BY RENE FEATHERSTONE
Whence the quince—so beautifully ripe, organic, and local to the Puget Sound region? It’s from an island farm of odd fruits. Guemes Island, Idaho, Iran, and the Garden of Eden hold in common what is thought to have been the forbidden fruit in Paradise: not an apple, but rather the quince.
Its origin in Persia (today’s Iran) threads the quince as the Golden Apple into both Eastern and Western mythology. Iran also happens to be the homeland of Esmaeil “Essie” Fallahi, pomologist at the University of Idaho research station in Parma. Pomology is the branch of horticulture that studies apple and pear; the third pome, quince, typically rates only a footnote in American research. Not so at Parma: Their 1 1/2 acre test block of 10 quince cultivars, planted in 2000, serves growers looking for a market niche. “As the population of the United States comes to consist of more ethnic groups, a lot of growers are looking at quince as something new to grow,” Fallahi said. “Quince is an extremely aromatic fruit. Lots of magazines have featured it lately and general interest in quince is up.”
Ever so popular around the eastern Mediterranean and also in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to Fallahi, quince boasts quite the history in colonial America, too. In fact, upstate New York dedicated extensive acreage to quince until the industrialization of agriculture shunted it aside in the late 1800s. Apple and pear promised better efficiencies in a mass production food system, so apple and pear orchards won the day.
Fortuitously, this heirloom aspect is precisely what draws Seattle’s culinary fiends to the quince today, so Edith Walden says on a January morning on Guemes Island, north of Anacortes. “The ‘buy local’ and the Slow Food movements help in marketing quince. There is a sensitivity that we’re all in this together,” she says, referring to the resurgence of heritage foods flavor-rich and healthy.
We’re sitting in her guest cottage, two quinces from her 2010 harvest before us on the table. They’re golden all right, but unlike the gold of a polished ring, these quinces express an almost feral plumpness that refuses the mold a commercial apple would fit. Quinces to apples are like the mustang to the thoroughbred: willful rather than high-strung, their nobility grounded in nature’s caprice.
You have to cook them, Walden says of her quince. A few cultivars exist that can be raised for eating fresh, but western Washington’s climate doesn’t create enough heat units in a season for such quince, she notes. Basically the same recipes that include cooked apple or pear can be used to cook quince. Her favorite: lamb stew, aromatic with quince.
And there are preserves with fabulous flavor, quince jellies and jams that Walden produces in a commercially certified kitchen on the island. She likes the seasonal rhythm of that work: “Canning in the fall was a tradition in my family.”
Through the window we see the drizzling fog lift, an opportune moment for Walden to lead us to her little orchard. This surely isn’t Wenatchee or Yakima. Here nature huddles, tree and brush crowding in a competitive cacophony prompted by maritime moisture. “It’s a constant struggle,” Walden says of her efforts to keep the ravishing wild growth from swallowing her pleasing parallel lines of fruit trees. Walden shows us the arboreal grandmother of the farm, a 110-year-old Gravenstein reaching for the gray sky. “This property was part of the first homestead on Guemes Island,” she relates. “When I bought it in 1995, it had been in continuous agricultural use since the 1850s. It was important to me to keep it as agricultural space.”
At first she pondered if she should make a go of rosehip and nettle production, but the returns of such endeavors didn’t add up to much. As for mainstream fruit production, she didn’t think that would pan out, either. “Growing table fruit made me nervous because I wanted to do it organically. I’d watched how they sort apples at Cloud Mountain Nursery in Everson, and it appalled me how high the standards were in terms of uniformity in appearance. I wanted flavor more than anything.”
Quince fit the bill, she realized after consulting a host of heirloom catalogues. Not only are cosmetic standards for cooking fruit not as strict as those for table fruit, but also, quince is versatile in its uses including skin care products, hair tonic, and cider along with fruit preserves, so it’s easy to sell fruit with minor blemishes. “Eaglemount Wine and Cider in Port Townsend made some really good hard cider with my quince,” says the farmer. On the growing side, quince grafted onto quince rootstock produces relatively short and therefore easy-to-prune trees. “I use a six-foot orchard ladder,” Walden explains, adding that the single-bloom trait of quince is an advantage, too, in contrast to the cluster-blooming apple and pear which require laborious green fruit thinning. “In 1999 I got the trees as whips,” Walden says, whips being the single shoots (about six feet tall) that grow in a straight line up from their young roots. She remembers making the first cut that determines the height of branching, which that cut forces. “I cut at 3 and a half feet, so that there would be enough room for mowing beneath the trees.” Walden’s tree growth is nicely spread, albeit somewhat contained in vigor compared to that at the Parma research station.
In her quince quest, she gave the trees time to grow strong, not letting them bear fruit until their fourth year.
Since then, she’s harvested into plastic grape totes that hold around 25 pounds of quince. “Quince bruises very easily, you don’t want to put more weight than that in a box,” Walden elaborates. The quinces go into a cold storage Walden built herself.
As she explains her strategy of pruning cuts—quince grows on new wood, not on second-year wood as apple doe—she notes that Tom Thornton of Cloud Mountain has been her pomology mentor. But her heart’s desire for trees grew when she was a child in Boise. “Trees were my best friends, especially cedar and weeping willow,” she says.
What was it like to introduce her quince to Seattle? “It wasn’t hard, because Whole Foods and Central Market were already buying California quince that gets picked green so it can be shipped,” Walden says. “Selling tree-ripe, certified organic quince was how I established myself as a local grower.” Her brand is Willowrose Bay.
Quince are most of her 250 fruit trees—13 different varieties of quince in addition to some heirloom apple and pear, beside rows of the tart aronia berries (red chokeberry) native to the northeastern United States. Walden says that as she’s getting up in age, her “farm of odd fruits” is the right size and type for her, because some days she’s too fatigued to work in the trees. Pruning, for example, she stretches out over a three-month period, and at harvest she has helpers. She mentions that there is a very supportive community on this island who wants to maintain the rural nature of the place.
Of course, Walden didn’t appear out of thin air on Guemes. She relates that she learned to love island living back in the 1970s when she lived “completely off the grid” on San Juan. In Seattle she’s remembered for her instrumental role in the P-Patch program when it became part of City operations. And she was also active early on in Tilth: “I’ve been interested in alternative agriculture for a long time,” she puts it.
As with many of Washington’s orchardists, the weather has dealt her a few bad hands of late. During bloom in May of 2010, an unusual cold spell kept her neighbor’s bees in their hives, so few of the blooms were pollinated. Then a freak frost took its toll on the vulnerable small green fruit. “The crop failure last year I guess finally made me a farmer,” she quips.
As we’re walking back from her orchard better described as a grove, surprise, a giant bird swoops down from trees above the hedge that lines Walden’s pond, leveling its wings above the pond gracefully. It’s a bald eagle, flying low with long rhythmic strokes to the nearby shore and continuing over Puget Sound, whose waters lie still today, quietly gray. Peaceful. Good spirits are with this place.
René Featherstone is a freelance writer specializing in agriculture and environment in the Inland Pacific Northwest, with over 2000 published articles under his byline. René has worked in Eastern Washington agriculture since the mid-1970s.