Sunday 16 December 2007

I was fascinated.... see that the sub-title for A.A.Gill's latest book 'Table Talk' is 'Sweet and Sour, Salt and Bitter....' Entirely coincidentally, this has been the subject of much conversation across the dinner table over the past few weeks, in the context of Umami..... and Mr Gill's well-chosen words were a sharp reminder of quite how central this is to the theme of what makes good food good.

I've always been interested in why we respond as we do to particular flavours and smells: frying bacon, toast under the grill, garlic, fresh bread, shavings of truffle.........Do we respond as we do to them merely by association, or is it something more fundamental, like inherited memory, or a kind of physiological process at work within our brains? For ages, until I actually got round to reading it, I was hopeful that Brillat Savarin's book about the Physiology of Taste might address that very subject - but, no: great title, interesting book, but essentially nothing more than a genial romp round the food on offer in Paris in the mid Nineteenth Century.

And then, in following up on Umami, a lot of the answers seem to be provided....

In brief, traditionally, in the West, we've categorised flavours in four groups, viz: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. But the Japanese have identified a fifth one, which they call Umami - which is what we have to call it too, since there seems to be no translation from the Japanese. To quote from the 'What is Umami' website: "Although there is no English word for it, umami is a savoury taste imparted by glutamate and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. The taste of umami itself is subtle. It blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavours. Most people don’t recognise umami when they encounter it, but it can be detected when eating ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat and fish......."

........Which is a useful short-cut, since I don't really fancy following recipes which feature 150 grammes of glutamate, and half a cup of ribonucleotide, infused with a teaspoon of inosinate!

And they sum up by stating that: "Umami plays an important role making food taste delicious."

There's more, though! Edmund Rolls, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, has explained how brain scans are being used to show what happens in our brain as we eat different foods. It appears that eating glutamate activates our taste centres in a way that no other substance does. "Whereas most foods activate a part of the brain called the secondary cortex, glutamate also activates another part of the brain, the left lateral orbifrontal cortex," he says. "Could this be why it seems to act on a second level, giving people an emotional feeling of well-being?"

But, enough of the science! In plain food-speak, I think we're talking about a particular kind of wow-factor, and an interesting process in terms of identifying that rather elusive quality that so many food-stuffs seem to have. Cloves, for instance - a smell I find quite wonderful whenever I unscrew the lid on the jar - could it be that that complicated and deeply old-fashioned smell is Umami? And what about freshly-ground coffee? Or anchovies....? Or Saffron...? Once you start the Umami game, it can be quite difficult to stop: I commented disparagingly the other day to the Technical Department that Coca Cola (which I loathe) represents everything that is not Umami, to which the response was that actually, beneath that horrible two-dimensional sweetness, is a complicated mingling of flavours which is probably Umami with knobs on! Hence its otherwise inexplicable success......

Gin! Now, does that have Umami? I'm not at all certain, and it may be that further research is in order......

In fact, it could be that the entire Christmas break becomes an extended and broadly-based scientific experiment!

Tonight's attempt to stimulate the left lateral orbifrontal cortex:

Individual Haddock Souffl├ęs.
Oxtail, cooked to death in Port, with aromatic vegetables.
Ginger & Lime Cheescake, with fresh Raspberries.

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