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GARDEN FRESH

Paradise Preserved

October 20, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Quinces, Aphrodite's apples, are at once patrician and earthy. The fruit, golden as the sun, resembles a rumpled pear covered with downy bloom--the dust of centuries. A ripe quince's perfume is a mix of musk and jasmine, lilacs, guavas and apples. The scent from a bowl can fill a room and drive you crazy.

How is it that a fruit the ancients revered, a fruit still esteemed around the world, is neglected here? Probably because the pale flesh of raw quinces is rough and astringent. But poach slices in syrup, stew chunks with honey, brush halves with sweet butter and slowly roast them, and their rosy color and complex perfume will fill your senses.

Whether in leaf or winter's bareness, the quince tree makes a fine specimen. Limbs are dark and lightly crooked; fruit dangles * Jonathan Gold and Counter Intelligence are on vacation.

brightly on the bough. Trees grow slowly to 10 feet, but you can keep them at six to seven. And you can grow a tree in a half-barrel. In spring, there are cream-to-blush blossoms the size of a doll's teacup. Spring through fall, broad oval leaves are new-green--in late autumn, they turn pumpkin and flutter to the ground. Don't have a place for a tree? Coax yours into a handsome shrub, perhaps against a wall.

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Quinces are self-fruitful and need no pollinizer--one tree alone makes fruit. Quince has modest chilling requirements, so it's that rare pome fruit that thrives in balmy climates. Quinces actually prefer moist, heavy soil--clay people, rejoice!

An old wives' tale has it that quinces thrive on neglect. Forget it--nothing and nobody does! All they ask for is sun and a fair amount of water. Happily in Southern California, the trees are little bothered by disease. Should you have a problem, consult a local county agricultural adviser.

Now's a good time to buy a potted tree and set it in the garden, or (less expensive) order bare-root for delivery in spring.

Quinces ripen in September and October. Orange quinces are large and roundish, with deep golden flesh that turns the richest red of all when cooked. Pineapple quinces have a hint of pineapple in their white flesh. Less tart than Pineapple, Smyrna has pale-yellow flesh and keeps especially long. Green-gold Champion has delicately flavored flesh. Van Deman, Burbank's cross between Orange and Portugal, produces ample spicy fruit. Cook's Jumbo has white flesh and is enormous.

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Around the turn of the century, quince trees flourished in America's gardens and quinces were common in the kitchen. In "The Joy of Cooking" editions of the '30s, '40s and '50s, Irma S. Rombauer had a recipe for a quince liqueur she described as "given by a French priest to his friends." As a recipe in a book ought, it mirrors the times: Four quarts of ground quinces stirred into three gallons of rye whiskey. Along with cherry bounce, blackberry cordial and peach brandy, the cleric's liqueur was pulled from later editions.

Though one quince recipe was ejected, another was added. To me, paradise jelly has only one rival--the fabulous currant preserve from Bar-le-Duc in northern France. Over the years, as cooks do, I've fiddled with Rombauer's recipe. I use crabapples for their incomparable jelly-making quality, and I add tiny seeds of vanilla bean. The whiff of vanilla is marvelous, and the specks suspended in the rose jelly are enticing. Sometimes, instead of vanilla, I lay a lemon, rose or nutmeg geranium leaf in the jar before pouring in the jelly.

These days you won't find many recipes for quince in books, but you can use quinces in any recipe calling for apples. For example, inspired by Cecil Beaton's iced apples in "The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book," I made a divine dessert by poaching thin slices of fruit--half-apples/half-quinces--in lemon-flavored syrup until translucent, chilling them 24 hours in a deep dish, then unmolding them. Their pectin holds the shape and their color is breathtakingly rosy. Serve with custard sauce.

Remember to add gratings of quince to compositions of apples or pears--particularly pies, tarts and puddings. They'll turn it rosy. And don't forget the exotic uses of fruit with meats--quinces are superb with lamb and beef. Then look into chutneys and pickles, liqueurs and cordials, quince wine . . . .

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If you've never tasted quince, get yourself to a market with a European, Latino or Middle Eastern clientele and ask for a tin of Mexican dulce de membrillo , French cotignac or Greek pastokithonia --or there may be ayva helvasi from Turkey or something from Morocco. This is the quintessence of quince, a sweetened puree slowly cooked down to jellied candy. My husband has made it, a labor of love. But then, it is Aphrodite's fruit.

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Sources:

Fruit--at the market.

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