Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A fallen fruit: the quince


What’s in a name?” said Shakspeare; and, in answering himself, he found among the flowers an illustration of its nothingness; yet do researches among fruits tend rather to induce the opposite conclusion, for while the accumulated glory of traditionary ages has gathered round one of our orchard fruits, although it has very limited pretensions thereto, simply because we call it by the venerable name of Apple; another, which has far greater claims to be honoured for the place it holds in the lore of antiquity, is yet commonly passed by, unnoticed and neglected, owing to the disguise of a modern appellation disconnecting it from the classical reminiscences with which it was once associated. Were Venus still surviving to find herself wholly neglected, while all her graces were attributed to some common-place belle of the season,—were Hercules still lingering upon earth to see himself shut out from the “ring,” and all his labours popularly supposed to have been achieved by some puny modern pugilist—then might the once renowned Quince find sympathising fellow-sufferers in the doom that has fallen upon it, degraded as it is from its former proud position as the golden apple for which even divinities contested, to be now the least known and least esteemed of all the pomal tribe. It does not profess to be the Scriptural “apple of gold,” that being identified with a more peculiarly Syrian product; it may not be the Hesperidean fruit of the earliest age of Greece, though in spite of opposing theories some have even attributed to it this honour; but there seems every reason to connect it with some at least of the numerous Greek legends in which golden apples so prominently figure: that it was the prize for which goddesses unveiled their charms before the shepherd of Mount Ida, and the attraction which stayed the speed of the swift-footed Atalanta. No other fruit then known answers so well to the description of these glittering treasures, and we can scarcely account otherwise for what is known to be a fact, viz., that among the ancients the quince was dedicated to Venus, and looked on as the emblem of happiness and love; the temples of Cyprus and Paphos were decorated with it; it was the special ornament of the statues of Hymen; the figure of Hercules, now in the Tuileries Gardens, is represented with this fruit in his hand; and, according to Plutarch, Solon made a law that it should form the invariable feast of the bridegroom (and some say of the bride, too,) before retiring to the nuptial couch.

A native of Greece, the quince grew more abundantly in the neighbourhood of Cydon in Crete (now Candia), deriving thence the name Cydonia, which is still continued as its botanical cognomen; and was thence taken to Rome, where, under the name of Cotonea (a reminiscence of which was preserved in its old English title of Melicotone), it was looked on as a sacred fruit, though, as regards mere secular uses, it seems to be more prized for its scent than its savour, the climate perhaps not bringing it to such perfection as it had attained in Greece, notwithstanding Columella particularly mentions that “quinces not only yield pleasure, but health,” alluding probably to their use in medicine. Pliny says that the varieties were numerous, and particularises four sorts, adding that all these “are kept shut up in the antechambers of great men, where they receive the visits of their courtiers: they are hung, too, upon the statues that pass the night with us in our chambers.”

How sad a decline from honours like these when a modern writer derives the French name of the fruit, coignassier, from the circumstance that its “disagreeable odour” usually causes it to be banished to a corner (coin) of the garden! It is not everywhere, however, that taste has thus changed, for Professor Targioni, an Italian writer on horticulture, says that, at the present day, it is much prized by the peasantry in some parts of the south of Europe, for perfuming their stores of linen; and, in yet warmer lands, it is still found as gratifying to the palate as to the nostrils; a recent traveller in the east stating that the quince of Persia ripens on the tree or after gathering, and losing all its austerity, and becoming like a soft ripe pear, is eaten at the dessert as a much prized delicacy, and yearly forwarded as presents to Bagdad, where the highly-perfumed odour is found so powerful that it is said, with perhaps a tinge of oriental exaggeration, that if there be but a single quince in a caravan, no one who accompanies it can remain unconscious of its presence.

Spreading from Italy almost throughout Europe, it now grows spontaneously in most countries of mild temperature; and, as Gerard informs us, was common in his early times, in the hedges of England; but never ripening here sufficiently to be eaten raw, and having lost, perhaps undeservedly, much of the repute which it enjoyed two or three centuries ago, on account of its medicinal properties, it is now very seldom met with, and many persons are to be found even among those who have been born and brought up in the country, who have never tasted, or perhaps as much as seen a quince.

