Autumnal Scents and Tastes

 persimmons

The enjoyment of delicious food and beautiful scents are among life’s most wonderful pleasures, and in fact, these pleasures are tightly linked. Imagine holding a ripe yellow pear in your hand. Bring it to your nose and inhale the scent of its skin. The rush of fruity notes with their lemon and banana nuances will hit you almost immediately. Now take a bite. As you swallow, the caramel and milky notes become more evident. Finally, you might even notice some lingering almond nougat sweetness. Voilà, a fragrance pyramid on the tip of your tongue! To celebrate such simple pleasures, I would like to share some highlights of autumnal scents and flavors, seasonal delights that make me forget shortened days, colder nights and rainy mornings. Whether these pleasures include a luscious chestnut montblanc, quince stewed till it turns ambery-red, decadent persimmon jelly, julienned turnips tossed with pomegranate seeds or a slice of pumpkin flan, they are as much about fragrance as about flavor. I hope that this list along with suggested flavor affinities (some of which I found during my perfumery raw material training) will provide some inspiration to explore new pairings.

Quinces

I find quince to be the most marvelously perfumed fruit, rivaling fresh strawberries and peaches. Its fragrance is a combination of violet, rose, caramel, apricot, and licorice with a hint of vanilla, sandalwood and jasmine. While it cannot be eaten raw, cooked quince, which turns from ivory to ruby red, offers plenty of culinary possibilities. Toss peeled halves in lemon juice, cover with a scented sugar syrup (1 cup sugar, 2 cups water, 2 cloves, vanilla, which is enough for 4 quinces) and either simmer it gently or bake it at 300F till the fruit softens. Let it cool in its juices and store in the fridge. Prepared this way, quince can be eaten Turkish style garnished with clotted cream and chopped walnuts. It is also delicious used in pies, crumbles, and sorbets; served along with cheese, yogurt or ice cream, roast duck or lamb.

Flavor affinities: sweet spices (cinnamon, clove, vanilla, nutmeg, star anise), cardamom, bay leaf, dried figs, apples, sheep milk cheese, rosewater, brown sugar, caramel, brandy, pistachios, walnuts.

Cranberries

Ever since I have smelled Sophia Grojsman’s cranberry and rose combination in 100% Love, I have been obsessed with this pairing. The pleasantly bitter and valeric scent of cranberries is underpinned by an acidity that matches very well with rose notes. Imagine my delight when I discovered a number of recipes in 19th century Russian cookbooks for tart berries flavored with rosewater. One delicious preparation is to cook cranberries in water till the skins pop, press out the juice and add sugar to taste. When cool, flavor with a bit of rosewater and garnish with mint. Besides traditional North American cranberry sauce, this berry can used to provide an acidic note in baked fish dishes and braised lamb with herbs. I also love using them instead of lingonberries in Vispipuuro, a traditional Finish semolina based porridge.

Flavor affinities: orange, lemon, mandarin, cinnamon, clove, ginger, honey, pears, pork, poultry, pumpkin, sweet potato, vanilla, rosewater, orange flower water, star anise, tarragon, cream.

Pomegranates

A ruby filled jewel box, pomegranate is a dramatic fruit, simply breathtaking in its intricate structure. In perfumery, pomegranate accords tend to capture the powdery green scent of the fruit’s skin, but the tangy, winy taste of the seeds is what appeals to me. The juice can used for drinks (mix it with sugar and rosewater for a Persian inspired sharbat,) and marinades for meat or fish like salmon and mackerel. The seeds can garnish salad and fruit desserts. I especially like to make a yogurt based salad with pomegranate, adding mint, scallions and cilantro as garnishes.

Flavor affinities: almonds, beets, avocado, arugula, endives, lamb, duck, turkey, salmon, garlic, walnuts, parsley, tarragon, mint, orange, lemon, yogurt, pinenuts, pistachios, rosewater .

