Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Flavour Thesaurus

Well I had all sorts of good intentions for Friday evening involving all sorts of productive activities and what did I actually do with my Friday night? Well after staring at my amazon wish list for a while, and spending some quality time on improving my recommendations I baked two cakes. Yes that’s right – two cakes, because one clearly wouldn’t be enough. In the process I’ve turned the kitchen into an even bigger bombsite than it was before which is sort of the opposite of what I meant to do with it, but on the bright side there’s cake...

The reason for such excess is Niki Segnit’s ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’. It’s given me idea’s, mostly idea’s about baking so far and I get caught that way quite often, but still I’m really taken with this book, and it has a lot more to it than cake. What first attracted my attention about this book was Segnit’s use of a flavour wheel; flavour wheels are popular in my line of work – we use them for wine, whisky and beer tasting, mostly to make it look like what we’re doing is Proper Work (see it must be work - I have a chart) and not drinking in the middle of the day for money. (Tasting really is hard work, and most of my job is moving boxes – I know that’s real work from the quantity of cuts and bruises I collect in a week.) The way I’m used to using these wheels is to identify specific flavours and general characteristics with the aim of identifying and remembering what I’m tasting but I wondered how it would be used in a foodie context.

Much as I’d expect the wheel is broken down into umbrella categories – floral fruity, roasted, meaty...within those categories specific foods, thus ‘earthy’ contains mushroom, aubergine, cumin, beetroot, potato, and celery. Each category becomes a chapter which takes its dedicated flavours and explores their pairing possibilities. Despite my description it’s very exciting. Segnit decided to limit herself to 99 flavours – well, you have to stop somewhere and first impressions are that she’s got it pretty much spot on, more would be too much. She also decided to stick to food pairings rather than more complex combinations and I think this is a part of the real genius of the book for a few reasons.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering on food and wine matching, it’s a big part of my job anyway and part of the homework that was keeping me so occupied a couple of weeks ago was working up endless food and drink scenarios. Concentrating on two main flavours makes matching a much simpler exercise, and if you want to get the most out of your wine this is A Very Good Thing. The discipline of thinking in two complimentary flavours won’t do me any harm either because I do have a habit of trying to complicate things, especially when the safety net of a recipe is removed.

Segnit talks about her collection of cookbooks being both a symptom and a cause of her lack of kitchen confidence, and of feeling bound to follow instructions in a way that made her question if she’d ever learned to cook (rather than simply follow instructions). It’s a point of view which certainly made me question my personal cookbook hoard but the answer that came to me was somewhat different. I’ve amassed a greater collection of books than recipes I actually regularly use. Each new book that comes into my kitchen inspires me; I make elaborate plans for when this or that is in season (and I enjoy it enormously). I’ve filled the Scottish ones garden with herbs so that next year I can make some wonderful sounding thing, but next year I can almost guarantee that work will keep me out of reach of the crucial ingredient until it’s gone over, or I forget what I had in mind for it.

The great thing about ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ is that it’s making me look at things from the other way around – take an ingredient, think of a complimentary flavour to make them both sing, and if I can’t find a recipe – well if the flavours are basically right together and I keep it simple not much can actually go wrong. I know this all sounds pretty obvious but I don’t think I’m alone in getting stuck on a single idea - this is how we have Lamb (and any other way is wrong)... and that old chestnut from the one you’ve tried so hard to impress with your cooking “it’s not how my mother makes it”!

I could (and most certainly will in a future post) say a lot more about this and that’s before I’ve even got onto Segnit’s writing style; she’s funny, opinionated and knowledgeable. Her likes and dislikes come through, which again I’m inclined to see as a good thing – this kind of book needs and deserves a good big dollop of personality, just as it needs the element of scholarship she’s bought to it. Basically a book that mildly intrigued me is turning into one that’s having a profound effect on how I approach the contents of the fridge – it’s a bit unexpected and really quite exciting.


  1. This book sounds great. I knew about complimentary colours making each other sing but had never considered that there were complimentary tastes. I used to see cooking as a bit of a chore but it's actually a creative act if you go off recipe.

    Your blog always makes me hungry!

  2. I read about this in Observer food monthly last night; it sounds absolutely fascinating. Must get hold of...

  3. I read about this in The Week and it sounds so interesting, and potentially really useful. I *was* put off, however, by the example given in the little review - parsnips and bananas. I feel quite sick writing that... but that is true of parsnips with (or, indeed, without) anything...

    Quick question - does it have lime, and what does she says goes well with it? I want to try more lime recipes.

  4. Tea Lady - Tea and Cake are a match made in heaven...I find cooking creative at any time but realise it's not everybody's thing.

    Simon, limes get a whole section and plenty of mentions. There are a lot of drink recipes, and a lot of fish and meat ones. There are some suggestions for lime and butternut squash which sound excellent.

  5. A whole lime section! Wonderful! Obviously fish and meat ones won't work for me, but lime and butternut squash does sound wonderful.

  6. I've got my own copy now - it's wonderful. Who knew about avocado and coffee for example?! I wasn't really uip to reading last night but hope to have more time to dip in over the weekend (I was surprised that she didn't suggest ginger with strawberries). I'm wondering now about a butternut squash risotto flavoured with lime...

  7. I wouldn't have minded if it was twice the size, I guess one book can only start to scratch the surace, but it's made me think about how flavours go together and why and I can't begin to express how excited this book got me:)

  8. I can do maths, but I'm hopeless at matching food and wine! To me it seems like an amazing talent and something I'm very curious about. This sounds like a very interesting (and complex to me) read.

  9. It's a funny book (ha ha funny not odd funny)but looks at the science of why flavours work. Sort of. Wine and food matching is the same sort of thing and boils down to 3 basic guidelines after that it's surprisingly simple, though people like to make it complicated...