The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, eulogizing the taste of the durian, compared it to “rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities”. He neglected to discuss the smell of the fruit’s skin, which is so bad – somewhere between detergent and dog shit – that durians are barred from Thai hotels and aeroplanes. The different varieties bear strange names that do nothing to make them more appetizing: “frog”, “golden pillow”, “gibbon” and so on. However, the durian has fervent admirers, perhaps because it’s such an acquired taste, and because it’s considered a strong aphrodisiac. Aficionados discuss the varieties with as much subtlety as if they were vintage Champagnes, and treat the durian as a social fruit, to be shared around, despite a price tag of up to B3000 each. They also pour scorn on the Thai government scientists who have recently genetically developed an odourless variety, the Chanthaburi 1 durian.
The most famous durian orchards are around Nonthaburi, where the fruits are said to have an incomparably rich and nutty flavour due to the fine clay soil. To see these and other plantations such as mango, pomelo and jackfruit, your best bet is to hire a longtail from Nonthaburi pier to take you west along Khlong Om Non. If you don’t smell them first, you can recognize durians by their sci-fi appearance: the shape and size of a rugby ball, but slightly deflated, they’re covered in a thick, pale-green shell which is heavily armoured with short, sharp spikes (duri means “thorn” in Malay). By cutting along one of the faint seams with a good knife, you’ll reveal a white pith in which are set a handful of yellow blobs with the texture of a wrinkled soufflé: this is what you eat. The taste is best when the smell is at its highest, about three days after the fruit has dropped. Be careful when out walking near the trees: because of its great weight and sharp spikes, a falling durian can lead to serious injury, or even an ignominious death.