The first one is quince, and here's why. Quince may be the most difficult, yet consequently rewarding, fruit I have ever come across. It's completely inedible when raw, which puts it even above the Hachiya persimmon in unapproachable astringency. (At least the persimmon will ripen, eventually, into edible sweetness.) It's also rather difficult to cut up; I fear for my fingers every time I attack the woody, oddly spongy yet unyielding interior of a quince.
And yet the quince can be transformed into one of the most delicious and heady splendors of the kitchen. If you leave a quince on your windowsill it will slowly pervade the kitchen with a delicate fragrance of vanilla, citrus, and apple. Except better. If you manage to peel it and hack it up, then cook it, those scents blossom into an indescribably wonderful perfume, and the fruit itself magically turns from yellowed white to a deep rosy pink.
When you stew quince in sugar and a little water or wine, it becomes not just edible but delicious -- sweet, delicate, fragrant. You eat the fruit straight like this, or pour it over yogurt, or bake it into a tart. You can make a sweet, spicy paste out of it that is magnificent with cheese.Quince are not nearly as popular as apples and pears, of course, and the work of cooking them is part of this. I wonder if this has protected them, however, from the mass production and flattening of taste that afflicts so many popular fruits today. I was amazed in France at how delicious the local grapes were -- but they were full of seeds. The process that breeds the seeds out of grapes seems to inevitably take the taste away.
But we've chosen convenience over flavor in our fruit, so in that sense I am glad that quince are still semi-forgotten and unpopular. If they were bred to be more consumer-friendly I wonder if that wonderful aroma would be dulled or lost. If it means keeping that astonishing flavor I am happy to peel, chop, simmer, and work hard to transform them from ugly stepsister to belle of the ball.
And perhaps this magical transformation, in the end, is what makes quince so appealing. It's like a magic trick, a miracle of water into wine: take an inedible, ugly fruit, and produce something delicious. Add in the fact that quince are hard to find (that element of the hunt, you know), and you can see how I've become more than a little obsessed.
This year quince will be on the menu whenever I can find them, and this fall I'll be stocking up and making jam, I do believe. Here are a few more posts on quince from 2008:
• Look! Can You Name This Fruit?
• Quince Report: Good News and Bad News
• Good Question: Quince, Forgotten Fruit with NY Roots
• Tip: Easy Peeling Quince
• Weekend Recipe: Quince and Apple Tart
• Quince Ratafia: How To Make Fruit Liqueur
Did you develop any major food crushes this year?