The Immortals

by Sarah West

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The dominant character of the pome fruit is tartness, ranging from the pear’s syrup-cloaked acidity to the impenetrable sourness of quince and crabapples. Though we tend to laud the less tart among them, all pomes have found their way into our cuisines, raw and cooked, sweet and savory. Pome fruits are nostalgic, carrying memories of childhood, of crisp autumn days and long forgotten mythologies. Perhaps this is not surprising, as scent is our memory’s most reliable trigger and the pomes, as a clan, have perfected the art of perfume.

Botanically, pome fruits are a group defined by the fleshy ‘accessory tissue’ built around their core to protect, and perhaps encourage transport of, the seeds. Many plants use the pome form to disperse seeds. The pomes we see at market—pears, apples and quince—evolved in the fertile valleys of eastern Kazakhstan, where the first selections were made by bears and other wild mammals who sought out larger, sweeter fruits and dispersed their seeds in droppings.

Apples are the most recognizable of the pomes and one of the fruit world’s great success stories. Because of their convenient physiology, apples were easy to transport in the ancient world. Carried by traders along what would eventually be known as the Silk Road to the Fertile Crescent and Europe, apples traveled a great distance in a relatively short period of time. By the age of the Roman Empire, they were firmly rooted in the customs and mythologies of multiple European cultures.

Pomes fall into the same taxonomical family as roses, and rival their cousins in the category of enchanting fragrance. A ripe quince would tie any rose in the race to fill a room with knee-weakening perfume. Cook that quince slowly, and its fragrance develops into a flavor sequence that goes something like flower, apple, cranberry, saffron. Certain pear and apple varieties contain an undertone of spice as well—clove or nutmeg—as if they anticipated a future need to harmonize with the warming flavors of cinnamon and ginger.

Since its diaspora began, pome fragrance has worked a subtle magic on us. Symbol of fertility, immortality, love, and temptation, the apple played many integral roles in European and Central Asian mythology. Though the bible makes no mention of specifically what fruit should not be picked from the forbidden tree, art and literature of the era made it clear that the people’s choice was the apple—or was it quince? Early writings often conflated these two, and their appearance can be strikingly similar.

Given that these pome fruits all hail from the flanks of the Tian Shan Mountains that divide Kazakhstan and China, perhaps the discrepancy doesn’t matter. Certainly a quince and an apple are distinct, but their provenance (along with pears’) followed a similar path, shrouding them all in the same brand of mystique. The Tian Shan are a range of high, snow-covered peaks and mist-filled valleys bordered, in part, by desert. Ancient Kazakhstan was virtually inaccessible and as much fodder for imagined inhabitants then as it is today: Herodotus’ Amazons to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.

In their new homelands, pomes became the emblem of mystical places and mythological personalities: the Garden of Hesperides, in which the Greek goddess Hera grew golden apples of immortality; Avalon, the Celtic utopian ‘island of apples’ featured in the legend of King Arthur; Idun, the Norse goddess who keeps the rest of her pantheon well fed with youth-preserving apples; and the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lost their immortality for a taste of the fruit of duality—a bite that contained good and evil, life and death.

Though our contemporary pomes carry a much lighter cultural load, we still pin hopes on them—an apple a day keeps the doctor away!—and consume them with equal vigor. And they still enchant. We flock to orchards in autumn for the privilege of seeing their jewel-colors dangling in the foliage, of plucking a portion of the treasury for ourselves and visiting the fragrant land they govern. Is not this intersection of scent and memory, this instant transport to a sweet but distant recollection, a kind of immortality?

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