be enjoyed raw, the best known one is the Russian variety Aromatnaya. I found that after storing Orange quince for three weeks, the pectin in the fruit broke down enough to make the fruit edible raw. The texture was then like a radish and the level of acidity not unpleasant. Attempting to eat feral quince raw was an experience similar to biting into a very hard lemon.
In my kitchen freshly harvested quince last for about a month, before eventually they go bad. The feral quinces appear wrinkled after this time of storage, which makes them harder to peel. The Orange quinces tend not to wrinkle, but the fruit flesh softens and they turn brownish on the inside. Making quinces last longer requires some sort of preservation. Apicius lists two recipes featuring quince in his book De Re Coquinaria Liber. The first one is in the first book and is concerned with the preservation of quinces for future use:
Ut mala Cydonia diu serventur: Eligis mala sine vitio cum ramulis et foliis, et condes in vas, et suffundes mel et defritum, et diu servabis. (Apicius 21)
How quinces might be served later: Select apples without blemish with stems and leaves, and put them in a vessel, submerge them in honey and concentrated spiced white wine (=defruitum), and you will serve them in a long time later.
This recipe is solely about the preservation of quince, not a dessert in itself. Note that the quince is not heated or cored. The emphasis on the stem and leaves still intact is to ensure that no air enters the fruit that could lead to fermentation. Even with the sometimes – from modern perspective – rather strange culinary customs of the Romans, it is unlikely, they would have actually eaten the cores and leaves. It is in a section of the book that describes how to preserve various fruits for later use. (the previous recipe suggests to steep pomegranates in sea-water and hang them to dry for preservation, the following one advises to place a variety of fruits again intact with the stems in honey for preservation.) However, if the fruits were cored, relieved of stems and leaves and actually boiled in honey and spiced wine, this would make for a delicious dessert. If such a concoction were dried, it would pretty much be quince bread. Apicius’ second recipe suggests that quinces might have been boiled in honey for preservation. This recipe is a savory one:
Patina de cydoniis: Mala cydonia cum porris melle liquamine oleo defricato coques et inferes vel elixata ex melle. (Apicius 163)
A Dish of Quinces: Cook quinces with leek, honey, fish sauce, rubbed (?) oil or threw in thoroughly boiled in honey.
The recipe offers two versions to prepare the same dish, either cooking the fresh quinces together with the other ingredients or throwing in the already honey cooked quinces later. The second part of this savory recipe, ‘or throw in [quinces] thoroughly boiled in honey’ might be a reference to conserving quince by boiling them in honey. Potentially this was done to preserve quinces not quite free of blemish. From quinces boiled in honey for preservation to quince bread is only a small step.
Quinces remained popular in Europe into medieval times. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) mentions quinces in her book ‘Physica’ both as food source and for medical use as a remedy for gout, excessive saliva and badly healing wounds.
IV. Quince Tree
The quince tree is very cold and of a subtlety which is assimilated, sometimes usefully, other times not. Its wood and leaves are not of much use for human beings. Its fruit is hot and dry and has good balance in it. When it is ripe and eaten raw, it harms neither a sick nor a healthy person. It is useful, cooked or roasted, for a sick person to eat. One who is virgichtiget (=suffering of gout) should frequently eat this fruit, either cooked or roasted, and it will check the gicht (=gout) in him, so that it does not blunt his senses, nor break his limbs nor leave the person helpless. One who produces much saliva should eat this fruit frequently, cooked or roasted. It will dry him up internally and diminish his saliva. Where there are ulcers or foulness on a person, one should cook or roast this fruit and place it, with other spices, over the wounds, and he will be cured. (Bingen)
The Trinity Encyclopedia from the second half of the 14th century lists a very detailed recipe for quince bread, called ‘chare de quences’, translated as ‘pâte de coing’ or ‘pâte de coing’.
§62 Pâte de coing
To make pâte de coing. Take nice quinces in season, that is between Michaelmas and Martinmas, and cut them equally in two in the middle, and take away the pips with a knife, and the core of them as well, and if there is any part of them that is rotten, pare it away with a knife as well. Then when you have as many as you want to work up at once, cleaned and prepared like that, then put them all in a nice clean pan and add clean water to it so that they lie all submerged and somewhat more, so that they can be seethed well in it. Then set your pan with your quinces over the fire and seethe them well until they are tender enough to be strained. Then when they are tender enough, take down the pan off the fire, and take out your seethed quinces from the water with a dish or with a platter and lay them in a sieve or else on a nice clean table and let the water run out from them; let them lie like that on that table or in a sieve all night still, without stirring. (Clarke 2018 – for the rest of this lengthy recipe, please check the reference)
Like the Roman recipes, this medieval recipe uses honey to preserve quinces. The recipe is from a time when sugar was just about to become available in Europe and therefore had not yet taken a crucial role in food preservation. In the quince breads presented here, I used sugar instead of honey, as the only honey I had available was brown honey from goldenrod and Japanese knotweed, which has a much stronger flavor, than a ‘nice white honey’ asked for in the recipe.
