Umami

 

This isn’t a restaurant review blog, nor is it about promotion or product placement, but sometimes an experience is worth stretching the boundaries.

We have long been familiar with the concept of being able to identify foods that taste sweet, sour, salty or bitter, but despite the fact that there were a great many flavours that don’t fit these categories, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that a fifth taste was identified when a Japanese professor discovered the role that glutamate performs in the taste of broths, soy sauces and more. He called this umami, which can be translated as delicious taste.   Think meatiness, think mushrooms, think marmite, think Parmesan.

I first heard the term, almost inevitably, from Heston Blumenthal, one of a number of chefs who combine science with the kitchen arts in what has been called molecular gastronomy

I mention this because on my recent trip to Dublin I was lucky enough to celebrate my birthday in Dylan McGrath’s appropriately named restaurant Taste, where the food, intriguingly inspired by the cuisines of Spain, Japan and South America, is labelled in the menu according to the predominant taste of each dish. I enjoyed the umami of my grilled beef and the bitterness of the dark onion sauce that accompanied it, salty potatoes, and the sweetness of my dessert (a smoked Japanese cheesecake).

Naturally in choosing my drink I opted for a whisky sour.

I wasn’t disappointed. Mr McGrath chose the name wisely.

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In search of lost time

Conversing with one who has recently returned to the UK from many years en France, our discourse turned to the state of British television and its reliance on soaps, reality shows, American comedy, and the food programme.  To a fresh pair of eyes we appear obsessed with food, and I can see why; a trip through the weekly schedule of just one channel reveals The Great British Bake Off, James Martin’s Food Map of Britain,The Incredible Spice Men, Great British Menu, Floyd on Food, The Hairy Bikers‘ Bakeation  and Tom Kerridge‘s Proper Pub Food.  What’s more those came from just two days.

For a nation once embarrassed by the standard of its cuisine, we have certainly turned a corner, and whether your preference is for Jamie Oliver’s no-nonsense style or Heston Blumenthal‘s molecular gastronomy there is a chef out there for everyone, and not just on TV, because for every successful TV show, there’s a book out there for Christmas.  We are so gripped that I recently discovered that a team working in a heavy engineering plant nearby were competing in making custard tarts a la Bake Off.

That someone who has lived in France for so long should notice the obsession is very telling.  Traditionally the French have been seen as the greatest cooks; names like Pierre Koffman, Auguste Escoffier, Alain Ducasse and Marie-Antoine Carême  have inspired awe across the culinary world, and the French have played their part in our development too.  The contributions of Raymond Blanc and the Roux dynasty should  not be overlooked.

APW_0198But against this background there was one thing that seemed to be a distillation of all that was English.  The afternoon tea.  Supposedly conceived in the 1840’s by a friend of Queen Victoria, as a late afternoon meal to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner; it includes both our national drink (though there are half a dozen nations who consume even more than we do) and another English invention; the sandwich.

But then there are the cakes.  Scones with jam and cream (Devon or Cornwall method ma’am?) undoubtedly have an Englishness, but everything else is patisserie.  Choux pastries, Paris-Brest, mille-feuille?  The influence is obvious, but what I didn’t realise until recently is that the French have a similar approach to an afternoon cake break!  Listening to From Our Own Correspondent, I heard Joanna Robertson’s report on the love of Gouter (I’m sure there must be an accent missing in there somewhere!) the consumption of sweet treats by children on their way home from school, and its more sophisticated equivalent for adults.

Inevitably her report on the significance of this culinary fine art made reference to Proust’s  À la recherche du temps perdu,  a seven volume novel containing the famous madeleine episode, where this simple cake triggers a powerful flashback.  Inspired by this I decided to make my own, though I lack the appropriate shell mould tray.  With no exotic ingredients I had everything I required to hand.  No great technical skills were required and they don’t take long to make.

A shame then that when making a cake that will forever be associated with memory, I should forget to include the baking powder!  Ah well, at least I have the memories of afternoon teas.APW_0209

Sounds delicious!

It is over a century since Ivan Pavlov discovered that he could produce salivation in dogs by ringing a bell.  The dogs had been conditioned by hearing a ringing bell whenever they were fed and so in time would respond to the bell in the same way as they would to being fed.

This of course was a conditioned reflex, not a natural tendency, but an article I read recently suggests that there may be more that we can learn from associating sound and food.  A professor at Oxford University recently found that the taste of food is altered by the sounds that we hear when consuming it; low brass sounds create a bitter taste, whilst high-pitched melodies played on pianos or bells enhance sweetness.  (Maybe Caractacus Potts was onto something with his Toot Sweets).

I’ve known for sometime that Heston Blumenthal is a great believer in these effects having seen him conduct experiments with crisps or biscuits some time ago.  The sound of their crunch being as important as the actual sensation it seemed.  With a crisp manufacturer changing their packaging to make their product “sound fresher” there has to be something in it.

Today’s portrait is of local butcher and award-winning sausage maker Paul from East Boldon.  I was certainly salivating when in his shop today, but that was from the wonderful spicy aromas within rather than any sonic conditioning.  Nevertheless it does raise an important point.  Should he get a bell for his bicycle?