More generally cultivated, wherever it does still claim the cultivator’s care, as a stock whereon to graft the pear, in order to dwarf the growth of that tree, or to hasten the ripening of its fruit, than for the sake of its own produce, the latter is yet capable of being turned to better account than merely to be made into preserve, or used in minute quantities to add a flavour to apple-pies; for Phillips has left on record that when he wrote, quinces grew so abundantly in some parts of the Weald of Sussex as to be made into wine by private families living in that neighbourhood, some even manufacturing as much as two hundred gallons in a season. This wine, for the preparation of which he furnishes a recipe, was, he adds, of agreeable flavour, improving greatly by keeping, and of so much efficacy for asthmatic affections that a gentlemen residing at Horsham in Sussex, assured him that he had been completely cured of a long-standing asthma solely by the use of it. Lord Bacon, too, has left it as his testimony that “it is certain the use of quinces is good to strengthen the stomach,” recommending, however, for this purpose, “quiddeny” of quince, probably a preserve; and in France at least it still maintained the reputation of being an admirable tonic and stomachic when taken medicinally, while, in the form of a compote, it is highly recommended as a diet to increase the digestive powers of convalescents.

At Paris the fruit never reaches perfection, for though it ripens after gathering, so far as to acquire a rich golden hue, and exhale its powerful scent, it remains so hard as to be quite unfit to be sent to table; though a forlorn hope of a different future is not yet abandoned by the sanguine French; for, says the Bon Jardinier of 1860, “we flatter ourselves, yet no doubt in vain, that time and culture will yet render them eatable.” In the south of France, on the borders of Garonne, quinces are largely grown to be made into a much esteemed marmalade, called cotignac; indeed it would seem that that kind of confection must have been originally prepared from this particular fruit, since the word marmalade has its etymological root in the quince, the Portuguese name for which is marmelo. The seeds are used in medicine, though, says Noisette, not so much as they might be, for the viscous mucilage in which they abound unites with the softening properties of gum arabic, something of an unctuous quality which render them peculiarly capable of soothing irritation or inflammation of the most delicate organs, and they are therefore employed to heal sore lips, inflamed eyes, &c. The same gummy juice, extracted by simply boiling the seeds in a little water, furnishes the toilette with that “fixature” which puts a gentle restraint on the straggling hairs of fair ones with flowing locks.

The delicately-tinged blossoms of the quince are similar in structure to those of the apple and pear, but are neither so pink as the former nor so colourless as the latter; while they grow singly and are much larger, being about the size of a wild-rose. The fruit varies in form and size, but is always downy when young, and yellow when ripe; and offering, externally, nothing remarkably different from the two above-mentioned fruits, was confounded by Linnaeus with these its orchard brethren, but on cutting it open it is found to contain, in each of its five cells, from twelve to forty pips, instead of only one or two, as is the case with both apple and pear; a peculiarity which has sufficed to assign it in later systems of botany to a separate genus. Owing probably in part to the little attention paid to it in modern days, but few varieties have arisen, and only five sorts are generally grown in either England, France, or America.

The apple-shaped quince was called by the ancients the “male,” a name which seems singularly inappropriate, since it is a tree of specially weak growth, both the leaf and fruit of which are small; but as the latter is of fine colour, and becomes very tender when stewed, it is the most popular of the tribe in America, where the pear-shaped quince is condemned as tough and of bad colour, though pronounced by the French, on the contrary, to be in every way preferable to the other. It is much grown by them as a stock or mère in nurseries, and it may have been from using it similarly for grafting purposes that the ancients gave it the name of “female.” English nurserymen prefer to graft on the Portugal quince, a stronger, handsomer tree, bearing larger and finer fruit, which, when cooked, turns a fine crimson or purple colour, the only and great drawback to its otherwise incontestable supremacy over the other kinds being that it bears very scantily. These three varieties, though cultivators observe great differences between them, are all reckoned by botanists to be of one species, to which also belongs a new seedling sort, both large and good, recently raised at New York, where it is so highly appreciated that it has been sold there at the rate of nine dollars for about a bushel.

The Chinese quince, only introduced into Europe during the present century, bears a highly perfumed, red, barrel-shaped fruit, about four inches long, and which will keep until the spring, whereas the other sorts usually perish before the end of autumn; but, unfortunately, whether eaten raw or cooked, it is found tasteless and insipid, and is therefore only grown for the sake of its red, violet-scented, spring blossoms. The last on the list, the Japan quince or Cydonia (popularly miscalled “Pyrus”) Japonica, is also only grown for ornament, its dark-green hard fruit being less eatable than even the preceding; but its blossoms, white, pink-tinged, or, more usually, brilliant flaming scarlet, are far more beautiful and appear earlier, forming one of the commonest but most favourite spring adornments of English grounds and gardens.