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History and Origins of Foods
Fruits and Vegetables

What is the history of quince?


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December 20, 2014 5:32PM

Quince has a long history that goes beyond the 14th century. It was given to brides before their wedding and was cooked in many dishes.

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December 18, 2014 5:34PM

Quinces originated in the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, where an irregularly shaped variety still grows wild.

Greek writings around 600 BC mention quince as a ritual item in wedding ceremonies. Because quinces were actually cultivated prior to apples, references to apples in the Song of Solomon may have been quinces.

Quince cultivation began in Mesopotamia, an area in what is now northern Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Between 200 and 100 BC, Greeks cultivated these “golden apples,” and they reached Palestine by 100 BC.

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4–c. 70 AD), an agricultural writer of the Roman empire, described three varieties of quinces he named the sparrow apple, golden apple, and the must apple. Pliny the Elder ( 23–79 AD), a Roman naturalist and writer, described the Mulvian variety, a cultivated quince, as the only one that could be eaten raw.

Around 763, following their battles for power with the Byzantines, the Arabs moved their capital from Damascus to create the walled city of Baghdad. Travelers brought cinnamon and rhubarb to Baghdad from China to trade. From India, they brought coconuts. From Isfahan in Persia, they brought quinces, apples, saffron, and salt.

In 812, Charlemagne ordered that quince trees be planted in the royal garden. Chaucer mentions quince using the name coines, a word that comes from the French coing.

When European and Near Eastern immigrants began to settle in the New World, they planted quince in North America. A March 16, 1629 entry in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Memorandum listed quince as one of the seeds requested from England. By 1720, quince was thriving in Virginia. Many home gardens throughout the colonies were growing quince trees; however, apples quickly overcame them in popularity.

Quince likely traveled eastward through India, China, and Japan and finally south to New Zealand. During the 18th century, when British colonists were settling in Australia and New Zealand, those in Australia became dependent on many imported foods brought by ships from Britain. New Zealand colonists, however, traded with the Maori people for fresh fruits and vegetables, including quince.

In the United States, quines never became as popular as sweet fruits like apples. In the 1850s, a Texan grew fruit on his large land grant, including quince, peaches, figs, raspberries, pomegranates, and plums. Quinces were more popular in some Latin American countries, especially Uruguay. A nineteenth-century Spanish explorer visited Chile and wrote about quinces that were quite acidic and astringent, but that developed a sweetness if allowed to fully ripen on the tree. The common practice of eating raw quinces in South America and Mexico surprised early explorers who only experienced them as hard and acidic.

In the Middle East, quince is considered a common food, and, though it is sour, is eaten raw as well as cooked. Quince is also popular in Germany and South Africa, countries whose cuisine tends to be high in fat. The high acidity in quince counteracts the greasiness of the foods and is often served in the form of a sauce, like applesauce, as an accompaniment to fatty foods.

Today, quince is considered a specialty fruit in the United States, where there are very few trees in production; however, quince is widely grown in Turkey, South America, and throughout the Mediterranean.