Last year, my friend Stephanie gave me a 40-pound box of my favorite Pink Lady apples from her farm, and piled on top of the box were several lumpy, bright yellow fruits layered with fuzz. To me they looked like pears, and this was a reasonable assumption since not everything that comes out of this Biodynamic farm resembles its perfect, flavorless supermarket counterpart.
I set the fruits aside and waited patiently for them to ripen, which they resolutely refused to do, so I put them in a paper bag with an apple, and when they were still rock-hard after several weeks, I became frustrated enough to slice one open and take a bite. It tasted of astringent-tinged nothing, so I tossed the fruits to the chickens, surprised that something less than knee-weakening delicious had come out of Filigreen Farm.
A few weeks ago, I spied a box of those same yellow fruits on Stephanie's porch. “What are those fuzzy things?” I asked her. “I waited and waited for them to ripen last year, but they never did.”
“Those are quince,” she said.
This is a fruit I've been reading about for years, but having never seen it in a grocery store or a farmer's market or on a friend's tree, I could only imagine what it might taste like.
I let the fruit hang out in my pantry for several weeks. I wasn't sure how to tell if they were ripe, since quince doesn't soften until it's rotting. I just kept smelling the fruit every few days, and when they became fragrant with layers of citrus and vanilla, I chopped them up. I searched through hundreds of recipes and finally settled on this simple poached dessert and also the standard preparation of dulce de membrillo.
I must admit to being somewhat skeptical about this fruit. I thought the overblown accolades for quince might be a pretentious hipster impulse to fetishize whatever is ugly and obscure. The fruit is not pretty in its raw form, and even ripe it doesn't taste like much. During cooking the scent is similar to pears and citrus fruits, and after poaching its appearance hadn't improved. I kept my expectations low while piling the soft burnished-pink slices into bowls and ladling Greek yogurt on top. I sat down at the dinner table, took a bite, and was promptly blown away.
I expected this dish to taste essentially like poached pears, but it was nothing of the kind. Quince has none of the grittiness of pear flesh; instead it is smooth, slippery, and firmer than its shape would suggest. And the flavor is completely unique, containing many complex floral layers of citrus and vanilla.
I am constantly surprised by what has fallen out of favor in the wake of industrial agriculture. Every time I capture one of the threatened for a fleeting taste, I feel the weight of all that has already been lost, the fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, and animal breeds that have been crushed under the wheel of commodification and conglomeration. Having never lived through a famine, maybe I just don't have the context to appreciate the scientific advances that brought us strawberries all the year round. Instead, my experience has me regretting the years I spent consuming peanut butter sandwiches when eating was simply an unavoidable inconvenience instead of a sacred act.
Every minute I spend at Filigreen Farm fills me with an intense gratitude for being just a little bit more awake and in love with the world.
The quince requires that you dig deep. You have to be oh-so patient. You have to care a little more than you would for a supermarket pear. You have to smell it with eyes closed to divine what's happening inside. You have to wait. But then you have to be brave, and slice it open, and unlock its potentiality through careful attention. Anything less is an insipid waste, and we already have so much of that to overcome.
HONEY-POACHED QUINCE WITH GREEK YOGURT
5 large quince, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 lemon, organic and unwaxed
1 c. mild honey
1 vanilla bean
plain Greek yogurt and additional honey, to serve
Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for one hour. Taste the quince, and if they are tender and flavorful you're finished. Otherwise, continue simmering.
Remove the quince with a slotted spoon to four bowls. Top each bowl with a dollop of yogurt and finish with a drizzle of honey. Spoon some of the poaching liquid on top and serve warm.