The Golden Apples of the Hesperides

At this time of year the back garden is strewn with fallen quinces, the large, yellow and velvet-skinned fruit combining with fallen leaves and dried flower stems to create an enchanting autumnal scene. The old quince tree is no doubt a remnant of the time when the garden, together with land from adjoining properties, was an orchard. Despite its age it still produces an abundant crop.

The quince was once widely grown but then fell out of fashion. The eponymous author of Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book says “Not much good my giving advice on choosing quinces. You have to buy what you can find, and be thankful.” However, there are signs that interest is returning, and articles on the fruit in both cookery and gardening magazines are no longer uncommon.

The fruit was known to the ancient Greeks, who called it Chrysomelon, meaning “golden apple”. This may well have been the golden apple that was offered by Eris, the goddess of discord, to the most beautiful of the three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Paris gave judgement in favour of Aphrodite, an action that contributed to the Trojan war and the fall of the city of Troy. The quince was consecrated to Venus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite, and was considered a love token. It has also been suggested that quinces were the golden apples that grew in the Garden of the Hesperides and were protected by a dragon with a hundred heads. Hercules slew the dragon as the twelfth and last of his labours. The quince rather than the apple may also have been the fruit that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Quinces have been used in this country for many centuries. Dorothy Hartley, in Food in England, gives a recipe for quince honey that she says is a twelfth century English translation from the Greek. In addition, she includes a fourteenth century recipe for quince pie, and several eighteenth century recipes. A quince preserve is likely to have been the origin of our familiar marmalade. The Portuguese word for quince is marmelo, and marmelada is a preserve made from the fruit.

If you can get hold of some quinces, try stewing one with apples, where it will add a delicate flavour and a rose-coloured tint. You could also make the Spanish membrillo, which is a firm quince paste that can be cut in slices and eaten with cheese. Or just place a couple in a decorative bowl and leave to delicately scent the whole room with an aroma that is something between apples and roses.

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