Vermont Quince: Promoting Fall’s Oldest Newcomer
Move over, apples, there’s a new fruit in town this fall – quince – and it has quite a history.
Quince, or cydonia oblonga formally, is a yellow, pear-shaped fruit, from the same family as apples and pears. It originated long ago in the Middle East, in the region near modern-day Turkey, Armenia and Iran. Quince is so ancient, in fact, that some claim that the “apple” said to have been eaten from the tree of knowledge in the story of the Garden of Eden was likely not an apple at all but a quince.
If you’ve ever traveled and eaten locally in Spain or Latin America, you have likely tasted the most popular form of quince, dulce de membrillo, a sweet, thick paste (“membrillo” is the Spanish word for quince), often paired with hard, Spanish manchego cheese.
As well as a complement to cheese, dulce de membrillo, usually shortened to simply “membrillo”, is just as popular in Spanish-speaking countries as a breakfast spread, slathered on toast, or as a substitute for jam or marmalade. In 15th-century England, in fact, marmalade was originally a type of quince paste, called “marmelo” after the Portuguese word for quince, and was served at the end of the meal with cheese due to its purported digestive properties.
Given its storied history and international popularity, it should be no surprise that there are nearly as many recipes for making membrillo as there are ways to enjoy it, whether at the beginning of the day or late in the evening.
Yet, if you’re game to make your own membrillo here in Vermont, you’re not likely to find quince at your local farmers’ market or fruit stand, even though it has deep New England roots.
Despite being difficult to work with and not very flavorful unless well cooked, quince was popular in Colonial New England. Nearly every home in the area would have likely had a quince tree in the yard, because quince provided a plentiful source of natural pectin, necessary for home canners to ensure that the preserves they put up for the winter set properly. However, with the introduction of powdered gelatin by Charles Knox in the late nineteenth century, quince was no longer needed for home preserving. The quince and planting quince trees soon fell out of favor.
But Nan Stefanik, owner of the specialty food business Vermont Quince, has set out to change all that.
The Newfane resident was on a trip to Spain with her son several years ago when she was first introduced to quince through membrillo, which was served at many meals. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about quince other than ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’,” Stefanik joked, referring to the children’s poem by Edward Lear which mentions slices of quince. The autumn after her return, she was helping a friend can applesauce when she noticed a bushel of large yellow fruit in her friend’s basement. It was quince, which the friend had received from a man with three prolific quince trees in Putney. Recalling how much she enjoyed membrillo in Spain, Stefanik decided to try her hand at making her own from that bushel of local quince.
After some recipe research, she was quickly hooked, making not only membrillo but quince caramels, savory dishes with the fruit and nearly every recipe she could find that included quince. Like so many other home cooks, Stefanik gave her creations to friends and family as gifts; she was overwhelmed by positive feedback. Recognizing that she could turn her love of cooking and gardening into a business, in 2012 she launched Vermont Quince, a specialty food business that offers a range of quince products – including membrillo, jelly, mustard and syrup — made “Vermont style.”
For Stefanik, “Vermont style” means that all of her products include Vermont maple syrup as sweetener, and she uses as much locally sourced fruit as possible. Stefanik also makes her products in Vermont, working exclusively with the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, even though there are commercial kitchens more convenient to her in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
However, despite quince’s long history in the state, Stefanik has had difficulty locating sufficient amounts of local quince. During peak quince season, in October, she found she could only get quince from California, which is the largest producer of quince in the United States. At that point, Stefanik says, “my fascination turned into an obsession” and she started scouring New England for more local sources of quince.
While Stefanik considers herself fortunate that the two largest commercial growers on the East Coast are both located in the Connecticut River Valley – Allyson’s Orchard in Walpole, NH and Scott Farm in Dummerston (she has wholesale relationships with both) – she must also rely on individual growers throughout the state during the quince season to get all the fruit she needs. When she travels, she posts signs around the state, seeking quince-producing trees, and maintains a list of trees to monitor, as older trees can often be big producers. Last year, she wound up harvesting 100 pounds of fruit from a single, 65-year-old tree in Guilford. And people are happy to supply her with their homegrown quince. “Some people have a recollection of a grandmother or mother making quince jelly, so they don’t want the fruit to go to waste. That’s part of our ‘Vermont style’, too,” she adds.
For Stefanik, quince has turned out to be more than a vehicle for her small business: She has become a quince evangelist. With the two large growers producing the fruit plus several other small area businesses also recently introducing quince products, Stefanik notes, “I see a real opportunity for local fruit. I want to help position this area as the quince center for the entire East Coast.” To that end, in an effort to become a resource, a curator for both backyard and commercial quince growers, she is compiling an online repository of quince-growing information, archiving best growing practices and conditions to encourage the planting and appreciation of quince. Additionally, she has already convinced six additional growers on the East Coast to plant more quince trees to meet the growing demand. And she’s putting her money where her mouth is, having planted several cultivars on her own property.
When asked what she most wants Vermonters to know about quince, she quickly responds, “It can be grown from seed, can tolerate frost, has a flavor that everybody likes, is part of slow food cooking, and it can be used in both apple pies and hard cider.” The real question is, Why not quince?