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Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Breath of Fresh Air in the Valley…


“There comes a blessed moment of the year when we know we are mowing the lawn for the last time,” John Updike stated in his novel The Witches of Eastwick. The other day I mowed the back of the place. Hopefully it was a “blessed moment,” too, the last mowing of 2010.

As I was chugging along the side fence, I breathed in a familiar whiff of something. Now in this Valley of sudden smells, many of which assault the nose quite aggressively, this gentle waft of odor was a pleasant, delightful fragrance. I recognized it immediately: late October, an olfactory message from my quince, “We’re ripe!”

Air fresheners

For a bit of “old codger” devilment a couple years back I asked a young man in Safeway’s produce department where I might find the quince. “Quince?”he repeated--as if that sound had never before had utterance. “Let me go ask the manager,” he said, puzzling over the word, as he headed for the rear of the store. A short while later he returned with an apology that there were no quince to be had. More devilment: “You don’t know what a quince is, do you?” “No” was the tentative answer. I left him alone then, poor lad, probably wondering if his encounter with me signified the rest of his work shift.

Quince, a forgotten fruit, an avatar of pioneer days. I am surprised how many folks have neither seen a quince nor heard of the fruit either. Of the four women who took my home canning class last summer only one had seen a quince. And one of participants had never even heard of such a thing. I suppose a little education is in order. Quince belong to the pear family (my quince tree was grafted on pear rootstock), look like pears, grow much the same way: begin as a bulge on the end of a stem and evolve five months later into a pear with a waistline problem. The pear-like similarity ends there. A quince does not smell like a pear; a quince does not taste like a pear; and while a quince will pare like a pear, it cores like a block of wood. A bite of quince will not only pucker you up, it will hurt your mouth while doing it. Biting into a quince is like chomping on a block of balsa wood—without the tart quince flavor, of course. To give you an idea what it takes to quarter and core a quince, I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the bumbling rustic Peter Quince in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was by trade a carpenter.

So what’s a quince good for, you say? Why plant a quince tree, you ask? I needed no better reason than nostalgia. When I was hardly more than a bulge myself, my mom and dad lived a short time with my maternal grandparents in a rattling old three story house on Wenatchee Avenue. I remember three items in the landscaping of that capacious old house: a trumpet vine plant, a small grove of lilacs (from which I’d snitch small bouquets and sell to the passersby strolling along the Ave), and a quince tree on the south property line. From time to time over the years I thought about that quince tree: the squat, yellow globes, the tart, cardboardy texture of the fruit when I pitted my baby teeth against its unyielding flesh. Those thoughts turned into the quince tree by the back fence.

No, quince don’t lend themselves to an “invite yourself,” fresh, tree-ripened repast—even if you’ve long since lost those infant pearly whites. Nor would I recommend a bowl of sliced quince with sugar and cream ( a much improved dish, less the quince). With quince it’s really the flavor you’re after, thus it’s the fruit for jam and jelly: quince-apple marmalade, quince jelly, cinnamon-sugared quince, quince compote, quince preserves (thickly spread between four layers of yellow cake and drowned in thick swirls of whipped cream). Because of its tartness, you can use quince to make pectin, the substance added to fruit pulp and juice to make them “set.”cinnamon syrup quince and jelly

And that delicate scent? Try a quince air freshener. Put one in the microwave and zap it for a few seconds, and you have a house full of Glade right from your own backyard. I take a tree-ripened globe and pop it into the trash bag in my truck. For days it’ll outlast those little tree air fresheners from 7-11. Today I installed one in the truck. I’ll have a quince sweetened cab from now until Christmas.

The other day Brett De Vries was doing some fall yard cleanup. I stopped to chat with him a while. Brett commented that just yesterday the Valley was especially malodorous. A little back flushing at the dairy, perhaps?  Since the quince are ripe, too, I’m thinking about rigging up some sort of a hanger device for my ball cap, dangling a quince from it, and heading out with Gladys…see what we can do to freshen up the Valley a bit.

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