Times Higher Education Supplement
The Sicilian village of Erice, rumoured former home of the mafia, now plays host to a series of high-level scientific meetings in the ancient monasteries clustered in the village centre. Recently, though, it played host to a meeting of quite a different kind – a meeting of the new gastronomic mafia.
The participants were leading chefs, food writers, and scientists keen to apply science to the creation of new dishes and the improvement of traditional ones. I was there in my role as a scientist who advises chefs on how to create new, but the real stars were the chefs, and especially Heston Blumenthal, ground-breaking U.K. chef of the year, who led the way with his bacon and egg ice-cream, caviar in white chocolate, tobacco flavoured dark chocolate, and a beetroot jelly to which tartaric acid had been added.
The success of such apparently bizarre taste combinations is based on scientific information which shows that the combined effects of several sensations can produce a taste effect that is quite different to the sum of the individual effects.
Take the beetroot jelly. Addition of tartaric acid makes it astringent, and the combined effects of visual appearance and astringency give the sensation of blackcurrent, rather than beetroot. One taster, told that it was beetroot, opined that the taste was disgusting. Told that it was really blackcurrent, however, she decided that it was in fact delicious. But it was really beetroot.
What we see and what we expect influences the taste that we experience. In fact, information from all of our senses comes into play. Our experience of texture, or “mouthfeel”, can depend on whether we are touching velvet or sandpaper with our fingers while we are eating. We learned in Erice that the softness of restaurant napkins, the choice of companion with whom to eat, and even whether we have seen the dessert menu, can all affect our perception of the taste and texture of food.
Ultimately we taste, not with our mouths and noses, but with our brains. But brain science is not the only science that chefs are now using. There is plenty to be gained from simple physical science, as Fritz Blank, chef-shaped chef de cuisine and owner of the famous Philadelphia restaurant Deux Cheminées, and I showed at a previous meeting when we produced two mayonnaises that tasted quite different. The only difference, though, was that one had been beaten more than the other, so that the oil droplets were smaller and the flavour (the same in both mayonnaises) was released faster. Shirley Corriher, spiky-haired doyen of U.S. cookery writers, demonstrated another physical effect when she produced a tender shortcrust pastry and a hard flaky pastry made from exactly the same ingredients. The difference was that, in the shortcrust pastry, the butter had been rubbed in to coat the individual flour particles, thus keeping water out and blocking the chemical reaction that leads to the formation of the elastic protein gluten. Fritz Blank showed that scientific principles can be used to improve an even simpler dish when he revealed his practice of rolling boiled eggs in crushed ice before serving, so that the outside of the white doesn’t overcook from residual stored heat and become rubbery before the yolk has a chance to reach its optimum temperature.
Many dishes that are normally steamed or boiled in water are better if cooked for longer at a lower temperature. The problem is that traditional chefs’ tools such as the bain marie don’t have this form of control. The answer, as Peter Barham, author of “The Science of Cooking“, pointed out, is for chefs to buy the proper equipment from scientific suppliers (often at a much lower cost) and to stop messing around with old-fashioned and sometimes inappropriate tools.
Peter and I, stimulated by a question from Jeffrey Steingarten, the cigar-wielding Food Editor of “Vogue“, came up with a new cooking tool – a bull’s condom. Our plan is to make bread dough in one, in the hope that the external pressure from the stretched rubber will influence bubble formation and hence texture. We are also looking to disprove the old wives’ tale that air trapped during kneading is important in the rising process.
Cooking and preparation methods aren’t the only physical processes that can affect taste and texture. One of the highlights of the meeting was a stomach-turning X-ray video film showing a shadowy skull, complete with spectacles, rhythmically chewing and eventually swallowing a bolus of food. One deduction from such studies is that the way that we eat affects our perception of food. We tend also to orient asymmetric pieces of food with the long edge parallel to the line of our teeth. If the flavours at the two ends of the piece differ, they will not mix, so how we cut and present food can affect the taste outcome.
All in all, there is a scientific revolution coming in cooking. The world may not yet be ready for bacon and egg ice-cream, or for the full strength vodka jelly that I prepared at Erice, let alone the inflammable version on which I am now working (gastronomic napalm). The typically pertinent question put by Leslie Forbes, food writer and best-selling novelist, still remains, however: Is the revolution intended for chefs, or for housewives in supermarkets?
My personal view is that it is for both. It’s a question of how, and how soon. Top chefs have the creative ability and the interest to lead the way in experimentation, but domestic cooking has much to gain from the results. Some of the techniques that we heard about in Erice, for example, could already be used to improve the palatability of nutritious, cheap, but sometimes unappealing foodstuffs. With the world food market going the way it is, it is only a matter of time.
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