I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to get a little heady for a few posts. I hope it’s ultimately helpful to you as well.
Last night I was out at a restaurant with my wife, and she smiled her knowing smile, and pointed out the irony in the dish I had ordered. It had both broccoli and asparagus, both vegetables I hated as a kid. Not just disliked, either, but violently rejected. And now, here, I had ordered a plate with both of them combined, and I was happily eating them.
I’ve been doing a lot of thought and study about flavors lately. For a long time, I’ve wondered what makes me like some things and not others. And why the things I can’t stand are things that others love. Why did I hate some things as a kid and like them now?
My study started as I was writing the spices and flavorings chapter of “Black Pot Beginners”. In it, I suggested mixing individual spices with butter and spreading it on a neutral-tasting bread, to be able to learn what each spice really tastes like. The results often surprised my palate, and opened my eyes.
So, I started thinking about the flavors I was tasting, and I started formulating, in my own mind, a way to analyze and discuss flavors a bit better, mostly as a way to clarify them in my head, and to understand a dish better.
That led me to two analogies:
One: As I studied music, lo, these many years ago, I learned that notes are combined to form chords, and that each chord functions in different ways to move the overall song forward. There are names for the functions of the chords: Tonic, Dominant, Sub-dominant, Leading-tone, etc… This allows musicians to use a common language when talking about the music.
Two: In the world of perfumes, the scents that combine to form a perfume are also referred to as “notes”. They come out to the senses gradually. “Top Notes”, for example, are the first things you smell when you put on the perfume. It’s also what you smell in the store. They can dissipate very quickly. “Mid Notes” come out soon after, and transition into the “Base Notes”. These come on after about a half hour, and linger for the rest of the evening, giving the lasting impression of the perfume.
It occurred to me that these analogies can also apply to the culinary arts as well. The flavors blend like chords, and have function in the dish. They can also, in some dishes, come on in layers, and even create lasting impressions, even after the dish is eaten.
As I started to think about this, I started thinking about the food I was eating. I started to notice flavors, and notice the way those flavors combined. I started eating differently. Or, I should say, I started enjoying it differently as I ate. I started to formulate the words and thoughts to describe the things I was tasting. Those formulations started to coalesce into a more coherent system. So, in Part II of this topic, I’ll show you the system I’m discovering to help me to describe the recipes I’ll be writing about in the future.