by Alex Howle
Elizabeth Ferguson is a native and life-long resident of Nelson County Virginia. Now, as an aging African-American woman, she recalls being raised by her mother and grandparents. Her earliest food memory involves the raising of gardens and livestock. She, her mother, and grandparents raised most of their own food from a garden. They preserved the fruits and vegetables from the garden by canning in the summer for the rest of the year. They also raised livestock, some of which was used for meat.
When asked if she knows of any fruit or vegetable that once grew in Nelson County when she was a child but is now either rare or no longer grown, Mrs. Ferguson recalls the quince. Her grandfather had a quince tree when she was growing up. She describes the fruit as being like an apple, but the size of an egg. Her grandmother used to make preserves and jelly with the fruit, but she does not see it much anymore. In fact, there are many, including this filmmaker, who do not know what it is, and have never even heard of it.
Mrs. Ferguson continues to by saying that the families in Virginia who did have quince trees had quite a few in their yards. So, the quince was relatively common in Nelson County. However, it is now longer as prevalent. What happened? She recalls a particularly dry year, after which most of the quince trees died out and she has not heard much about them since.Having only ever heard the name, but not knowing anything about the fruit itself, I set out to learn more about the quince and its connection to food heritage in Nelson County. The quince is a small deciduous tree that originated in Southwest Asia.[i] It is a relative to the apple and pear, hence its resemblance to both.[ii] The fruit is bright and golden when ripe, but is rarely eaten raw because it can be hard and sour.[iii] The fruit is high in pectin, which makes is better for use in preserves.[iv] Its strong fragrance also ideally suits it for use in jams or jellies. In fact, the word marmalade derives from the Portuguese word for quince, “marmelo.”[v] The fruit is also commonly roasted, baked, or stewed.[vi]
In North America, the quince is now rare because of its susceptibility to fireblight disease.[vii] The U.S. now produces only about 200 acres of the fruit commercially.[viii] The quince is primary used today as a dwarfing rootstock for pears.[ix] But in Central Virginia, the quince is beginning to back a comeback. Vintage Virginia Apples has planted more than ten varieties of the quince, including the Champion, which is one of the few varieties that is sweet enough to eat, the Crimea, which has a pineapple and citrus fragrance, and the Havran, which bears a fruit that can reach more than two pounds.[x] The strong fragrance and delicious jelly of the quince may someday soon be well-known again in Virginia due to the efforts of Vintage Virginia Apples and the people who understand the heritage of the quince.
The quince has a long and illustrious history both in American and abroad. The acknowledgment of the heritage of the quince helps provide a wider glimpse into the history of Virginia, the United States, and the global environment. The quince, though rare in Virginia, lives on in the memories of those who know its smell, uses, and taste, and will continue to live in the imagination of those to learn about it and, perhaps, seek it out in the future. By actively reintroducing the quince into the food culture of Virginia, Elizabeth Ferguson’s food heritage can be preserved. So, go out and eat a quince!
Vintage Virginia Apples: http://www.vintagevirginiaapples.com/quincemenu.htm
[x] Quince Varieties. Vintage Virginia Apples. ©2001 Vintage Virginia Apples. Site updated on: 7/17/2007. http://www.vintagevirginiaapples.com/quincemenu.htm. Accessed March 9, 2012.