It may be good for people to step away from the places where they were born, but it isn’t always the same for foods or wines.
A lot of what we eat and drink is a poor second or third generation of its better and more distant parent.
Wisconsin cheddar, for example, is no English farmhouse cheddar, to be sure, nor is California Central Valley chablis anything at all like Burgundian Chablis. Those examples are as obvious as a second nose.
But food and drink in imitation of primal flavor is everywhere: “Italian-style” pasta sauce, Argentine “parmigiano,” even the lowly canned or boxed French onion soup.
This thought came to me — as many have done — several years ago by way of taste. I was in Portugal, at the Graham’s Porto lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, dining with Penny Symington and her husband, James, members of the large Symington family that owns Graham’s, among other Porto houses.
The meal was winding down and we were eating some Serra cheese, a semi-runny ewe’s milk cheese and one of Portugal’s most celebrated. Serra is often served with a thick quince paste that the Portuguese call marmelada (a similar confection in Spain is called membrillo).
This marmelada was a simple affair, but it was terrific: as orange as the setting sun, rather tangy, and with a grainy texture that itself helped scrub clean the fatty cheese from the mouth. And it had buckets of flavor for something made of mere fruit, like a combined concentrate of tart-sweet apples and d’Anjou pears.
I’ve had other quince pastes — from California, from Canada — but they were shadows of this marmelada. Why? Perhaps because, simply, they were not marmelada. They were copies, well-meaning attempts to capture a primal taste but, in the end, copies.
The Portuguese did not invent marmelada or other marmalades of various fruits. As for quince preserves, they began in ancient Rome, then to medieval Arabia and on to France. But in the present day, the Portuguese do quince paste best.
And so it is, for a lot else that we eat and drink, with other originals and their copies.
It’s an open question whether the winemakers of California and Oregon yet seek the Holy Grail of making their pinot noir “like Burgundy.” (Or their sparkling wine “like Champagne” and their cabernet-based red wine blends “like Bordeaux.”)
To their credit, more and more winemakers have ceased that charade and now accept what the West Coast climates give them: by and large, wines with deep, dark fruit and a lot less funk than Burgundy’s.
It’s a grown-up though humbling attitude, to acknowledge that site and soil will tell you how to make a food or a wine. Perhaps the American wine people have learned something from the American cheese people who some time ago realized that copying cheeses wasn’t as tasty as coming up with your own.
Our supermarkets are still replete with “camembert” or “gouda” from some Midwestern state, but the contemporary success story of American cheese is told from the small goat, ewe and cow herds that give up their milk to artisans who fashion small-batch, sometimes rustic cheeses.
There are now dozens and dozens of examples, all pure-bred American. To cite merely two: one of the more rewarded cheeses in American history, Wisconsin’s Please Ridge Reserve; or Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, from Point Reyes Station, California, a washed rind triple-cream, with a deep, earthy flavor.
All these hundreds of artisan cheeses are reflections of their birthplaces. Because each herd’s food and silage come from specific pastures and farms, and because each dairy or cheese cave is replete with its own microflora and microbes, these artisan cheese makers cannot help but fashion cheeses different one from the other.
Moreover, they contrast from any “mother cheese” such as Brie or Gorgonzola that, to bring the argument full circle to its source, is specific to its own site.
In all, mine is an argument to travel to the places where primal foods and wines come from, to cook with ingredients that do not have frequent flyer miles — to eat asparagus in the spring only, say — to buy from and help make prosper local food artisans, and to learn to taste and prefer in wines and foods not only their pure flavor, but more, the place from which they come.
I have not seen Portuguese marmelada for sale in Colorado, but Spanish membrillo appears readily available in specialty or gourmet stores’ cheese sections. Give it a try, each slice or small square with a different sort of cheese. It’s a neat taste experiment.
Or, because cooking with quince is not common or even easy, make a sort of membrillo from local apples. That’s the recipe here.
Green Apple “Membrillo”
You must use tart green apples (or red, if you can find them), such as Granny Smith. Braeburn would work in a pinch.
- 1 1/2 pounds tart apples, peeled, cored well and cut into chunks
- 1 small lemon
- 1/2 cup apple juice or cider
- 1 pound (2 1/4 cups) granulated sugar
Peel the lemon, reserving the peel, and remove as much of the white pith as possible. Quarter the lemon and remove the seeds. Add the apples, the lemon parts, the juice or cider and the sugar to a food processor and purée until very smooth.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, simmer the apple paste over low heat for 45 minutes, uncovered, stirring often. Depending on the constitution of the apples, you may need to cook the paste for 1 hour or slightly more. It is ready to be formed when it is a deep dark reddish color and a teaspoon of it dropped on a cold plate firms up to the touch after a few minutes.
Pour the paste into parchment paper- or plastic film-lined loaf baking pans or other forms to your liking. Level the paste by rapping the pan(s) on the counter. It should not lay too deep overall, not over 2 inches deep. Let it cool completely, lightly covered with plastic wrap (otherwise, the top dries out and forms a film).
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