For centuries weddings and quince have gone together hand-in-glove. The Greek biographer Plutarch (46-ca. 120) reported that brides would eat the fruit to sweeten their breath before entering the bedchamber. Plutarch’s observation – quince is an effective breath freshener particularly appropriate for lovers – is corroborated in the Bible. In Song of Songs 7: 8-9, the desire for the beloved is expressed as follows:
“Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of grapes, And the scent of your breath like quince.”
By the 15th century the association of quince with matrimony was firmly established. Not only was the fruit consumed, but its symbolic association with Venus and fertility meant that it figured in the festivities that attended weddings.
Consider, for example, the symbolism of the quince in the 1487 entertainment that was part of the marriage celebration between two noble families: the Bentivoglio of Bologna and d’Este of Ferrara. Before, during, and after a sumptuous banquet, performers kept guests enthralled with elaborately staged and costumed dances that one onlookers described as follows:
“… then Cupid let fly [his arrow] at the rock from which… straightaway came a young woman nobly dressed in a fair robe holding a flower and a quince and dancing in the ‘moresca’* fashion. Behind her came eight men with black faces and white manes and Moorish garb… they had on their legs circlets of fine bells; and they danced the ‘moresca’ around the noble young woman.”
By the second decade of the 17th century, the association of quince & marriage was firmly established. While earlier editions of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia omitted the quince from the symbolic depiction of “Matrimony,” the edition of 1613 added the quince to the yoke and shackle-box that were already common signifiers of marital union!
In the kitchen quince, like apples, were often cooked down into a jelly or paste. Lady Elinor Fettiplace (ca. 1570-ca. 1647) recommended boiling the fruit “till it wamble up like sope suds.” Not surprisingly, master chef Bartolomeo Scappi offered a more elaborate recipe in his 1570 cookbook.
“To prepare a jelly of finely chopped chicken with quince juice,” one needed to boil 4 capons, plucked and drawn, and 20 goat kid’s feet, cleaned and skinned. When reduced by two-thirds, skim off the fat and strain. Return the broth to the pot and add 2 pounds of sugar, half an ounce of cinnamon, 8 ounces of quince juice, 4 ounces of vinegar and 6 of white wine, plus a bit of salt and some chopped apple. Cook the concoction a bit more then pour through a filter and allow to cool. (The opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), trans. Terence Scully. Toronto, 2008, p. 609).
In 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro, who chose the adjective ‘noble’ to describe the fruit, noted that quince jellies and pastes “are delights for all.” Besides that, when trained against a wall, quince branches “make fine espaliers”. How perfect for a garden wedding!
*The ‘moresca’ originated at the end of the Middle Ages. As a dance it was intended to capture the conflict between Christians and Moors. Consequently, swordplay among dancers was not unusual. Loosely structured, the moresca was open to improvisation and varied from place to place.
It is worth recalling that battle imagery was common on painted marriage chests (‘cassoni’) of the time.