Foods of Argentina: Membrillo (Quince)

Inside the cramped little bakery, glass display cases overflowed with coconut-rimmed tarts filled with glistening, red jam, small cookies with deep ruby centers, and an assortment of pastries decorated with the same eye-catching yet unfamiliar topping. According to the shop girl, all of these goodies had one thing in common: membrillo. Anxious to try this mysterious and seemingly ubiquitous red substance, I ordered a handful of cookies and a half dozen pastries – all in the name of research, of course.

After that first visit to an Argentine bakery, I clearly remember thumbing through my pocket Spanish-English dictionary in desperate search of the word "membrillo." Daniel had come up short when I asked for an English translation, and similarly, the answer supplied by my dictionary left me none the wiser.

I worked my way through the letter 'm' until my index finger rested upon the following entry:

membrillo m quince

"Quince?" I muttered. I had never even heard of a quince, let alone seen or tasted one.

Membrillo | Quince by katiemetz, on Flickr

Largely unappreciated in the U.S., this bumpy-looking fruit resembling a pear has been all but forgotten for its lack of sweetness and inedible nature while in its raw state. In fact, American horticulturist U.P. Hedrick lamented in 1922 that "the quince, the 'Golden Apple' of the ancients, once dedicated to deities and looked upon as the emblem of love and happiness, for centuries the favorite pome, is now neglected and the least esteemed of commonly cultivated tree fruits." [1]

It would appear, Mr. Hedrick, that not much has changed since the '20s.

However, the quince's fate in Argentina has been a kinder one. Argentina ranks among the world’s top producers of quinces. Indeed, these days, if you do find a quince at a specialty market in North America, chances are that it arrived from Argentina.

The most popular culinary use for quinces in Argentina is quince paste or dulce de membrillo. Mellowed by long, slow cooking and a generous amount of sugar, the raw quince's firm white flesh softens and deepens to a lovely ruby-red hue while taking on a sweet-tart flavor and lightly floral aroma. The high levels of pectin present in the quince cause the paste to set up very firm, allowing it to be sliced.

Queso y Dulce | Postre Vigilante (Quince Paste and Cheese) by katiemetz, on Flickr Facturas | Pastries by katiemetz, on Flickr Pepitas | Quince Jam Thumbprint Cookies by katiemetz, on Flickr Pasta Frola (Quince Jam Tart) by katiemetz, on Flickr

Argentines often pair quince paste with cheese in the typical dessert known as queso y dulce or postre vigilante. Dulce de membrillo also features in the tart pasta frola, atop cookies known as pepas or pepitas [recipe], as a filling for pastelitos, and as a topping for Argentine pastries (facturas).

Have you ever tried a food made with quince? If so, did you like it?

[1] Source: USDA.gov

This post was excerpted from a food story I published on Hispanic Kitchen. Visit the original post for more information about postre vigilante and the recipe for homemade dulce de membrillo.


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