The golden apple that declared Venus “the most beautiful” and triggered the Trojan war, the apples in the Hesperides’ garden, and maybe even the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were not the juicy, red apple we imagine but, rather, yellow, thus the color of gold, apples, quinces.
The quince tree is one of the most ancient known fruit trees which has undergone few modifications by man. It seems it is of the earliest orchard trees thus when we read about apples in tales, traditions, and legends, they were very likely quinces.
The place of origin of this small tree is Asia Minor, more specifically Anatoly and Persia, where there was a city called Cotonium, and traces of the quince tree where found in ruins of ancient Babylonia dating back to 2000 years ago. From Asia Minor, the quince tree spread to the Mediterranean basin and was widely cultivated in Crete since the 7th century B.C. It is from the Cretese city of Kydonia that it got its botanical name of Cydonia oblonga.
Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells the story of Atlas’ nymph daughters, the Hesperides, who guarded the sacred garden in the far Occident of the world, where each day the Sun chariot race ended. At the center of the garden was a tree loaded with golden fruits, chrisomelon in Greek, golden apple, quince, and to protect it from thieves, goddess Hera ordered Ladon, the 100-head snake dragon, to coil around its trunk. Quinces are depicted in the metope reliefs of the Zeus temple in Olympia, where Atlas is caught in the act of offering them to Heracles. According to the myth, king Eurystheus assigned Heracles and eleventh challenge, stealing the golden apples from the Hesperides, Heracles entered the garden that goddess Gaea, Mother Earth, had presented to her daughter Hera when she married Zeus, and, aware of the huge weight on Atlas’ shoulders, Heracles took advantage of the Titan’s weakness to induce him to harvest the apples by offering to hold the celestial vault for the necessary time. Exhausted, Heracles immediately accepted and went to harvest the three golden apples from the sacred tree with no intention to go back to his position and told Heracles he would have brought them to Eurystheus so as to rest for a few months. Heracles faked accepting and, with the excuse of setting the weight better on his shoulder, asked Atlas to hold the load for an instant but when positions were exchanged he ran away with the precious loot.
All the elements of the myth combining love, garden, sacred golden fruits, snake, thefts, temptress Venus, are found again in the garden of Eden and, according to some, Adam’s apple is the quince bite he choked on. It is again a quince and not an apple the apple of discord connected to the backstory of the Trojan war. At the banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Achilles’ parents), Zeus invited all the gods of the Olympus except for Eris, goddess of discord. Enraged for the shame, Eris sought revenge: she went to the banquet uninvited and, on the laid table, she threw an apple where was written: “To the most beautiful”. Upon seeing this, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite started to fight because each thought she deserved the prize but did not understand that by fighting they were falling in the trap set by Eris, the lady of pain, merciless creator of wars and conflicts. To resolve the matter, Zeus invited Hermes to escort the three contestants to Paris the shepherd on Mount Ida. A fair and honest man, Paris would have been the judge to decide the matter. Escorted before Paris, the three goddesses, to ingratiate the young Trojan shepherd, started promising him the most diverse rewards, Paris chose Aphrodite, who had promised him the love of Helen in exchange, and, following Zeus’ will, Hermes handed her over the apple of discord. Aphrodite then helped the Trojan prince to kidnap Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Right at Sparta, as Athenaeus writes, gods were offered some apples that “have a sweet smell but that are not so good to eat”, precisely quinces.
About quinces also wrote Stesichorus (7-6th century B.C.): “...they threw many quinces (kydonia mala) towards the king’s chariot, many mirth leaves, rose crowns, and pansy garlands”. Aristophanes (5-4th century B.C.) in the play Clouds: “No young man then oiled up below the belly button, so the down and the light fur on the pubis blossomed like on the apples (meloisin)”. Even though the word apple is not accompanied by an adjective that specifying the kind, it is clear he is talking about a quince, the only apple with a down.
Plutarch (1-2th century A.D.), in Solon’s Life, reports that “(Solon’s laws, of the 7-6th century B.C.) prescribe the bride be locked with the groom in the marital chamber, eat a quince (malon kidonion) and have at least three sexual intercourses per month. In this way, even if no children are born, the respect and kindness for the chaste wife free both from inconveniences which usually happen during a marriage and it is also reached the goal that they do not become strangers to each other”.
