Take a spoonful of sugar. Take two. Or even three. Nice? Not really. Or not even at all.
But combine the sugar with something bitter (say coffee) and its sweetness is transformed into something delicious. Take meringues, decidedly sickly on their own, but add something tart like raspberries and both the sweet and sour tastes explode in your mouth. Serve sweet peaches with salty feta, add a little peppery bitterness in the form of rocket, a little sourness in the form of vinaigrette, and you’ve discovered a gem.
How does this work? Well, it’s all because of the way we taste. Our taste buds perceive five basic flavours - sweet, salt, sour, hot and bitter. Six if you count the more recent umami, a flavour perhaps best described as savoury – the intense ‘mouth-filling’ taste you get from reduced chicken-stock, dried porcini and soy sauce, or Parmesan and Roquefort. Umami causes us to salivate, which in turn magnifies our tasting ability.
It was the Chinese who discovered long ago that when a dish contains a harmonious balance of some (or all) of these tastes, we perceive it as delicious because each flavour is intensified by the next and all our taste buds are satisfied at once (a bit like an Impressionist painting where complementary colours put side-by-side, create a vibrant effect… or the melodious bond of different notes that intensify each other in a piece of music).
Each of these flavours also affects our perception of the other – even a tiny amount of one can enhance the other in a miraculous way. Try some bread topped with jam – it’ll taste of bread and jam. Now butter your bread generously with salted butter and then add the jam… a delicious mingling of salty, sweet and crunchy has turned it into a delicacy. A little squeeze of lime turns a relatively dull-sweet papaya instantly into a juicy fruit that oozes fresh sweetness. Think also of the currently fashionable way of serving crème brulée with fleur de sel.
Experiment with other classics: see how salty ham accentuates the sweetness in a melon, or how the ubiquitous combination of sweet-and-sour (the above mentioned meringues with raspberries, tomato ketchup, a Chinese takeaway, gooseberry jam or a lemon tart) makes our mouths water… and how a glass of fragrant sweet Muscat wine or sweet juicy pears bring out the delicious umami-saltiness of blue Roquefort cheese. How come orange marmalade is such a winner? Because it combines the bitterness of the orange rind, the acidity of its juice with sweetness of sugar – it cannot loose.
Since flavours affect one another, they can also be used to alter a dish. Add zest to an overly rich creamy pork dish by adding the juice of a lemon. The ‘mouth-puckering’ sensation of drinks that are high in tannin, like red wine or strong tea (cranberries, unripe bananas and walnuts are other examples) also have a refreshingly ‘cleansing’ effect by cutting right through the richness of something that might otherwise be cloying. See how the squeeze of a lime lifts a bland papaya or how a dull sponge cake is brought to life with some lemon or orange juice. Bitterness both suppresses and balances sweetness (as bitter chocolate does with rich vanilla ice-cream) whereas saltiness on the other hand has the effect of sweetening its partner – as salty Serrano ham is to a sweet fig, or salty anchovies achieve with a sweet pepper.
Needless to say that if we apply some of this knowledge to our daily cooking, our meals would be a great deal more exciting. And if this flavour-combining becomes our intuitive way of ‘putting a dish together’ we could follow the seasons more easily, as we would simply buy what’s at its best and match it with its perfect ally.
I shall be adding more notes, thoughts and ideas about flavours and how to use them best… In the meantime, for more information about cooking with flavours, check out Petra’s cookery weekends on www.petracarter.com.