This column begins with quince, detours into methods for researching historic recipes, and ends in a marmalade cake. The history of marmalade, as I learned from a three-day class on reading historic recipes with Sandy Oliver, begins with quince.
According to Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” a quince first fell from a branch somewhere in the Caucacus, the chunk of land where Europe ends and Asia begins, thousands of years ago. Davidson says that the Troy-defeating golden apple Paris handed to Aphrodite was a quince.
“Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love” — those solace-making fruits from “The Song of Solomon,” Davidson repeats, were mostly likely not apples but quince.
Quince hopped to Ancient Crete, where sage cooks preserved raw fruits in honey. At some point — again Davidson here — people realized that cooking quince first not only resulted in a softer product when the clay pot was opened a year later, but in a firm, nicely congealed paste. Cretans had opened their urns to the powers of pectin. From this preserve, quince began a long, happy career as the star of the breakfast and dessert table.
D. Eleanor Scully in “Early French Cookery” believes quince preserves probably arrived in France via the Romans, who called it melimelum. That root that leads directly to “marmalade,” or the Portuguese marmelada and the Spanish membrillo, usually unstrained versions of preserved quince with visible fruit.
Karen Hess, in “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery,” follows quince preserve’s travels from the Middle East to Spain, where in 1492 the sweet departed with confectioners escaping the Inquisition to Genoa.
According to S. Anne Wilson in “The Book of Marmalade,” quince marmalade’s exact arrival in England was recorded on a shipping inventory from Portugal in 1495. The first English citation of marmalade, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 1524. Marmalade, its popularity riding on this knobby, yellow fruit’s ability to congeal, and probably also its medicinal promises, began with quince, and for about a thousand years remained only a quince product.