Monsieur Proust is welcome to his madeleine. Those little cakes may have a rich provenance, but they are a rather wan substitute for more gorgeous desserts (crème puffs, chocolate mousse, etc). That a madeleine was transmuted by Proust to a “precious essence” can only be ascribed to a hypochondriac’s aversion to leaving his bed. If Proust had smelled and tasted the raspberries in my backyard, his prose would not only have risen to greater heights, he would have been a less dour mec and might even have moved out of his parents’ house.
But I have come to praise raspberries, not bury Proust.
First of all, each raspberry is unique. We’re told as children that no two snowflakes are alike, but all snowflakes taste, smell and look the same-except under a microscope, whereas the variations in size, color, taste and bouquet of raspberries are infinite.
Light pink when emerging, the fruit grows deeper in color, changing over the course of two weeks or so to a deep purple-red. Although a raspberry may be perfectly formed, don’t pick the fruit too early in the cycle. The bouquet is not developed and the taste somehow both flaccid and acrid. As the color deepens the taste and bouquet emerge.
Oenophiles speak of a wine’s “nose” and “body.” The word “raspberry” comes from a mid-15th century word raspise--"a sweet rose-colored wine" and all the complexities imputed to vintages from the Haut-Médoc may be found in this fruit. The bouquet and taste intertwine to create an experience that is pungent and regal; delicate and insouciant; subtle and stentorian.
A raspberry should be eaten in its natural state. Sugar and pectin are no friend to the raspberry, which does not translate well to jelly, preserves, even tarts. Freeze them if you must, but like a person with titanium implants who must respond to excess humidity, they will never be quite the same.
Unlike blackberries, when you pick a raspberry, it will come to your fingers without the central torus: hollow; with nothing pulpy to detract from the taste. When fully matured, the surface texture is pure velvet. A raspberry should yield slightly to the touch, but the tiny sections must cohere. Breeds of raspberries other than my own have many fine qualities, but tend to crumble in the hand, and no matter how quickly you shovel the pieces into your mouth, the experience will be disjointed, like listening to a stereo record through one speaker.
While Proust’s madeleines transported him to les temps perdue, eating raspberries anchors me in the present. It is one of the things in my life that effectively brings me here now. My bushes have yielded fruit annually for the last 20 years, making mid-July glorious even when the weather is not. I have done very little to help my raspberries prosper. Every spring, I cull the dead shoots; no fertilizer, no special watering or weeding.
With apologies to Matthew 6:28-33: Consider the raspberries of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.