Toronto is known as “the city within a park”. Just about every resident lives with walking distance of a park, although most of these are not huge multi-acre swaths of land, but are little in-fill parkettes. Parkettes pop up in the middle of residential streets, and at one point, probably had houses on them. Now they are mostly home to swing sets, jungle gyms and a few benches.
The parkette closest to us, the place where we end up a couple of times a day while walking the dogs, has some landscaping along one side. It’s hard to tell if the city planted the bushes and shrubs or if they predate the park back to when there was a house on the property.
Last year, I joined a group of locals in cleaning up the park, as it regularly attracts crack dealers and hookers from the area. Underneath the hedges and shrubs, we came across a pair of quince bushes. The bushes were covered in vibrant scarlet flowers in spring, and piles of little green orbs in the summer.
Regular quinces grow on trees and get as big as apples. Quinces are, in fact, part of the same family that includes both apples and roses. But these were tiny fruit, about the size of crabapples. I had wondered if the fruit were edible, and a neighbour who is involved with the local horticultural society couldn’t tell me, but my Google-Fu told me that what we had stumbled across was an ornamental quince from Japan, appropriately known as a Japonica quince. Further Googling determined that not only were Japonica quinces edible, but they made awesome jam and jelly, because of the natural pectin.
So one evening last week, once the temperature had dropped below freezing – which is when quinces are ready to harvest – I headed to the park and picked about 6 pounds of fruit. I hacked up my hands and wrists in the process – quince bushes have thorns – but I had a huge bowl of fruit to work with. The smell in my kitchen was just astounding – a cross between super-ripe tart apples and wild roses.
Oddly, I had no qualms about “stealing” the fruit from city property. Maybe I’ve been watching too many of the “local and seasonal” British TV shows where town councils are allowing guerrilla gardeners to grow produce in sidewalk planters for anyone who wants it, but it’s not like anyone else was going to make use of these quinces. And even the squirrels won’t touch them because they’re so bitter, so why not collect a few and make something fabulous with them? They’ll just sit there and rot otherwise.
Prepping Japonica quinces for jam or jelly is pretty easy. You just chop them up and toss them in a pot, covering the fruit with water and letting the whole mess boil. Everything gets strained through some cheesecloth so it’s not necessary to worry about seeds. I cored most of the fruit anyway, afraid that the seeds might make the jam bitter.
Quinces have seeds about the size of apple seeds, but about 10x as many. Cutting into a fruit was like running into battle – a dozen or more seeds would go flying across the room, making a tiny rat-a-tat-tat- like machine gun fire as they hit the wall. Out of 6 pounds of fruit, I removed probably a pound of seeds.
From there, it’s all about boiling. Recipes I found online suggested a cook time of 6 – 12 hours (!!), but my little miniature quinces cooked to a pulp in about 15 minutes. From there I sieved the pulp to strain out the seeds and skin, ran it through some cheesecloth and ended up with about 6 cups of super tart quince pulp. Quinces are so tart that they’re truly unpleasant to eat raw, and the acid in the fruit ended up burning away at my fingers where I had been coring the fruit with my thumbs.
After consulting a variety of recipes, none of which were especially helpful since they all appeared to have been written in Medieval times, or required contraptions to hang the pulp overnight to let it strain, I went with a 1-to-1 ratio of quince pulp to sugar. Into the pot, let it boil to the “skin” stage (when a spoonful is dropped onto a plate, it quickly forms a skin) and then into the jars it goes. I added a little bit of cardamom as well. And that was it.
Not to toot my own horn, but hot damn, my quince jam rocks. For comparison, I grabbed a jar of Lebanese marmalada (a quince jam) that I had in the fridge. The flavour is just sugary and jammy, the colour a dark brownish red. The jam from the little Japonica quinces is an orangy yellow colour (the same as the fruit when fresh); is sweet, but bright and puckery at the same time; and has notes of pears, tart apples and floral notes of rose.
I put most of my jam into larger containers to keep and eat, but I also did eight small jars to give away at Christmas. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to part with the stuff though, or if there will be any left in a month. But I know that next summer, I’ll be taking better care of the shrubbery in the park so that come October and the first frost, I’ll be jamming it up with an even greater quantity of Japonica quince jam.