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Originally published May 4, 2012 at 10:00 AM | Page modified May 7, 2012 at 9:05 PM

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In praise of quince

In the Garden: Quince, once de rigueur in America's Colonial gardens, fell out of favor over the years. But some growers are still very attached to the fruit.

The New York Times

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After half a century in public life, the most famous quince trees in New York are looking — let's say mature. Or how about distinguished?

No need to beat around the bush, said Deirdre Larkin, the horticulturist who tends the four beloved quinces at the Cloisters Museum and Gardens, along the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.

"They are old, and nothing will change that," she said. "We have a habit of thinking when you are aged, you might as well be dead and replaced with something new." Yet in Europe, where the quince's yellow pome is a culinary treasure, orchardists will buttress the sagging limbs with a crutch. As fixes go, this would seem to be the equivalent of rigging a two-legged dog with training wheels.

But, Larkin said, "trees can live for hundreds of years."

"The period of their senescence is the longest period of their life," she said. "Even though I am aging — I am not going to look the way I looked when I was 30, 40 or 50 — I'm not going to die tomorrow."

Especially not if Larkin, who is 61, takes care of herself the way she babies her quince trees. In recent years, she has untangled the girdled roots and sprayed the leaves for protection against the desiccating winds that blow in from New Jersey. And with an arborist, Fran Reidy, she has waged a fierce campaign against another enemy, the apple maggot, deploying a product called Tanglefoot (which sounds like an epithet on "Dancing With the Stars").

Given such diligence, you might think these were not just the most famous but the only quince trees in New York. Not so. Or not quite. A handful of Hudson Valley growers sell quince at the city's Greenmarkets in October and November. But after a few years of fruitless searching, you may come to the same conclusion that I did last fall: if you want a good quince, you'll have to grow it yourself.

What most Americans know about quince (Cydonia oblonga) — if they know about quince at all — is that it was once a fixture in Grandma's garden. OK, Great-Great-Grandma's garden. As long ago as 1922, the great New York pomologist U.P. Hedrick rued that "the quince, the 'golden apple' of the ancients, once dedicated to deities, and looked upon as the emblem of love and happiness, for centuries the favorite pome, is now neglected and the least esteemed of commonly cultivated tree-fruits."

Almost every Colonial kitchen garden had a quince tree. But there was seldom need for two, said Joseph Postman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who curates the quince collection in Corvallis, Ore. Settlers valued quince, above all, as a mother lode of pectin for making preserves. And for that task, a little fruit went a long way.

"If you put the seeds in a cup of water, it becomes almost like Jell-O," Postman said. This goo doubled as a pomade. (If you try this at home, please post photos.)

Like so many U.S. workers, the quince lost its job to a disruptive technology: powdered gelatin, introduced by Charles Knox in the 1890s. Unemployment has been tough. Today the nation's entire quince crop covers a paltry 250 acres — about the size of the lawns in Central Park. By contrast, farmers this year will raise some 350,000 acres of apples and 96 million acres of corn.

So we arrive, perforce, at a fundamental question: Is raw quince edible?

"Maybe I'm not a fair one to ask," Postman said. "Because I will eat a lot of things right off the tree that my wife will turn up her nose at." The skin, fuzzy at first, has "an objectionable texture," he added. And when the flavor is not sour, it's sour and astringent. Cutting into the obdurate flesh practically takes a katana. But then what to make of the many appetizing quince products I recently assembled on my kitchen counter, like quince paste (what the Spanish call membrillo), quince slices in syrup and quince butter with almond and pinyon?

The key to enjoying quince at home, apparently, is to cook it and cook it and cook it. At that point, the quince is ready to cook.

I also got my hands on what may be the country's only commercial quince liqueur and quince cider. The latter came from Eaglemount Wine and Cider, near Port Townsend, where Trudy Davis, a vintner, has been experimenting with about a ton of quince from the San Juan Islands. I would pair this noncloying cider with something dry and sharp: say, a cave-aged English Cheddar and a few episodes of Aubrey Plaza's deadpan on "Parks and Recreation."

True to reputation, "quince are quite hard to work with," Davis said, even with a "big commercial grinder."

The quest for a quince that can be eaten out of the hand like its botanical cousins, the apple and the pear, has sent Postman on collecting trips to the tree's ancestral homeland in the Trans-Caucasus: Armenia and Georgia. He accessioned another store of quince from a forsaken Soviet-era gene bank in Kara-Kala, Turkmenistan.

Some of these cultivars, with improved cold-hardiness and disease-resistance, are trickling into the garden world from One Green World, a tree farm in the Willamette Valley. The nursery stocks a Russian variety called Aromatnaya that I recently ordered, as a bare-root sapling, to start this spring in the yard.

The quince tree is self-pollinating: you need only one. If you train the growth to a few trunks, a quince shouldn't get much taller than a gardener can reach with a six-foot ladder.

Whatever the habit, there's a case to be made for the quince as an ornamental, and Postman gamely makes it. "Few small trees rival the quince in becoming interestingly gnarled and twisted with age," he writes in a monograph with the fitting title "The Unappreciated Quince."

By now, Postman has probably grown more varieties of quince than anyone else on the continent. The Corvallis germ-plasm repository contains 50 or 60 edible varieties, and provides material to researchers and plant breeders. In plainer terms, Postman's wife calls him "a tree librarian."

When I spoke to Postman, in fact, the couple was driving across Arizona with a fresh quince cutting in the back seat. Postman had just stopped at the historic Mission San Jose de Tumacacori, about 20 miles north of the Mexican border. Researchers there have been replanting the neglected orchard with the forgotten fruit varieties of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries. An appetite for the quixotic seems to go with raising quince.

"I hesitate to use this word, but it almost feels like a cult," Postman said. "There's a group of dedicated quince fanciers around, and they're kind of spreading the word and other people are getting interested."

Or maybe not, he allowed.

"I tend to run in this set of fruit fanatics, so it's hard to tell."

Tremaine Arkley, for example, began growing quince eight years ago to take to his aunt, who remembered the fruit from the Sephardic cuisine of her youth. He started, conservatively, with 12 trees.

Last fall, Arkley brokered eight tons of quince to restaurants, farmers' markets, a cidery, a distillery and presumably every other quince nibbler within 50 leagues of his farm in Independence, Ore. "It's sort of my personality," he said. "I tend to overdo things, that's the honest truth. Instead of one, why not get 12?"

Arkley was due for a new obsession, anyway. In the 1980s, he took up six-wicket croquet. ("Not backyard croquet," he said, "but the kind played in the British Empire, on a putting-green surface.") Within a few years, he had become national champion. The 25 quince trees he currently grows on his 1900-era farmstead stand just north of the laser-leveled croquet lawn.

Another 125 trees, of an old French variety, belong to Earl Bruck, a nearby orchardist. "He originally planted 1,000," Arkley said. But "he didn't know how to sell them."

"They were rotting on the ground," Arkley continued. "He started ripping the trees out. When I met him, I said:'Earl, stop! Let me see if I can market these for you."'

Arkley is pleased to have found a good home for all that quince. Even so, "I don't think it will ever have a big following," he said. "Just like croquet will never be a big sport."

So why grow this disregarded fruit?

"I'll tell you why: because everyone else grows pears and apples and cherries and plums," Arkley said. "Why bother? I like to do something offbeat. With a name like mine — where do you start? It's a curse: Tremaine Arkley? Come on. You go to Google 'Tremaine Arkley,' and I'm the only one in the world."

Arkley, in other words, is a quince among quinces.

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