Monday, January 13, 2014

These are them

At last! These are lychee fruit. Why do we care? Because wine writers so often trot them out as a taste descriptor for white wines, especially for expensive chardonnays -- or so my memory serves. Lychee usually follows a string of other fruit and flower names, all of them luscious, many tropical, most of them mostly familiar, as apple, peach, mango, pineapple, hibiscus, or tea rose. When the mind, lulled along savoring these, then reads "lychee" it assumes it must connote something similar, only better -- more golden, juicy, plump, and wonderful somehow.

I can tell you that under its pretty raspberry-red shell, the pulpy white little lychee fruit, holding a small smooth brown stone inside, smells exactly like fresh fish.

This seems wrong. The lychee is the fruit of an evergreen tree native to those areas of southern China and southeast Asia which give it the conditions it needs to thrive, namely, "a tropical or subtropical climate with a distinct dry season" (The Oxford Companion to Food). People ages ago noticed the fussiness of the tree, and took great pains to source its fruit anyhow, because fresh lychees are so delicious. Full of "exquisite perfume" and tasting, again according to the Oxford Companion, like a moscato grape -- ah so -- they were a luxury for Chinese emperors and their courts, shipped to the cold north for lychee-eating temple parties and to satisfy the cravings of favored concubines. Surely no one, whether grower or emperor, prince or vizier, or great lady of Tang or Sung, would have bothered for a little morsel of white pulp that smells like fish. Perhaps the things don't travel all that well from Thailand, or do not grow or produce as happily in Hawaii or Florida as they do in their native clime. And so I have not met them at their best. 

I imagine many wine writers have met them at their best, which is why they think "lychee" when they want to say some white wine tasted marvelous. My memory tells me it is usually chardonnays that get this comparison, but perhaps I am wrong. The real chemical connection in play lies elsewhere. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking explains that the fruit is "distinctively floral due to the presence of a number of terpenes (rose oxide, lanalool, geraniol; Gewurztraminer grapes and wine share many of the same notes)." Now if we look up Gewurztraminer in a few sources chosen at random, will we see lychee in its train? Let's try:

  • Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible: "Litchi nuts" (a misnomer. When dried, the smooth white pulp hardens and rattles in its raspberry red shell).
  • Jancis Robinson, How to Taste: "a heady, almost perfumed lychee scent"
  • Oz Clarke's New Encyclopedia of French Wines (1982): "especially lychees"
  • Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Wine for Dummies: "roses and lychee fruit" 
  • Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst, The New Wine Lover's Companion: "flavor characteristics of litchis"

Ah so. Gewurztraminer/lychee begins to remind me of Any Red Wine/black currant, another common descriptor pair that puzzles me because the one half of the pair is so obscure. Taste experience or received wisdom? Who outside of a nineteenth-century, Huck Finn boyhood has last seen a black currant, who outside imperial China has tasted a fresh lychee that did not smell of fish?

Talking of China, let us open up another old book at random -- Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, why not -- and read. We are somewhere about the fourth century of the Common Era, let us say, the year 350 CE.
A select band of the fairest maidens of China was annually devoted to the rude embraces of the Huns; and the alliance of the haughty Tanjous was secured by their marriage with the genuine, or adopted, daughters of the Imperial family, which vainly attempted to escape the sacrilegious pollution. The situation of these unhappy victims is described in the verses of a Chinese princess, who laments that she had been condemned by her parents to a distant exile, under a barbarian husband; who complains that sour milk was her only drink, raw flesh her only food, a tent her only palace; and who expresses, in a strain of pathetic simplicity, the natural wish that she were transformed into a bird, to fly back to her dear country, the object of her tender and perpetual regret (Modern Library, vol. 1, p. 914).
My how big, and how old, the world is. Do you suppose the poor princesses also missed litchi?

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