If you want to grow your food on trees–and there’s a lot of good reasons to do so–then you traditionally would have an easier time of it in the tropics, where there are a lot of “tree fruits” that can be used as staple vegetables, like plantain, avocado, jack fruit, etc. With the powerful productivity of trees, this means that tropical Permaculturists with establish food forests report feeding 30 families from a small fraction of an acre year round from their “vegetable” CSA. Of course, most of the “vegetables” are actually tree fruits!
In cold climates, our ancestors haven’t cultivated many fruits to fill this role. While we do have quite a few tree vegetables, like Toon Tree and Linden, we don’t have many traditional calorie rich, starchy staple crop trees. The only two that come to mind are Chestnut and, of course, the Quince.
Most people these days aren’t too familiar with Quinces, but our great grandparents were. There was a time when this was the desert-island tree of choice for American settlers–if they only had room for one fruit tree, it would be a quince, for its versatility and many uses. Not only was the quince prefered over other “pome fruit” like apples and pears for desserts, but its high pectin content, acidity and spicy aroma made it the perfect side-kick for any fruit preserves, jam or jelly. The same pectin content also made it great for cosmetic purposes, including the orignial “hair jelly,” or “pomeade.” As a matter of fact, I’ve been using a home-made pomeade for the last month to keep my coiffure in order and I’ll be sad to go back to salon products when its gone. It works great, doesn’t get greasy or stiff and as Ulysses Everett McGill said of his “pomade” in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? “I like the smell of my hair treatment–the pleasing aroma is half the point.”
But more importantly for northern Permaculturists, the Quince has a tradition of being used as a staple in savory dishes going back to antiquity. It has been featured alongside olives in tapas dishes, added to stews in hearty chunks, paired with meat and poultry, used in stuffings, and even stuffed and roasted in its own right, with cheeses, bread crumbs and herbs.
Although it is generally renowned as the easiest-to-grow of all pome fruit–being all but indestructable–growing quinces in regions with Fireblight requires some special considerations. Here in S.W. Michigan we have occasional outbreaks of blight, and the Quince can become problematic. Many orchardists have complained that the species can act as a carrier and that normally “blight immune” varieties of apples or pears will be killed by blight if they’re too close to an infected Quince. (I know of one S.W. Michigan grower who reported severe blight outbreaks every year in her “blight tolerant” Seckel pears, which went away completely after removing a nearby Quince.) So, in our food forest, we’ve planted Quince far from any other pome fruit, in a “zone 2” area where we’ll visit it often and catch any blight early on. We also made sure not to place it someplace where it would be a key landscaping feature, since it might require extensive and unattractive pruning.
Unfortunately, there are no varieties currently marketed as “blight tolerant” in the United States, as the fruit is so uncommon that it hasn’t been cultivated or researched much here. However, in the Caspian region, where Quince is still a staple and blight a major problem, this has been worked on, so varieties from this area are often considered by knowledgable growers to have better blight tolerance. According to Quince enthusiasts at Garden Web, Russians consider the variety “Aromatnaya” to be the most blight tolerant cultivar. It is also commonly recommended for ripening well in northern climates and cool, cloudy summers. And while I haven’t tried it myself, it’s frequently rated among the best tasting Quinces, highly aromatic (as the name suggests) and one of the few sweet enough to be eaten raw.
(NOTE: While the variety has been cultivated for blight tolerance, American nurserymen will likely be selling it on standard Quince rootstock that has NOT been cultivated for this purpose. That would seem to make Aromatnaya an ideal candidate for growing on its own root. Planting a grafted tree deeply, with the graft below the soil level should allow the grafted species to take root.)
With blight considered, the Quince seems ideal for food forests, reportedly very low maintenance and highly productive in more shade than other pome fruit would tolerate.
Quince Galette with Goat Cheese and Thyme
In this traditional southern European Quince Galette with goat cheese, the quince takes on a savory, hearty–even meaty–quality, while retaining a mild sweetness and citrusy aroma.
I made a few changes based on my preferences, including roasting the quinces in a mixture of rum, apple cider and orange juice. In my short experience with the quince, I’ve found I really enjoy the complexity of flavor that comes out from long cooking, and quinces paired with rum smells basically like Christmas. Just halve the fruit, remove the core, and roast the quinces in enough liquid to keep the bottom of the dish from drying out, about 45 minutes. The quince should keep its firmness and be ready to be sliced. Don’t forget to keep the quince pits, and cover them in cup of water to make a pomeade!
I also found from similar recipes that the goat cheese could dry out too much, and followed the common recomendation of combining the first layer of goat cheese with one or two egg yolks to keep it moist. The final layer of goat cheese on top doesn’t require egg, as it’s added at the end.