Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus

A few months ago, two of our British friends sent us a copy of The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (thanks, Steve and Rebecca). Similar in some ways to Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible, the subtitle of Segnit’s book gives a good, concise description: pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook. Both of these books address the fundamental question of “which ingredients go well together?,” but the styles and approaches of the two books are quite different. Specifically, the food matching section of The Flavor Bible is organized alphabetically by ingredient, with each section listing good, great, and superb pairings with that ingredient, occasionally also giving pairings to avoid. While Page and Dornenburg give frequent quotes from eminent chefs about favorite pairings, the book doesn’t really give recipes. In contrast, The Flavour Thesaurus organizes ingredients into groups, discusses specific pairings and frequently includes brief recipes based on those pairings. In both cases, the authors’ intent is to encourage culinary creativity rather than a “cooking by the numbers”-type slavish adherence to fixed recipes.

The Flavour Thesaurus characterizes 99 ingredients, putting them together into 16 flavor groupings, organized along the same lines as a color wheel (e.g., orange lies between red and yellow, green lies between blue and yellow, etc.). These flavor groupings have descriptive names much like the adjectives often applied to wines, names like “Floral Fruity,” “Earthy,” or “Brine and Salt.” Some of the ingredients listed in these groupings seem very natural, but others were quite surprising, at least to me. For example, the “Floral and Fruity” group included entries like raspberry, rose, and blueberry that seem "fruity and floral," but I was not expecting to see coriander seed or white chocolate included in this group. Nevertheless, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into these assignments, which are sometimes based on a chemical characterization of dominant flavor components. For example, cabbage is assigned to the “sulphurous” group in part because “dimethyl sulphide (DMS) is an important component in the flavour of cabbage.” Further, this observation forms the rationale for pairing cabbage with seafood, which is also noted to contain DMS.

The pairings included in The Flavour Thesaurus are often quirky little vignettes, like the entry for cabbage and garlic on page 119:

“If, as Mark Twain has it in Pudd’nhead Wilson, ‘cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education,’ cavolo nero is a cabbage with a holiday home in Tuscany.”

This is as much of a definition as Niki Segnit gives for cavolo nero, which appears to be a very desirable species of cabbage (The Food Lover’s Companion, 3rd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, defines “cavolo” as “Italian for ‘cabbage’.”). Segnit does give a recipe for bruschetta using cavolo nero, concluding with the advice that “kale will do fine if you can’t get the fancy stuff.”

Another interesting commentary appears in Segnit’s discussion of the pairing of capers with soft cheese, in the “mustardy” flavor grouping, where she recommends using French nonpareil capers, if possible. She goes on to say (page 103):

“They’re the really small ones that look like green peppercorns, and are highly regarded for their finer, radishy, oniony flavour. Spread the mix on crackers or rye bread and brace yourself for the little shocks of caper in each bite. The culinary equivalent of walking barefoot along a stony beach.”

In order to keep the book to a manageable length, it wasn’t possible to include everything, and some of the omissions are worth noting. For example, although “brine and salt” appears as one of the 16 flavor groupings, the ingredient “salt” does not appear in the book. Neither do black pepper or vinegar, or “the staple carbohydrates” aside from potatoes (e.g., neither rice nor pasta appear). These omissions stand in marked contrast to Page and Dornenburg’s Flavor Bible, which includes 10 sub-entries for different kinds of salt (ranging from “salt, fleur de sel” to “salt, vanilla”), along with a general entry on “saltiness,” 16 entries for various types of vinegar, four entries for different types of rice, and just over three pages devoted to pasta.

Overall, like Page and Dornenburg’s Flavor Bible, Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus is a really fascinating read, much like a visit to someplace new, with unexpected marvels tucked away everywhere you look. Although they are essentially devoted to the same subject – that of creative flavor pairings – the styles of these two books are quite different, and both are well worth reading. A word of advice about The Flavour Thesaurus, however: as the spelling of the title suggests, the book is written for a British audience, so some terms may leave American readers confused. As a specific example, in the “suphurous” section, between the entries for “cabbage” and “cauliflower” is a one-page entry for “swede.” It was clear from the discussion that the term referred to some sort of root vegetable, but neither my wife nor I had ever heard of it before. Fortunately, the Food Lover’s Companion had an entry that clarified things: “see rutabaga.”

No comments:

Post a Comment