Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: Taste Buds and Molecules, by Francois Chartier

20120222-tastebudscover.jpgThe recent upswing in food writing has led to much investigation of why things taste good. Finally, gourmand scientists have found their niche! Molecular gastronomy and its accompanying research and literature have shed new light on how we taste, and chefs have utilized that knowledge to produce superior food. In Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine and Flavor, author Francois Chartier applies scientific principles to food and wine pairing. The result is a comprehensive, if somewhat intimidating, guide to delicious eating and drinking.

The book is separated into flavors, and highlights the primary foods in which those flavors appear. Some flavors—such as cinnamon, cloves, pineapple, or ginger—are easy to identify or add to a dish. Others—such as "cold", sotolon, oak, and capsaicin— are harder for an inexperienced palate to isolate on their own. Within each flavor, Chartier identifies the flavor's volatile compounds (which contribute to aroma), and its principle complementary foods and beverages.

Here's an example. In the maple syrup chapter, Chartier makes the interesting point that maple syrup and wines aged in oak barrels contain many of the same volatile compounds. He elaborates on this with a chart of similar compounds between the two flavors : furanones, maltol, vanillin, etc. The principal complementary foods of maple syrup include popcorn, dark chocolate, and roasted peanuts. Complementary beverages include brown aged rum and dark, top fermented beers. Sounds like a recipe for a delicious Saturday night for both wine and beer drinkers!

Chartier's suggestions are far more sophisticated than mine, of course. He delves deeply into the most subtle aromas and flavors of both food and wine. The book is full of menus and dishes that capitalize on this intricate knowledge. He discusses time spent with legendary chef Ferran Adria, of El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Spain. The two worked together to advance their knowledge of flavoring and pairing, and the resultant menus are creative and inspired.

However, this book has limited use for the home cook, or someone who is actually looking for tangible tips on pairing food and wine. I found two charts helpful in each chapter—the primary complementary foods to each flavor, and the complementary beverages. These lists would be helpful in seasoning a dish and easily selecting a beverage to accompany it. But much of the content of the book goes beyond my cooking ability (and price point). Taste Buds and Molecules is perhaps as interesting for a glimpse into a world of elite tasters, as it is useful for the everyday eater.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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