Last week, I was hanging around kitchen at Gathering Together Farm, gossiping with my friend Ana the pastry chef while she stirred a pot of fruity danish filling. “I love quince,” she declared. I was surprised. I’d never heard someone proclaim their love for that particular maligned and obscure fruit before.
I must confess that I have zero experience with quince. I’m sure I’ve eaten it in my life, hidden in some sort of sweet thing, but I can’t recall a particular memorable occasion with quince. I don’t dislike it, but I just never thought about it a whole lot. After talking to Ana, I decided it was high time for me to learn a thing or two about these relatively unknown fruits.
After asking Ana a few follow-up questions, it turned out that she really wanted to get a bunch of quince to cook with but didn’t have a source. Because there’s not much demand, quince can be kind of hard to come by, but luckily, I knew just who to call. My neighbor Joseph Postman is a plant pathologist who works at a local USDA National Clonal Germplasm Respository, a facility that houses the world collection of pear varieties and other specialty crops. A few emails and phone calls later, and Joseph was inviting me out to the orchard for a visit.
There are nine clonal repositories in the US that ”collect, maintain, distribute, evaluate, and document germplasm”* of world agricultural crops. The one in Corvallis, Oregon tends acres of “hazelnut, strawberry, hop, mint, pear, currant, gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, and specialty temperate fruit and nut crops and their wild relatives.”* Seeds, cuttings, and other clonal material of the varieties housed at the facility are available to farmers and scientists all over the world. If/when new diseases emerge in crops in the US or across the globe, plant breeders can always fall back on the germplasm stored in living specimens at these clonal repositories to replace lost crops or to develop disease-resistant strains, preserving the genetic diversity in the species.
Joseph met me at the farm’s locked gate that opened up to neat rows of trees and shrubs, and he ushered me toward the quince collection. There were five or six short rows of quince trees (some more like bushes) laden with fruit. Though the orchard didn’t contain the full selection of quince types available around the world, dozens of varieties were represented. Some fruits were large and round, and some were small and knobby. Some were overripe, covering the ground, and some were still green on the trees. Joseph set me free to pick my own but instructed me to leave at least a few fruits on every tree for documentation and research purposes.
I asked what they normally do with the large volume of fruit produced in the orchards. Joseph said they’ve considered working with local gleaner groups or food banks, but the reality is that the different varieties are on completely different ripening schedules, and the staff needs to preserve a few of every variety (plus a lot of some kinds) for research purposes. The system is complicated, and they’re just not set up for inviting a lot of individuals into the orchards for harvest, so it works out easier if employees take home or give away what fruit they want, and the rest falls to the ground. While that seems like kind of a shame, the real benefit to agriculture and society from this place is the living archive of plant material and the research and educational opportunities it affords.
I picked a box of all kinds of quince to split with Ana. I told her I’d only give them to her if she promised to come over to my house and help me cook something quince-y. Between Ana’s ideas and Yossy’s blog ( with both archived and upcoming quince-themed recipes), I think I have enough culinary inspiration to get through the harvest, but if you have a favorite way to use quince, please do share in the comments below.
Though I made the trip out the germplasm repository specifically for quince, Joseph also toured me around the hardy kiwi collection nearby. Hardy kiwis (sometimes called kiwi berries) are smaller than common kiwis. The fruits grow only on female vines, but even the male plants are quite ornamental.
Though it wasn’t the world collection of hardy kiwis, this orchard was home to a wide array of hardy kiwi varieties being trialed for wider production. The small fruits mostly hung from the branches in clusters, but some of the plumper ones grew as singles. From russet red to deep green, round to oblong, this orchard (vineyard?) had them all.
It was a beautiful day on the farm. The foliage was just starting to turn color, and there was a distinctly autumn-esque chill in the air. It seems so clichéd to post a bunch of my kid frolicking through a golden orchard in October, but I’m doing it.
Hardy kiwis are ripe when they’re soft, but the hard ones will ripen up after harvest, too.
I got a little carried away, stuffing my bag with these acidic little fruits and stuffing my face until my mouth was pickled (a hazard of hardy kiwi consumption). I had dreams of making kiwi jam, but we’ve been making our way through this stash at a much faster pace than anticipated, so I’ll have to put that one on hold until next year.
Education is a primary part of the facility’s mission, so the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis opens up the the public at least once a year for an open house. The staff are also available to lead prearranged group tours (call the front office at 541-738-4200). If you’re in the area, you should come check it out.
Big thanks to Joseph Postman for the special harvesting privileges. I owe you!
*from the Corvallis National Clonal Germplasm Repository’s “About” page.