On Christmas morning, my grandmother remarked that the thing she remembered most about Christmases from her own childhood in the 1930s was the smell of the apples and oranges the family would get on that one special day. While other fruits were readily available in East Texas at the time—the blackberries that climbed in clotted, thorny tangles on barbed wire fences, the peaches from a handful of nearby orchards—apples and oranges were a rare treat.
"The whole house smelled like them," she said. Then, a pause. "Oranges and apples just don't smell anymore." She's right, of course; when was the last time a raw apple sitting on the counter evoked the scent of a sweet, crisp breeze? Or the scent of a sack of oranges smelled like a heady drive through southern Spain? And let's not even get started on how different the bananas of today are from the bananas of the 1930s.
Such is the price of homogeneity in appearance, of low-low-prices, of availability year-round in even the most otherwise unsuitable climates. Yes, we can get strawberries or tomatoes any time we want, but have you tried many of these year-round strawberries or tomatoes? Frauds. They look shiny and deep-red and sweet, but the flavor is a ghostly remnant of summers long past. And this is all well and fine but I really wonder, when they taste these things, whether my children will have any understanding of why my grandmother loved those dear apples and oranges so much, or any comprehension of why I worked so fervently to pick those inky blackberries through the pricks and stabs, single-mindedly focused on the flaky pies and tart jams they'd eventually become.
A couple of days later, I was contemplating my own Christmas gift this year: a pair of fat black truffles, fresh from Provence courtesy of my saint of a mother. If you believe in such a thing as snorting up a noseful of terroir from a piece of food, truffles are the sensory equivalent of being ever-so-briefly transported to another, much older, perhaps mossier place, where people probably enjoy wine before noon.
I didn't come to enjoy my first truffle until I was 30 years old, so I have no idea how my perception of the scent and flavor of a truffle differs from someone who grew up eating and enjoying them, but there is something comforting in the fact that they are stubbornly resistant to being cultivated; they're wild, headstrong little things. It's comforting to think that these little knobs of weird fungus are perhaps much the same as the truffles eaten by generations past.
Since truffles don't keep for much more than a week, I immediately got to work making the most of my Christmas treat. I paired shavings from the first black truffle with some eggs my neighbor brought me from her mother's nearby farm. The yolks were a sunset orange and tasted buttery and golden. For dessert, I dug out a long-hoarded item from my pantry: a squat jar of honey from my friend Diane's hives in the Heights, given to me a year ago. I painted a few slices of bread with Kerrygold butter, drizzled a few spoonfuls of Diane's honey on top and microplaned a few more shavings of truffles in a final flurry.
Despite the truffles, it was the honey that stood out, with a lingering, gentle sting on the palate. Every nibble offered a slight crunch; it's a honey with body and bite. I don't have to tell anyone that the honey in the mass-marketed, grocery store plastic bears tastes like the sugar water we used to put out for the hummingbirds; it's one note, sharp and crass. It doesn't taste like honey any more than the maple syrup on the table at IHOP tastes like a Vermont forest. It doesn't taste like honey any more than Heinz tastes like Malaysian kecap (though some may argue this is both a fine thing and a pretty far-fetched comparison).
Now, I can't pretend that I can taste the terroir of the Heights in Diane's honey, like one could sniff out some evocatively ancient odor in those truffles, but I can tell you it tastes like itself. It doesn't taste like a simulation of itself. It tastes like the honey your friend's bees made just down the street, that she scraped from the combs and put into a jar and brought to you and that's like no other taste in the whole world.
What an intense privilege, to be fortunate enough to have nice things like these—wildly scented truffles, local eggs with cheerfully lurid yolks, honey that tastes like honey. What a privilege to have once had apples that smelled like apples and oranges that smelled like oranges.