Persimmons

I bite a persimmon
the bell tolls
Horyu-ji Temple
Masaoka Shiki, a 19th century Japanese poet, who wrote the aforementioned haiku has a strong affection for persimmons to which I can relate. Even on a purely visual level, persimmons are striking—deep, rich orange, glossy, curvy. The flavor is likewise wonderful—a mélange of cooked pumpkin, melon and apple with a hint of star anise, date and caramel. Fuyu, the tomato look alike, can be eaten when hard, as it completely lacks astringency. Some varieties have dark brown interiors with a particularly rich toffee flavor. Fuyu is a very good contender for salads and side dishes. Another commonly found variety is hachiya, an elongated fruit with a pointed bottom. It has to be completely soft before it can be eaten, since the unripe fruit contains a high amount of tannins. Once hachiya is soft and yielding, it can be eaten as is by scooping out its delicious pulpy jelly with a spoon. Or it can be turned into sorbets, ice creams, puddings or mousses. Whipped with some heavy cream and served with gingerbread cookies, it offers a complex autumnal flavor.

Flavor affinities: sweet spices (cinnamon, cassia, allspice, clove, vanilla, nutmeg, star anise), ginger, lemon, cured meats, goat cheese, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, maple syrup, oats, sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, yogurt, shrimp .

Chestnuts

With their rich earthy flavor and luxurious creamy texture, chestnuts are a special seasonal treat. Although peeled and cooked chestnuts are available year round, they simply cannot rival their fresh counterparts, even though they are a bother to peel. My trick for dealing with chestnuts is to make a small cut in each nut, drop thus prepared chestnuts in boiling water for 10-15min and then to peel them with gloved hands while they are still hot. If they cool down, it becomes very difficult to remove the bitter inner skin. Chestnuts are really quite versatile, suitable for desserts as well as savory dishes. Their dark, complex flavor means that they do best with bolder flavors, rather than anything overly delicate. In Persian cuisine, they are often stewed with duck or lamb. Try substituting them for potatoes in soups and side dishes.  Steamed with rice, they can be used to create a classical Japanese fall dish. For dessert, it is hard to find anything better than Montblanc. There are lots of variations, but my favorite is the simplest one, except that I serve it with grated chocolate instead of caramel sauce. Sugar syrup poached chestnuts served with roasted pears are also heavenly.

Flavor affinities: chocolate, honey, pear, orange, hazelnuts, vanilla, ginger, mushrooms, Brussel sprouts, pumpkin, bacon and other cured pork products, smoked salmon, duck, game, lentils.

New Crop Walnuts

The taste of milky-sweet and soft first season walnuts is the reason I look forward to fall. The only fragrance that comes close to replicating this scent-flavor experience is that of high-quality vetiver oil. The unique caramel, cereal and milk flavor of walnuts makes them irreplaceable in my kitchen. Other than eating them plain or turning them into brittle and nougat, I love them as fillings in coffeecakes and pastries. Walnuts mixed with cardamom and rosewater have a classical Persian-Middle Eastern profile, while paired with cinnamon they become redolent of the Mediterranean. Add apricot jam and rum, and you can almost hear the Viennese waltz in the background. Pureed with garlic, olive oil, vinegar, mint and parsley, they turn into a delicious sauce to serve with eggplants, fish or grilled poultry. Mixed with grated onion, pureed dried apricots, salt and lemon juice to taste, walnuts can be used as a stuffing for fish, even as delicate as trout.

Flavor affinities: apples, pears, orange, dates, dried fruit (figs, prunes, apricots, cherries,) black tea, chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, maple syrup, honey, cognac, brandy, port, rum, Grand Marnier, molasses, oats, brown rice, buckwheat, fish, chicken, eggplant, onion.

Pears

From the tiny rose flavored Seckel to the banana scented Williams (Barlett) variety, pears embody lush, decadent autumnal tastes. Although pears are often treated as dessert, in some national cuisines they have an important role in savory dishes. In Sicily, they are sometimes added to an eggplant based vegetable dish called caponata. An autumnal seasonal specialty in southern Russia is a cold carp stuffed with pears and onions. A pear, tomato and onion compote can be served alongside any protein, including game and red meat. Pureed pear mixed into Dijon mustard is a great condiment for cold meats. Pear, parmesan and aged balsamic vinegar is a classical North Italian combination, while pears and Roquefort find staunch supporters in France. Of course, pear desserts are a story in their own right. What else can rival Poires Belle-Hélène, a dessert of poached pears served with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and candied violets. Well, perhaps warm cobblers, crumbles, pies and crisps…

Flavor affinities: vanilla, star anise, cinnamon, basil, ginger, fennel, cheese, pork, duck, carrot, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, toffee, black tea, saffron, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Amaretto, rum, wine, prosciutto.

