Ark of Taste
Cydonia oblonga v. Sonoran
First introduced through the Spanish Mission gardens, the Sonoran Quince was extremely popular along the borders between Mexico and the States. Cultivated since the 17th century, the quince was integral to the mission orchards planted by the Jesuit missionary Padre Kino and other Spanish colonists in a vast area extending throughout Sonora Mexico, north to what is today Arizona and New Mexico, across the Sea of Cortez to Baja California, and south to Texas. High in pectin, quince was a colonial staple for jelly making. It is rich in vitamin C and B, and used in various cultures to treat inflammation of all types, upset stomach, ulcers, coughs, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular ailments. Along with apples, pears, peaches, pomegranates, figs, limes and grapes, it featured importantly in the mission orchards to sustain the new communities of Pima Natives and clergy.
The popularity of quince diminished over the last century when commercial pectins became available. Moreover, because typically it needs preparation before consumption, versatile and ready-to eat apples and pears replaced the quince entirely from American home kitchens. Over-pumping and the resulting lowering and disappearance of surface waters was also a cause of diminished production for, having particularly shallow roots, this tree is sensitive to water scarcity.
There are dozens of varieties of edible fruit quince from all over the world, and many solely ornamental varieties. Genetic variability is high even within the same varieties: the bright yellow fruit of these heirloom quince trees can be either pear or apple shaped, somewhat irregular, with a downy skin that becomes smooth when ripe. Weighing between 12 and 18 ounces, it has numerous ovules set horizontally in a pocket of mucilage. The ripe quince has a delicious, permeating fragrance that can fill a room. Historically it was used to scent clothes closets and drawers. The aroma has been variously described as musky tropical fruits reminiscent of guava or pineapple; a blend of narcissus and oak leaves. To the unfamiliar, the picked fruit could be mistaken for an apple or irregular pear, until a bite reveals not a juicy sweet flesh, but a firm, grainy, acidic and astringent fruit. The fruit transforms deliciously when poached, made into jelly and preserves, or baked with apples, pears, or other foods.
Yet, unlike other quince varieties, many of these Mission heritage trees yield a fruit that can be eaten raw. In Sonoran towns along the Santa Cruz and Sonoran rivers, the fruit is commonly found at roadside stands either fresh, at harvest time, or preserved in sugar syrup, or as jellied fruit bars called “cajeta” (peeled quince cooked with sugar until it reduces to a thick, carnelian-colored paste, that would be poured to set in a wooden box and then cut into bars). In Spain, where it is known as “dulce de membrillo” this New World “cajeta” is delicious sliced and served with queso fresco, a regional cow’s milk cheese. Quince can even be made into wine, or tea, and is even available as a liqueur called “crema de membrillo”, created by the company Tequila Orendain.
Because a quince tree has a life of around 75-100 years, no original mission quince trees remain. However, traditional Mexican horticultural practice has propagated the fruit trees creating clones, and ensuring the continuity of this fruit characteristics. There are now three orchards featuring Spanish Mission heritage quince trees that can be considered a “population”, an ecotype, adapted over the centuries of selection to the region.
Unlike in the small towns of Sonora, where the tradition is still alive and quince can be found at every roadside stands and grocery stores, today in the United States quince is most likely to be found in Middle Eastern grocers, some farmers markets, and specialty food shops, but is gaining popularity nationally among chefs and food writers as a delicious, versatile fruit. Its revival could be encouraged across the border in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, where it was once prolific, adding diversity to the orchards and the food supply.
Fostering biodiversity can improve the resilience in the food system and ultimately, food security. The Sonoran quince is such a food, whose culinary value and biological heritage deserve preservation and promotion in our Southwest region.