Saturday, July 9, 2011

Deep Memory of Quince

We planted a quince bush in our garden, a Father’s Day gift—one that surprised and specially delighted me. I encountered quince when I was five in the gardens of a vast, cold, impossible-to-heat old house we moved into on one of my Father’s frequent transfers. But summers there were like Paradise. The yellow, pear-shaped quince, and especially what Mother made of it, remained sharply imprinted on my memory. When Monique and John, entirely on their own, discovered quince and bought their own bush, my enthusiasm was evident. And they decided that I should have my own.

Soon after we planted ours, I went to the Village Market. It is a small but very potent store in walking distance of our house. I had a talk with the manager there—we often talk—and asked him if anyone produced quince jelly. Schmuckers had done so long ago, no longer. The Village Market’s manager had learned his trade at the knees of his grandfather. In my opinion he is the most knowledgeable grocer certainly in Detroit and environs. He said at once that the Trappist Monks in Massachusetts sold it; then he also found another outfit in his huge printouts. Trappist sounded good to me. Friday last I picked up our jars at the market. They’d arrived from St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, MA (founded in 1950; the order itself goes back to 1098 in France). Now I’ll tell you honestly: This was just a pious gesture because I know what a jelly is. But what I remember eating 70 years ago was not a jelly but something you could slice. But what it was and might be called was buried too deep in memory.

I had some of that jelly for breakfast today. “It’s all sugar, mostly,” I told Brigitte. “Lord. I wish I could remember what it was Mother used to make back in Cegléd. Too bad we can’t just call Heaven by cell phone.” Brigitte also remembered something you could cut and, just sitting there, she invented a recipe she thought would work when, finally, our bush produces fruit. I said: “I’ll just go and try to find out what quince is in Hungarian. We live in the age of the Internet now.” Before I went I made my second cup of coffee. As I was stirring the cup, suddenly into my mind came the word birsalma. (The s is sounded as sh, the a as in awl.) And no sooner had this thought arrived than came a combination: birsalma sajt. Sajt means cheese. I knew at once that now I had it! Yes! Birsalma meant quince. And the solid something I remembered eating was called a cheese. Just calmly stirring my coffee, my memory finally brought the words—or my Mother got the call in Heaven and whispered the answer; no need for cell phones in such communications.

The rest was easy. Soon I had a recipe for birsalma sajt in Hungarian. Then I discovered that the phrase translates into English directly. Quince cheese is a well-known product to those in the know. Therefore soon I had multiple recipes, Spanish-style, Turkish-style, Hungarian-style, all in English, too. And one site, this one, also brought me a picture that confirmed it all visually. Yes, sir! That’s what it looked like. Quince is yellow on the outside but red inside. And quince cheese is quite firm, easy to slice, and lasts for a long time. Seventy years ago…

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