Pumpkins

For most people in the US, pumpkin is tightly linked to fall and Thanksgiving holidays. Even Starbucks has jumped onto the bandwagon in recent years by introducing the Pumpkin Spice Latte or something along those lines. I confess that I have never been a fan of pumpkin pie, mostly because the filling is often so sweetened and over spiced that it is not possible to taste the pumpkin itself. Yet, it is a lovely delicate flavor that ranges from sweet and fruity to crisp and green depending on the variety. I love pumpkin roasted at 400F with just a dash of salt, sugar and butter. Pureed pumpkin can be used as a basis for ice creams, puddings, cakes or breads. Mashed with butter and a hint of cinnamon, it provides a perfect foil for most proteins, especially red meats and duck. Poached in sugar syrup like quince, it can be served for dessert with walnuts and whipped cream. In Western Ukraine and other Eastern European countries (particularly in the southern parts,) finely grated pumpkin mixed with sugar, walnuts and cinnamon is used as an aromatic strudel filling. Finally, for a beautiful Thai style dessert, small pumpkins can filled with coconut custard and steamed.

Flavor affinities: sweet spices (cinnamon, cassia, allspice, clove, vanilla, nutmeg, star anise), ginger, saffron, vanilla, apple, pear, potato, carrot, chocolate, red chili pepper, garlic, coconut, brown sugar, pineapple, cranberry, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, seafood, rice, walnuts .

Dried Mediterranean Figs

Dried figs are available in the US year round, but especially delectable ones turn up in the fall as a new crop of figs is dried. White Mediterranean figs are among my favorite foods. The outsides are leathery, white from natural sugar crystals, while the interiors are jammy and sticky, with a wonderful caramel flavor. At this time, it becomes possible to find bay leaf and mastic flavored figs from Greece, walnut stuffed figs from Turkey or candied orange and raisin flavored confections from Italy. If you can find dried figs wrapped in fig leaves, it can be a special treat, as the fig leaves are rich in coumarin, which lends fruit a particularly haunting almond flavor.

Flavor affinities: cinnamon, cassia, bay leaf, chocolate, sesame seeds, walnuts, mastic, rosewater, red wine, duck, lamb, caramel, cream, cheese, honey, orange, prunes, grapes, apples, maple syrup, red wine, port, cognac.

Image of hachiya persimmons © Bois de Jasmin. All rights reserved.

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13 Comments

  • Olfactoria: Hhhmmmm, wonderful, thank you.
    You reminded me to take the time to really taste and appreciate food, so many wonderful mini-perfumes right there.
    I’m off to the farmer’s market now… November 22, 2010 at 7:22am Reply

  • Victoria: Olfactoria, I really love fall for these seasonal treats. Nothing beats a well-ripened persimmon for me. November 22, 2010 at 10:08am Reply

  • sweetlife: What a treat!

    And I love your flavor profiles, too. I do a lot of that kind of pairing in my mind, as a cook, and I imagine there is a lot of crossover for you between your perfumery studies and that kind of flavor dreaming.

    Have you seen this book? I was drooling over it just the other day… http://www.amazon.com/Flavor-Bible-Essential-Creativity-Imaginative/dp/0316118400/ref=lh_ni_t_\ November 22, 2010 at 12:42pm Reply

  • sweetlife: P.S. Because Texas is so close to Mexico, we often see pumpkin used as a sweet/savory vegetable, as in empanadas, or in soups, or dumplings. Pumpkin seeds are also an important Mexican ingredient–the shelled, roasted seeds, pepitas, are important for mole.