Images: Smooth skinned feral quinces to the left. Fuzzy skinned Orange quinces to the right.
Orange quince cut open. The slight browning of the fruit flesh indicates that the pectin is breaking down, making the quince softer.
The first step is to core the quinces and remove all the seeds. Quince seeds – like most seeds in the Rosaceae family – contain some cyanide, so removing the seeds before cooking is a good idea. The cores themselves are very hard. After cooking, quinces were passed through a sieve, thereby removing the hard leftovers of the cores and the skin. When working with feral quinces, I followed the first cooking-then sieving approach, because these quinces proved very tedious to core and peel. With the much larger and softer Orange quinces I found it easier to simply peel and thoroughly core the quinces, before I cooked them and omitted the sieving step. The cooked peeled quince is very soft and can easily be mashed with a potato stomper like applesauce or potato mash, or run through a sieve.
Image: Quince puree ready to be sweetened. At this point it is still yellow.
It is surprising that in this recipe the boiling water is simply discarded. The water, in which quinces are boiled, is very aromatic and pleasantly fragrant. In many modern quince gelée recipes, the main focus is on the boiling water, which then gets sweetened (occasionally acidified) and thickened, while the use of the remaining pulp for the making of quince bread is treated more as an afterthought – some modern cooks apparently simply discard the pulp. This is quite a change in attitude from medieval times. Not wanting to waste the flavor in the boiling water I opted for a change in the recipe, boiling the quinces in much less water, similar to the amount one would use for applesauce and omitting the drip off stage. I found this approach frequently mentioned in German Internet publications, generally citing Hildegard from Bingen as source for the recipe. Unfortunately, none of these Internet publications provide a citation of a recipe written by the Abbess herself.
Image: Quince puree ready to be dried. The color is now orange.
Having omitted the drip-off step, my quince pulp was presumably much moister than the pulp the medieval confectioner, so therefore I only added 1/2 of the pulp weight in sugar. Initially, I followed the recipe evaporating water from the sweetened quince puree on the stove top. However, I found that the sweetened pulp is quick to stick to the pot bottom and burn, even while being stirred. Therefore, I opted for a different approach to dry the quince puree. Once all the sugar was dissolved in the quince puree, I spread the quince puree about 1/2inch deep on a backing sheet and dried it in the oven. The quince puree was still orange/yellowish in color, when I spread it onto the sheet.
I dried the feral quince puree at 220° F. Upon tasting it, I felt I might have heated it too much and therefore dried the other two purees at 180° F. By the time the puree had sufficiently dried out it had taken a red color and a somewhat glassy consistency. The drying process took about two days at the given temperatures.
Following the advice of the medieval recipe I made sure to use nice clean cookware at every step of the process.
The three quince breads presented:
- Quince bread made exclusively from feral quinces. This bread has a fair level of acidity to it. The texture is leathery and chewy.
- Quince bread made from Orange quince. The bread is very mild with strong quince flavor. The texture is soft, smooth and almost creamy.
- Quince bread made from a combination of feral and Orange quince (ratio roughly 1:2). The texture and aroma resemble the quince bread from Orange quinces; however, the color is darker and there is a bit more acidity.
I did not use spices in this work to prevent them from overpowering the flavor differences caused by the quince varieties.
Image: Eadgytha enjoys sharing her yummy samples with the general populace present during the Kingdom A&S Championship.
- Apicius Book I; 21. De Re Coquinaria Liber I. Epimeles (about honey, translation mine)
Apicius Book II; 163 Patinae Piscium, Holerum & Pomorum (Dishes of Fish, Vegetables and Apple-Fruit, translation mine)
- Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, (Translated from Latin by Priscilla Throop, 1998, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.)
- Mark Clarke, The Crafte of Lymmyng and the Manner of Staynyng, Early English Text Society, 2016
- Mark Clarke, Tricks of the Medieval Trades, The Trinity Encyclopedia: A Collection of Fourteenth-Century English Craft Recipes. Archetype Publications Ltd., London, 2018
- Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.
- Exemplar at Villa di livia, affreschi di giardino, parete corta meridionale. From here.
- Quince; from the Theatrum Sanitatis, Library Casanatense, Rome. From here.
- Process photos by Eadgytha scripsit
- Kingdom A&S Championship entry photos by Elska á Fjárfelli