HomeFoodExploring the Chamberlain Quince: Rediscovering a Historic New England Fruit

Exploring the Chamberlain Quince: Rediscovering a Historic New England Fruit

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In the early days of American horticulture, the quince was a celebrated backyard fruit tree found throughout the colonial farmsteads and orchards of New England. One of the region’s most prized quince varieties was the uniquely flavored Chamberlain quince, an heirloom cultivar with roots dating back over 200 years. After decades of neglect and the variety nearly going extinct, this distinctive golden-orange fruit is being rediscovered by farmers, chefs, and food historians alike.

What is a Quince?

Before exploring the specific traits of the Chamberlain variety, it’s important to understand exactly what a quince is. The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a small, tough-skinned pome fruit that resembles a cross between an apple and a pear in appearance. One of the oldest fruits in cultivation, quince trees are deciduous and yield a hard, fragrant fruit in the fall.

However, unlike apples and pears, quinces have an astringent, unpalatable bitterness when consumed raw. Their true magic is only unlocked once the fruit is cooked through baking, roasting, or stewing. This cooking process transforms the quince’s dense flesh into a soft, reddish-orange puree with a unique honeyed flavor profile that hints at flavors of apple, pear, citrus, and spice all intermingled.

Origins of the Chamberlain

Among quince varieties, few have a more distinctive origin story than the Chamberlain. It is believed to have originated in the early 1800s from the estate of Samuel Chamberlain in Westborough, Massachusetts. An avid gardener, Chamberlain is thought to have grown the tree from a seed or cutting of unknown provenance.

The Chamberlain quince thrived on Chamberlain’s property and its traits eventually caught the eye of other local gardeners and farmers. Over generations, grafted trees propagated throughout the region and the variety spread across New England, being passed down through families under the apt name “Chamberlain quince.”

For well over a century, the Chamberlain remained a beloved local variety throughout states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and others. However, by the mid-to-late 1900s, agricultural practices had shifted towards modern commercial quince varieties. Old heritage trees were ripped out as new suburban developments replaced the region’s historic farmlands and orchards. The Chamberlain quince narrowly avoided extinction until its rediscovery by preservationists in the 1970s.

Distinctive Appearance & Flavor

So what distinguishes the Chamberlain quince from other heirloom and conventional cultivars? Its most striking aspect is its distinctive golden-orange hue and squat, spherical shape when ripe – departing from the more oblong form of standard quinces.

“When I first laid eyes on the bright orange orbs hanging from the gnarled old tree, I knew this was something special,” recalls John Bunker, author of ‘Not Far From Tree’ and a leading historian of heritage fruit varieties. “It had a beauty, unlike any quince I’d seen before, looking more like the blushing orange cheeks of a sun-kissed apple.”

Indeed, the Chamberlain’s warm orange coloration is a rarity in quince cultivars which more commonly range from yellow to greenish-gold before maturing to deeper golden, pink, or red tones. Its shape has also been described as “oblate” meaning rounded like a flat sphere or softball.

But the most memorable trait of the Chamberlain is its intoxicating aroma and flavor, unlike any other quince. When ripe, the Chamberlain exudes an enchanting sweet musky-floral scent with hints of tropical pineapple, citrus, and honey. This enticing aroma derives from the fruit’s richly-concentrated terpene compounds.

“What struck me most about the Chamberlain quince was its incredibly rich, complex flavor – like baked apple, pear, bright citrus, and lingering notes of honey all swirled into one, both sweet yet deliciously tart,” said Bunker. “It was reminiscent of quince to be sure, but elevated into this rapturous new dimension of aroma and taste.”

Many chefs and bakers who’ve cooked with the Chamberlain describe flavors along the lines of “apple pie filling tinged with pineapple and brown spice” or “lemon squares swirled with honey and ripe Bosc pears.” It’s a flavor profile unmatched by other quinces that lends itself to both sweet and savory applications.

Culinary Uses

Like all quinces, the Chamberlain variety requires cooking to render its tough flesh edible and unlock its full flavors. Over its centuries-long history, the fruit has been incorporated into a wide range of New England culinary delicacies:

Baking:

– Chamberlain quince pie (often paired with apples)

– Quince bread, cakes, and buns

– Quince tarts, compotes, and glazes

Preserves:

– Quince jam, jelly, marmalade, and pastes (membrillo)

– Canned quinces and quince salsa

– Pickled quinces

Savory:

– Quince chutney and quince ketchup

– Quince glaze for roast meats like turkey or ham

– Quince tagine and Moroccan-inspired stews

The rich, reddish-orange flesh of cooked Chamberlain quince also naturally lends itself to baking applications like pies, tarts and cakes providing an attractive rosy-crimson hue and lush moisture. The fruit also contains high levels of natural pectin, making it ideal for jellies and other preserves.

“For me, quince has always been the unsung hero of New England’s historic fruit basket,” said Amy Traverso, author of ‘The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.’ “The arrival of Chamberlain quince in fall markets is an annual cause for celebration as we get to enjoy its unique honeyed flavor and brilliant color.”

Chef Jeremy Pettengill who oversees the dining program at Champlain Valley Senior Community in Vermont sources Chamberlain quince for the facility’s kitchens each year. “Our residents absolutely love quince season,” Pettengill said. “We make everything from quince tarts for dessert to quince glazed ham and quince chutney with game meats. The aroma alone is intoxicating.”

Cultivation & Preserving an Heirloom

After its near-extinction scare, efforts have been underway for decades now to propagate and preserve the Chamberlain quince variety. Slow Food USA has included it on the organization’s “Ark of Taste” list of foods at risk of being lost.

Chamberlain trees were carefully propagated from remaining surviving specimens and have been planted in orchards run by preservationists like the Collective New England Heirloom Orchard, trees of antiquity, and other farms. Sourcing grafted Chamberlain quince saplings is possible through these specialty mail-order nurseries as well as increasingly at some local garden centers.

However, growing the Chamberlain at home isn’t easy. The trees are more disease-prone compared to other varieties and yields can be fickle, requiring careful pruning, netting, frost protection, and other maintenance. Despite these challenges, dedicated enthusiasts ensure this living piece of New England’s agricultural heritage lives on.

As word continues to spread about the Chamberlain’s superlative flavors and storied past, more home orchardists and commercial farms are adding Chamberlain quince trees to their groves. Farmer’s markets, orchards, and upscale restaurants across New England have started featuring the fruit in seasonal specials, baked goods, preserves, and prepared foods each fall. Its culinary renaissance is just beginning.

Thanks to its distinctive appearance, rich aroma, and unmatched flavor, the Chamberlain quince is earning a new appreciation as a forgotten American fruit treasure. After centuries of enhancing the harvests of early colonial and pioneer kitchens, this humble yet exquisite golden-orange quince is inspiring a new generation of growers, food makers, and diners to rediscover its delicious uniqueness.

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