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The nose knows

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Last month, I spent my birthday evening with friends. It was the first day of summer, and we spent a long, luxurious evening on the porch. 

At one point, my hostess asked her family, “Do any of you know what happened to those nectarines I bought?” There was silence, then a guilty confession from her husband, her son, and his girlfriend. 

My hostess then recounted how, as she was walking through her local Whole Foods, she'd noticed a faint but delicious scent coming from a pile of nectarines. The scent prompted her to go through about 50 fruits to find six that smelled as if they might taste good. 

She knew that our noses and the perfumes of fruit are meant to work together, and that scent gives us a lot of information that can make us either delighted or dismayed when we get home with our nectarines. And I knew exactly what she was up against; I’ve done it myself. 

I, too, have spent 20 minutes trying to find a fruit with promise. People stare and think you’re nuts, but if you succeed, you get the prize.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A perfectly ripe peach has a fragrance all its own."]

When I stopped by Whole Foods the other day — and it didn't have to be Whole Foods, it could've been any other grocery store — I was struck by the blazing orange-and-rose apricots, peaches, and nectarines; the cool blues of berries; the reds of strawberries and cherries; the purple plums; the pale green and gold grapes and melons. 

There was also the usual array of out-of-season apples, grapefruits, and oranges. Actually, nothing was really in season (except in the most general possible sense) since it all came from different states, countries, and continents — from refrigerated warehouses far away. 

I stood back by the vegetables and gazed at all the fruit. It was a gorgeous array; my mouth watered for it. But when I walked through it, I was struck by the utter absence of smell. I picked up a few peaches and nectarines and brought them to my nose. Nothing. They were hard as rocks and held not a hint of promise. I knew I wouldn’t find a real peach there.

So I watched people shop. We are dutiful shoppers. We've been told about eating so many servings of fruits and vegetables and, by gosh, we're going to do that. We get our plastic bags and choose our fruits, which go right into the bags. No one brings a peach to her nose for a sniff to tell her it’s almost ready to eat, or beyond ready, or will never be so. 

We have learned, we shoppers, that there is nothing to smell. The art of using the nose to detect a fruit’s promise through scent has died in the supermarket. The nose has become useless; if we didn't use it for breathing, it might one day become just an extra appendage.

A friend came just in time from California, bearing a gift of 10 of Mas Masumoto’s Flavorcrest peaches. They were firm, but not rock-hard. They had a marvelous fragrance, and when we sliced one open, the flesh was deep orange and full of complex, spicy flavors. Eating them was transporting. 

This was my summer. I got to taste the real thing, and I was satisfied. (Though I would like more.)

If you don’t already do so, try using your nose when you shop for fruit. Bring a fruit to it and inhale deeply. There should be something there. If not, the fruit you're holding has been picked way too early and will probably just shrivel up without ripening. 

If there’s a sweet, alluring scent, and the fruit is still firm but not hard, then there's promise, a sign you should probably buy it, that it will taste good. But if it's faintly boozy when you give it a whiff, it’s starting to ferment, and is over the hill. 

No need to break things down more than this.


reference-image, l