One of my favorite lines in a 1980 movie is delivered by Rose Perez’s character in White Men Can’t Jump. It was her lifelong dream of being on the game show Jeopardy. When she made it on the show, in her beautifully thick Puerto Rican accent she answers a question, “Alex, what is a quince?” And really that question still remains – what exactly is a quince, and why don’t we see it in stores today? Why is there no Graeter’s Quince Chip Ice Cream. Why is there no Busken Quince Cream paczki?
Well, kinda like the local paw paw, it’s one of those difficult native fruits that doesn’t go from tree to table very easily. The paw paw implodes in itself after only a few days and rots. The quince is nearly inedible from the tree, even after ripening. But like the paw paw, the quince hides a delectable aroma and flavor that is such a cross of fruits, its nearly indescribable.
Oddly enough the German ‘Gartners’ grew quince trees all over Cincinnati, particularly those that also grew grapes for wine. Families like the Engels of Golf Manor grew quince trees in their farm on Losantiville Avenue, along with berries and paw paws. Maybe the sweet and sour of quinces drew in Germans who loved their sour red cabbage and other sweet and sour pickled condiments.
And Longworth cultivated Cydonia quinces alongside his vineyards in Tusculum. When his Tusculum vineyard land sold for residential development in 1870, the 4 ½ acre plot now bounded by Missouri Avenue , Rushton and Grandin, was named Cydonia, possibly because that was where Longworth’s quince orchard was located. The benefit to being a Longworth vine dresser, even if you rented and didn’t own the land was that you had access to the fruit orchards that were planted by previous tenants on his land. There are records of some tenants having access to the sour cherry trees on his Tusculum land, from which they could have made Cherry bounce with Longworth’s Catawba Brandy. And, many of them also grew strawberry patches, which Longworth promoted. So along with growing grapes, Longworth tenants could also learn about growing peach, cherry and quince orchards, a skill which many of them used after Longworth’s death and the sale of his former vineyards.
Longworth’s most prolific and favorite vine dresser, Christian Schnicke lived on the top of his Garden of Eden vineyards, on the land that is now Playhouse in the Park. He managed 12 acres of vineyards for Longworth and lived there with his wife, daughter, and three sons, Friedrich, Moritz, and Henry, all of whom worked in the vineyards. His total plot was 18 acres, so that leaves about six acres for his residence and orchards and gardens. Schnicke even had a strawberry varietal he cultivated in Longworth’s Garden of Eden named after him called the Schnicke Prolific, that was distributed in the eastern U.S. before the Civil War.
His son Friedrich married Maria Mottier, the daughter of another former Longworth vine dresser John Mottier, who dressed Longworth’s small vineyard near Lick Run/Petersbourgh. But tragedy struck as five of their children died in infancy and Maria would die in childbirth right before the Civil War. To escape the reminders of this tragedy Friedrich left Cincinnati and within a year remarried a woman in Flint Gap, Tennessee, along the French Broad River Valley, where he started orchards and a fruit nursery business. Friedrich’s son Thomas Schnicke, would become a national expert on the cultivation of the Japanese Persimmons.
Right off the tree, or in it’s raw state quince is way too tart to eat. It’s kind of a cross between a pear and an apple with a tough, spongy flesh. The fruit doesn’t win any beauty awards – it’s knobbly and ugly, with an irregular shape and often a gray fuzz. The quince really is not a table fruit – it must be made into a jam, jelly or pie. Even ripe it is too tart to eat, which puts is slightly above the persimmon in its astringency.
So why would Longworth even grow quinces if it was not a table fruit? Well, they were easy to grow, unlike the Catawba grape, which even with constant nurturing would be decimated with rot. The quince is an incredibly tough plant, which doesn’t require much maintenance, and tolerates years without pruning. The flowers are beautiful light pink, like a sparkling catawba wine.
Bear with me a minute. It may be the most difficult, yet consequently rewarding fruit. Don’t throw out this ugly duckling – it’s what’s inside that counts. The clue to its beauty comes when you set it out for a bit say on a windowsill. That’s when you unlock the secret aroma hiding inside – one of a blend of vanilla, apple, and citrus. And, when you peel and cook the quince, that aroma blossoms into a wonderfully delicate perfume. When you stew quince in sugar and a little water or even wine (maybe some sparkling Catawba) it becomes delicious – sweet, delicate, and fragrant. You can then pour it over yogurt and ice cream, or bake it into a tart, or make it into a jam. The Spanish make it into a sweet spicy paste called membrillo that they serve over their amazing cheeses – kind of like how the Tuscans do it with fig paste and pecorino cheese.
Although you can’t find them at Kroger, and recipes aren’t as common as other fruits, its worth it to give this underrated native fruit a try.