Also Romans were fascinated by this fruit and even though their mythology is not wealthy of praises towards it like the Greek, we know they were passionate about techniques of its cultivation, harvesting, preservation and uses of these fruits for their delicious taste, the therapeutic virtues recognized by the best known doctors of those times and for other uses, last but not least that for ointments and perfumes.
In the Latin world, Cato (3-2nd century B.C.) is the first writer to list a variety of apple trees among which some were later classified as quince varieties: “Mala struthea, mala cotonea (quince), mala mustea…”.
Pliny talks about quinces in its book Historiae Naturalis: “Mala, quae vocamus cotonea et Greci cydonia ex Creta insula advecta” (the apple we call quinces and the Greeks Cydonia was exported from the island of Crete).
Martial (1st century A.D.): “If you are offered quinces (Cydonia) loaded with honey you can say they are apples with honey (melimela)”; “You have such an imperceptible down, so soft as a puff, a sun ray and a light breeze will consume it. They are hidden by a similar down the yet unripe quinces, which shine when stripped by the hands of a girl”.
At the excavations of Oplonti and Pompei quinces are often found depicted, for example, in a crystal vase together with other fruits or in the claws of a bear, which is gluttonous of these fruits. Quinces are not only found in ancient art but also in more recent works of art as, for example, Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus, which glorified the marriage of Isabella d’Este with Francesco Gonzaga the 2nd, where the quince appears next to the couple depicted as Venus and Mars.
Also Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna’s brother in law, had a quince in the center stage of his painting, set in the hands of Baby Jesus as a symbol of Resurrection.
The apple was also highly appreciated in the kitchen and Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (dating back to the 3-4th century A.D. which collects over 500 recipes compiled by the gastronome who lived in the 1st century A.D.) we see it is used for hors d’oeuvres, meat entrees, fish, side dishes and, naturally, desserts. It was the fruit par excellence that was served at the end of the meal and the proverb “Ab ovo usque ad mala”, quoted by Horace, with which Romans meant “from the beginning to the end of the meal”, soon started to be used to mean “from beginning to end without interruptions”.
Greeks and Romans ate quinces, considered symbol of love and fertility, either raw with honey or they used them to produce a type of cider. Sour, astringent, rich in pectin, already for Hippocrates more than a fruit quince was a health remedy to free the intestine; for Dioscorides, Greek doctor and scientist of the 1st century, author of De Materia Medica, a text that was studied for more than 1500 years, creamed quince flowers are useful to cure eye inflammations while “if pregnant women often eat quinces, they will have industrious, smart children”.
In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, apart from being considered a powerful antidote to poisons when chewed raw, quinces were prescribed as poultice for external use.
In today’s culinary preparations, the quince is an almost forgotten fruit and only approximately 43000 hectares worldwide are dedicated to its production, half of which in Turkey where quince leaves are a folk remedy for the treatment of diabetes.
The most famous is the cotognata, roughly translated quince jelly, of very ancient origins. Traces of this preparation are found in a 14th century Venetian recipe book: a long keeping sweet paste of quinces, made with quinces and sugar in equal parts, water, and lemon juice. There are various regional interpretations of cotognata which vary depending on the amount of sugar, spices, or some extra steps in its preparation. The result is a softer or harder cotognata with a different level of sweetness.
In the Emilian Appennines, for example, they add a final touch by brushing grappa on its surface. In other Northern Italian areas, cotognata is spiced by adding clovis, cinnamon, pepper and a pinch of mustard. The bestknown Italian cotognata is the one from Lecce, with less sugar, and the Sicilian one, made more unique by the terracotta molds in which it is set to dry and which make reliefs of flowers, fruits and other symbols on the dessert surface. In the realm of folk traditions, it is believed that a quince will keep witches, ogres, and nightmares away. Is it true? Who knows, But it is certain that a quince is traditionally used to aromatize wine barrels and spread a good scent in rooms and closets: clovis are inserted in the quince which is then hung by its petiole to have an organic air freshner.