    OK V., now I’m starving! November 22, 2010 at 12:49pm Reply

  • Victoria: Dear A, oh, what a great book, I will check it out. I read about their Wine Bible too, which lists pairings of wine with food.
    There are lots of materials that are used in both perfumery and flavors, although ironically, the materials for the flavor usage are often not allowed to be used in fragrances, as they produce allergic reactions when applied on skin (nothing adverse if eaten.) Still, some novel accords are created around flavor notes, and those are among my favorite projects. Thinking about it really expands your concept of what is appropriate as a fine fragrance. Also, not all flavor notes used are sweet, dessert variety. Many are savory, and they are really interesting! November 22, 2010 at 1:05pm Reply

  • Victoria: By the way, have you seen “My Sweet Mexico” cookbook (desserts and baked items, plus candy)? It is excellent, and I have already tried a few recipes (marzipan stuffed prunes, conchas, rice pudding with cinnamon.) I am really tempted by her pumpkin desserts, especially since pumpkin is something I grew to love only recently. As a child, the only form I have ever encountered it was pumpkin porridge, which is nasty if made badly (and it sure was badly made at my local school cafeteria.) I grew to love pumpkin after an Armenian friend made a shepherd’s pie type dish with cubed pumpkin instead of mashed potatoes. It was amazing! November 22, 2010 at 1:09pm Reply

  • Zazie: What a wonderfully and mouthwatering post! I love many of the above mentioned autumn fruits and vegetables (I love fall tout court), and I especially love pumpkins.
    I like it in many ways, in particular when a zing of Ginger or citrus peel perks it’s sweet orange-ness with a golden shot.
    From the region I come from, there is this traditional and several-centuries-old recipe, “tortelli di zucca”, in which the filling is based on the striking pairing of pumpkin, lemon peel, amaretto and mostarda (which is NOT mustard! every food lover should have a bottle of mostarda in the kitchen! All those thick, colored, jellied fruits, soooo spicy and hot and sweet…. Hummmmm….).
    Pumpkin paired with one or the other of the ingredients above is also the base of northern Italy pumpkin risotto.
    Oh, and there is this great French variety, called potimarron, which is a magnificent shade of orangy red, and tastes between a pumpkin and a chestnut, hence the name.
    I know hardly anyone gets excited about pumpkins – they must have never tasted my veloutée… ;) November 22, 2010 at 2:54pm Reply

  • Zazie: Typo: I meant what a wonderfully fragrant and mouthwatering post, :( November 22, 2010 at 2:56pm Reply

  • Victoria: Zazie, I adore mostarda, and when I lived in Italy, I used to make myself with my “mother” (I went to school there and lived with a host family, which was amazingly generous, caring and loving.) Here in the US, I unfortunately cannot find essenza di senape anywhere, so I usually buy Italian brands of mostarda.

    How do you make your veloutée? I would love to know, as I am sitting here thinking of what to do with my potimarron. November 22, 2010 at 3:03pm Reply

  • Jessica A: What a mouthwatering post! I have never even tried a persimmon… now I’ll look for them. My grandmother used to make pumpkin stuffed with rice and cranberries for Thanksgiving dinner…unfortunately she gets too tired to cook now. I might ask her to teach me the recipe. November 25, 2010 at 9:08am Reply

  • Victoria: Jessica, I so wish I had asked my grandmothers more about their recipes! There is nothing like food made by their hands. November 27, 2010 at 1:56pm Reply

  • Flora: How delicious! The perfect listof fall bounties!

    I adore quince but it’s virtually impossible to buy the fresh fruit, at least where I live, you have to grow your own. One of these days I am going to splurge on some of that wonderful Spanish quince paste.

    I love persimmons too – either kind is fine with me, and I could eat them every day. November 28, 2010 at 11:56pm Reply

  • Victoria: Donna, I love Spanish quince paste too. It also make a delicious cookie or tart filling. I have a Moldovan friend who makes it herself, but she uses half quince, half apple. It is very delicious.

    I have a basket of persimmons on my table, which are taking their time to ripen. I am getting impatient! November 29, 2010 at 8:39am Reply

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