We first met Nan Stefanik back in January of this year. She unexpectedly arrived at our doorstep and blew us away with a freshly-made batch of quince paste, aka membrillo, that she had made herself.
As soon as we tasted it, we knew it was something special. Made in Vermont, from regionally-sourced in-season quince, Nan has a coterie of farms in Vermont and New Hampshire, including Alyson’s Apple Orchards, where she buys the nicest quince she can find. She then painstakingly turns it into the most fresh, true-to-fruit tasting membrillo we’ve had. This lady knows her quince- as you’ll see, when you read the story of Vermont Quince, in her own words, below.
In 2020, people throughout New England are enjoying the Common Quince on their breakfast/dinner tables and cheese plates, at favorite restaurants, and in their home landscapes. Many more young children are aware that the quince is in the same family as the apple and pear and that it can thrive in our climate. Existing old quince trees have been identified, cared for if necessary, and highlighted as important horticultural features in the neighborhood and larger community. Much more regionally produced quince is available in the wholesale pipeline and the Connecticut River valley area where Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts meet is known for its availability of several varieties of Cydonia oblonga.
– Vermont Quince business plan, updated March 2017
My fascination with quince paste began on a trip with my teenaged son to Spain several years ago. The preserve’s ubiquity – albeit in different colors, thickness, consistency, and flavorings but nearly always served with Manchego – led me to wonder why I didn’t already know about it. Imagine my delight upon learning later that same year that a friend of a friend here in southeastern Vermont had three productive quince trees bearing more fruit than he could enjoy.
With the next three harvests from those trees, I experimented with dozens of quince recipes found online and in old ethnic cookbooks. I befriended the “queen of quince”, Simply Quince author Barbara Ghazarian to get ideas about spices and seasonings. I concocted myriad savory dishes, candies, syrups and of course, preserves including countless variations of quince paste which I paired with Vermont’s fabulous cheeses for holiday gifts. Family and friends soon began encouraging me to turn what probably seemed a bit of an obsession with quince into a business.
In 2012 I took the plunge, incorporating Vermont Quince and signing up for business advice from the VT Small Business Development Corporation. I long had been curious whether the skills cultivated over a 23-year nonprofit/public interest development career were transferable to the private sector. My market research quickly revealed that almost all of the quince paste found locally was made in Italy or Spain. I also learned that despite quince trees being commonplace in Colonial homesteads, very few commercial growers on the entire Eastern seaboard had more than a handful of trees and large quantities of regional wholesale quince were and remain hard to come by. Thus encouraging both backyard and commercial growers to plant Cydonia oblonga has become a critical component of Vermont Quince’s social mission to reintroduce ‘this ancient fruit for the modern table.”
At this time, all of the fruit used in Vermont Quince’s product line of quince condiments and preserves was and is grown at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire and in backyards throughout southeast Vermont. In the last two years, we have processed nearly four tons of local quince which we freeze in slices and puree, and then make small batches throughout the year. To date, distribution of Vermont Quince products largely has been through a single Vermont-based distributor, a few large wholesale accounts, and direct to customers at festivals and farmers’ markets who happily participate in the crowd-sourcing of new recipes. Given the relative scarcity of New England grown quince, Vermont Quince has opted to establish ourselves as a regional purveyor of specialty quince products rather than send precious fruit to markets that have more quince than we do!
Early in the multi-year (and ongoing) product development process of the dulce de membrillo or quince paste, we discovered that classic recipes call for equal parts fruit and sugar. The amount of organic cane sugar added to Vermont Quince’s quince puree is 65% of the fruit weight and we also add a bit of Vermont maple syrup and organic lemon juice.
We have been gratified when, in a number of blind taste tests, local chefs chose Vermont Quince paste over the imported brands they were serving. We believe that one of the main reasons our paste is preferred is that we schedule our small batches every 4-6 weeks throughout the year and are able to inform our relatively small number of large customers when the next “fresh” batch will be cooked.
Packaging and selling our paste as a perishable product is a decision made to help ensure that it does not get lost among other preserves on shop shelves.
In terms of sustainability, Vermont Quince’s arrangement to procure all of Alyson’s Orchards’ wholesale fruit is obviously a lynchpin to all that we do. Another important partner is Grafton Village Cheese Company which provides us with low-cost storage, distribution support, and serves as our largest wholesale customer. Vermont Quince is licensed to use the kitchen at Harlow Farm, one of the oldest organic farms in Vermont, for raw fruit processing and tiny batch seasonal preserves production, and a small local community kitchen (equipped with funds from a grant proposal that I wrote) for ingredient preparation and product development. Larger batches of Vermont Quince products sold to wholesalers and distributors are now co-packed in the commercial kitchen of Fox Meadow Farm in southern Vermont (although I continue to be personally involved in raw fruit processing and ingredient sourcing).
We work hard to make tasty quince products using local quince and high-quality ingredients, and feel honored and grateful every time a customer selects Vermont Quince paste over products shipped half a world away. Thank you for joining the quince revival here in New England!