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At first glance, quince can often pass as a larger version of its cousin the pear. But it becomes a bright golden yellow as it matures – hence, it’s longstanding nickname, “the golden apple.”

When the quince made its way west from south Asia and the Caucasus into Ancient Greece, the fruit quickly took to the soils of Cydonia (Κυδωνία), a town in northern Crete now known as Chania. This is a region that became famous in the ancient world for the production of the finest quinces. Known as “kodymalon” back then, this hard, yellow fruit is scientifically the Cydonia oblonga, so-named for its new Greek home.

The ancient Greeks made good use of them, both in savory and sweet dishes. Raw, it can be bitter or sour, but once cooked it becomes divinely sweet – a taste profile that very much symbolizes its place in Greek mythology and legend. For one, the quince tree is dedicated to Aphrodite. It famously received this honor in the Trojan War epic, which begins at the wedding of the goddess Thetis. All the gods were invited but one, Eris, the goddess of strife and discord. Eris was, unsurprisingly, offended and angry. Living up to her name, she tossed a “golden apple” into the wedding festivities. While that may seem tame as far as retribution may go, Eris had carved into the quince these words: “To the fairest.”

To whom was the fruit intended? A great dispute ensued over that answer, with Hera, Athena and Aphrodite as the main plaintiffs. Thus, the expressions “Eris apple,” “apple of discord” and “golden apple” were born, and are still used today to describe the core of an argument in modern Greek and English. The story continues with Paris of Troy – the most handsome mortal man – being tasked with making the decision on who deserved the quince in question. The three goddesses each presented him a gift, and Aphrodite’s offer of the love of the most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta, won Paris over. The rest might as well be Greek history.

When Aphrodite claimed and won the quince as her own, all of the qualities of the goddess were also attributed to the fruit. Aphrodite is often depicted (even in modern sculpture) holding a quince in her right hand – a symbol of love, beauty, fertility and devotion, like the goddess herself.

The ancient Greeks also used the fruit for its delicate aroma. The historian Plutarch wrote that Solon, the Athenian lawmaker, had brides take a bit of quince before their wedding to freshen up their breath before their first kiss! This is thought to be where several quince-related wedding and child-bearing folk traditions originated in the country. In parts of northern Greece, quince, pomegranates and apple were tied to a post that would accompany the groom and family members all the way to the church. As time passed, brides were chomping into quince at their weddings to ensure they’d have a baby boy.

Perhaps the sweetest of quince origin stories is that of its connection to marmalade. The ancient Greeks used quince to prepare the treat melimilon (μελίμηλον). Meli means “honey” and milo refers to “apple,” but just as the quince was known as the golden apple, the ancient Greeks use the word milo to refer to other fruit, like peach, apricots, etc. Melimilon was made by boiling quinces with honey. When it cooled, they noticed it would set beautifully due to its high pectin content, creating a version of what we know of today as quince paste, and the precursor to the making of traditional spoon sweets and marmalades.

The ancient Greeks made good use of quince, both in savory and sweet dishes. Raw, it can be bitter or sour, but once cooked it becomes divinely sweet – a taste profile that very much symbolizes its place in Greek mythology and legend.

The Romans adopted melimilon (calling it melimelum) and spread the recipe to other parts of Europe. In Apicius, the 1st-century collection of Roman cooking, we can find a recipe for preserving whole, honey-boiled quince in grape molasses. Quince also played a sweet role at Byzantine court, appearing in writing and studies of the eating habits of the time, where it was often combined with lemon.

Quince is used in most parts of Greece during autumn and winter, when it is in season. We do not generally eat it raw, as it can be dry, sour or bitter. But somehow, when cooked the right way and with the right ingredients, it transforms like magic – it is sweet and beautiful, and pairs well in an array of combinations.

The fruit is cooked with a variety of meat, usually pork, but also beef, poultry or game like wild boar. Pork with quince is a traditional Christmas dish, particularly in parts of northern Greece like Pelion, where a stew of quince and wine is made. Contemporary cooks will also often add non-native spices like ginger to make it even more festive. Quinces are also stuffed with minced meat (lamb goes well in here!) and rice, and then baked in the oven.

Pastes made from quince are still prepared around the country, and they can be eaten plain or paired with beautiful cheeses and wines. Quince marmalade is also still prepared everywhere, and the quince spoon sweet is among the most popular as it is less sweet than the others and goes particularly well with yogurt – a lovely snack you will come across in most parts of Greece during winter.

The festive holiday season means we are sure to make extra use of quince, as with other seasonal ingredients such as chestnuts. Often holiday turkey stuffing will include diced quince for an extra punch of fruitiness, and it tastes great with cured pork or sausage.

Another favorite treat is baked quince. They are made in various ways either plain, spiced with cinnamon and clove, spiked with wine or brandy, and cooked with either honey or sugar. Sometimes they are halved and stuffed with chopped nuts before they are baked. We also bake quince into pies or tarts, boil them in compote, poach them in wine, or add them to winter cakes and liqueurs. The taste of this fruit – no matter how it’s prepared – is so divine, it’s no wonder it could start a war. And that’s not even the whole story.

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Manteau Stam

Published on November 26, 2021

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