Since the days of Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, anecdotal and scientific reports have described dessert varieties of quince that are delicious to eat fresh, but whenever I encountered such fruits they tasted more like furniture than food. Eventually I came to view such accounts as apocryphal.
A backyard favorite
Then in 1997, I met a retired computer engineer named Edgar Valdivia at a California Rare Fruit Growers conference. He said he had a sweet-fleshed quince tree in his yard in Simi Valley, derived from cuttings imported by a friend from the Majes Valley of southern Peru, where it's too warm for most apples and pears to grow well but where quinces flourish. The next day he brought in a round yellow fruit that indeed had typical quince aroma, ribbing and light fuzz -- but was softer, juicier and non-astringent, and quite pleasant to eat.
Since then the variety has become increasingly popular among Southern California backyard growers. At least one farmers market vendor, Alex Weiser, has ordered trees, but it remains to be seen how the variety will fare commercially.
A friend sent budwood of this tree to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's fruit collection in Corvallis, Ore., where, much to my surprise, the quince curator, Joseph Postman, called the variety Karp's Sweet quince, naming it after me. As grown in the Northwest, however, it might better be named Karp's Sour; the variety needs California's heat and long growing season to ripen properly.
In Corvallis, Postman maintains an orchard of more than 100 quince clones, many of which he and other USDA scientists collected in recent expeditions to the fruit's homeland in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
When I visited, some of the varieties were fruiting for the first time, and a few seemed remarkably tender and non-astringent, especially given the area's cool climate; others were early-ripening, showing promise that they might be suitable for growing commercially in the Northwest, where autumn rains, which can crack and rot quince, often arrive before standard varieties ripen. With the USDA collection and several nurseries and farms growing exotic varieties, the area is already a crucible of quince enthusiasm.
Fruits, like stocks and clothes, are ruled by the inscrutable laws of fashion. Quince may never regain its status as a major player, but in today's food world, it's so out it's in.
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Where to find quince
Here are some places to buy quince fruit, trees and products.
Gonzaga Farm (Ronnie and Tess Gonzaga). Pineapple quince grown in Lindsay, Calif., at the Alhambra, Cerritos, Buena Park, Long Beach Southeast, Long Beach Uptown and Long Beach Downtown farmers markets.
June Taylor Co. (June Taylor). Artisanal organic preserves, available by mail order: quince butter, quince paste, quince cheese. 2207 4th St., Berkeley; (510) 548-2236; www.junetaylorjams.com.
Mud Creek Ranch (Steve and Robin Smith). Organic Pineapple and Golden quince grown in Santa Paula, at the Hollywood and Santa Monica Wednesday farmers markets.
One Green World (Jim Gilbert). Aromatnaya, Crimea, Kaunching, Kuganskaya, Mellow, Orange, Smyrna and Van Deman quince trees. 28696 S. Cramer Road, Molalla, Ore.; (503) 651-3005; www.onegreenworld.com.
Oregon Quinces (Tremaine and Gail Arkley). Fresh Pineapple and Russian varieties of quince. 9775 Hultman Road, Independence, Ore.; (503) 838-4886.
Raintree Nursery (Sam Benowitz). Aromatnaya, Ekmek, Karp's Sweet, Orange, Pineapple, Portugal, Smyrna and Van Deman quince trees. 391 Butts Road, Morton, Wash.; (360) 496-6400; www.raintreenursery.com.
Trees of Antiquity (Neil Collins). Aromatnaya, Pineapple and Smyrna quince trees. 20 Wellsona Road, Paso Robles, Calif.; (805) 467-9909; www.treesofantiquity.com.
Terry Ranch (Rebecca and Mark Terry). Pineapple quince grown in Dinuba, Calif., at the Santa Monica Saturday (Organic) farmers market.
Willowrose Bay (Edith Walden). Mediterranean quince marmalade (like membrillo); regular quince marmalade; Ambrosia (quince and applesauce); quince butter; quince syrup; and fresh quince: Aromatnaya, Cooke's Jumbo, Havran, Karp's Sweet, Kaunching, Kuganskaya, Meech's Prolific, Lisle, Smyrna, Tashkent, Van Deman. P.O. Box 1652, Anacordes, Wash.; (360) 299-9999.
-- David Karp
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours
Servings: Makes 1 pint
Note: From Barbara Ghazarian's "Simply Quince." For those new to cooking with quince, this recipe is an excellent starting point. Candied quince is very easy to make and delicious any way you serve it.
3 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 pound fresh quince, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch-thick wedges (about 3 cups)
1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Add the quince and stir to coat.