Monday, October 20, 2008

The most wonderful home scent

Smell and memory are linked so closely that I can’t be sure how much my initial experience of this particular aroma has coloured my current perception, but I’m sure I can’t be alone in thinking this must be one of the most delicious scents anywhere.

Our first experience of it was in France. It was a moody September day just outside of Moustiers-Sainte Marie in Provence. As we drove the narrow road up a mountainside to our destination for that evening, the rain began to pour down. Through a miracle of good luck, we found our chateau, which emerged all rosy stucco and pale blue shutters at the end of a winding lane through a chestnut wood. The rain had stopped and afternoon sun was slanting through tree branches, raising a slight mist and turning everything to gold. Like so many French chateaux now being rented out by ambitious new owners to tourists, this one had fallen from its former glory, but its air of grandeur remained intact. We were early and since no one came to greet us when we called, we walked through the heavy open doors onto a worn limestone floor and then into a high ceilinged dark paneled room with an imposing stone mantle and game trophies crowding the walls. At one end of the room was a doorway lit by the sun which we headed towards almost automatically. There in a rustic back kitchen, glowing in the gorgeous late day sunshine, was a bounty of golden fruits and the most pervasive and wonderful smell.

It was un coup de foudre. The fruits were quinces. I was in love.

A bowl of gold--quinces (and pears) from the local farmers' market

I didn’t think the name, which sounded like a description of a pained expression, did justice to this fruit of the heavenly aroma, but then I discovered the inevitable downside to the seemingly perfect fruit: quinces, which look and smell like an otherworldly combination of apple and pear with a little extra je ne sais quoi, are too astringent and grainy to eat raw.

Quartered quince showing the grainy hard flesh

I’ve since poached quinces and strained them into gorgeous clear red jelly—their ivory flesh turns russet when cooked—but I love them best in a bowl, looking like slightly lumpy golden orbs and sending their lovely scent into every corner of my house. Sometimes, in the grocery store, I find quince imported from the middle east or asia, but the variety seems different, the fragrance not so intense. These ones came from the farmer’s market where two young girls told me they had climbed the tall quince tree in their backyard to pick them by hand the day before. Has anyone else fallen for a quince?


Garden Monkey said...

Quince eh? I was so inspired by your Membrillo post that I went right out to try to make it. I looked for weeks leading up to Thanksgiving with no luck. One produce person (at Whole Foods no less) actually asked 'is that a fruit or something?'. I ended up buying pre-made. Coming from a cheese-oriented family I was skeptical that you could improve upon the experience. You can, it was fantastic. Next year I vow to actually find the elusive Quince. I'm psyched to see how much better home made will be!
Thanks for the inspiration!

S and N said...

You are most welcome. I should tell you that although our farmers' market had two separate booths displaying quinces--which made them appear abundant, the quinces came from only three trees located in the yards of the two farming families. So, I don't think there are many quince orchards around--just a tree here and there. You may want to talk to some farmers at the local market to see if they know of anyone with a quince tree. We were just lucky. I hope you'll let us know if you find some next year. You'll love the home made membrillo. It is an amazing transformation and a perfect accompaniment to cheese. I'll never pass up a chance to make it again. Thanks for commenting.