The restaurant is exquisitely decorated, the service flawless. But whatever it is I’m chewing on has the texture of gutta-percha and reeks of yuzu, coriander and strawberry. My just deserts, I think gloomily.
About seven years ago I wrote a few articles in Swedish Gourmet that may have sparked a culinary revolution in Sweden. It was bound to happen, of course; I only hurried it along. The first article was about a hugely talented but virtually unknown young chef who had just gotten his first Michelin star.
Early on the morning after the magazine was published, an even younger, painfully ambitious Swedish chef hurried to to Copenhagen, took the first flight from there to London and traveled on to Bray and The Fat Duck. Three months later, Heston Blumenthal served up white chocolate and caviar in Niklas Ekstedts‘ small restaurant in Helsingborg.
Chefs in Sweden took to scientific cooking like nowhere else. They were among the first and most enthusiastic to make the pilgrimage to El Bulli. And while The Secret Chef, a bestselling book about E-numbered additives used in the food industry, caused a small uprising among ordinary consumers, chefs in Sweden’s finest restaurants were eagerly experimenting with the whole E-number catalog. The results? Groundbreaking grapefruit spheres that popped in your mouth, mind-boggling warm gelatin noodles, mussel foam that seemed to defy gravity and dry ice fog hanging thickly over the linen-clad tables. Björn Frantzén, of the cute and smart hi-tech restaurant Frantzén-Lindeberg, offers one explanation:
”The vegetables in Sweden are terrible most of the year. That’s why Swedish chefs make the best sauces in the world. They simply have to.”
This may not be the whole story, but I think he’s right. The growing season is short and fresh produce must be shipped long distances. Swedish chefs just don’t have as much to lose by abandoning traditional cooking. Let me just remind you of lutfisk and surströmming if you doubt my words.
In the last two years the chemical tide has reversed. The novelty of the hi-tech cuisine has worn off. Chefs have kept the best ideas and techniques but the focus is now on local ingredients, including many almost forgotten. Lichen is the new basil.
As you may know, I am not a great fan of the food pairing theory. It is a theory hard to either prove or disprove, like astrology seductively simple and superficially rational. It is much like the theory in early medicine (which lives on in homeopathy): Similia similibus curantur (like cures like). The idea that similar flavours harmonize makes very little sense to me as an experienced recipe developer and food critic. If I make a sauce to go with cauliflower I look for complementary flavours like rich cheese, pungent paprika or vibrant lemon rather than similar-tasting ingredients like broccoli. Combining closely related flavours can lead to a muted, muddled, unbalanced result; perhaps because the brain finds it harder to distinguish the separate components. Or perhaps the flavours just conceal each other. Occasionaly a flavouring agent can accentuate similar notes in main ingredients, such as star anise with braised fennel. But before adding a new ingredient you must carefully consider what characteristics in your main ingredient you wish to enhance.
Can the general theory of food pairing be supported by more solid science? It would be interesting and instructive to compare the the flavour tree-diagrams developed by Food for Design with the collected wisdom and flavour experiences of chefs that is beautifully summarized in The Flavor Bible by Karen Dornenburg and Andrew Page.
And it would not be too difficult to set up blind taste tests where chicken, say, is spiced with either ingredients picked from the flavour tree-diagram or just picked at random. Ethical problems might arise though: I thought the food pairing-samples at the conference The Flemish Primitives in Bruges were insipid at best and at worst an insult to my palate.
I have some circumstantial evidence suggesting that the food pairing theory is a blind alley. For example: The experiment of combining chicken with rose water (TGRWT#16) immediately brought to mind the Turkish dessert Tavuk Gögsu, which is made with finely shredded chicken, milk, rice and maybe a pinch of cinnamon. I thought rose water would make a beautiful addition to this traditional dessert. I hunted for recipes, but could find no reference to adding rose water to the dish. I couldn’t imagine that I was the first person ever to think of scenting the dish with rose water (I have seen it suggested in some comments). In fact, there is a similar sweet Turkish dish, Su Muhallebisi, that is scented with rose water. Su Muhallebisi exists in many variations, but never contains chicken. Milk puddings in Turkey are made with rose water or chicken but never with both. The logical conclusion is that rose water doesn’t go so well with chicken after all. I believe firmly that if two ingredients co-exist in a geographical area they will have abundant offspring in the form of delicious recipes, but only if the union is a fruitful one.
Culinary marriages made in heaven seem to be transcultural to a large extent. It is fascinating to find that so many people agree on what goes well together. Duck and orange. Garlic and parsley. Ginger and pork. Coffee and thyme (just kidding!).
I think most people find their very first mouthful of a very simple tomato and basil Genovese salad quite astonishing. The warm, peppery, clove-like (eugenol), yet green fragrance of the basil complements the sweet acidity and fruitiness of the tomatoes. Parsley or even other basil varieties just don’t do the trick. However, according to the tomato flavour tree-diagram, mint och white chocolate should be more likely candidates.
There is, however, one part of the food pairing theory that I applied to my cooking long before I had heard it formally stated. It is the rule of substitution. If two ingredients (particularly herbs and spices) share similar aromatic molecules, they can often be substituted for each other with good and sometimes very interesting results. The most striking example is how perfectly sweet Thai basil can take the place of tarragon in sauce bearnaise and other classic French dishes. The secret here is that they share the dominating molecule estragole. The basil does not mimic tarragon exactly but adds its own unique minty and citrus-like character to the composition.
Anyway, despite my misgivings I bravely set out to create a dish with roses and apples TGRWT #17. One problem was that neither Cox Orange or El star is a great cooking apple. The texture is too mealy and the flavour does not intensify or develop with cooking as with many other apples. But the biggest problem in my opinion was that rose water is not an amiable companion for apples unless you work with several flavour bridges. A flavour bridge is easiest described as an ingredient that works very well with two disparate ingredients: a kind of culinary matchmaker. I tried using caramom, lemon zest and cinnamon.
First, I tried serving a simple apple soup with a very simple and technically unsophisticated French parfait scented with rosewater, lemon zest and lightly toasted cardamom. It was a disaster. The soup tasted watery, flat and dull in contrast to the lovely aromatic parfait.
I then tried to add the rose water directly to the apple soup. This worked somewhat better. The rose water added a subtle perfume without overpowering the apples own aroma, but the composition was slightly unbalanced. Acceptable but not impressive (recipe below).
Enter: a rose by another name, with a smell that is wilder, much lighter, more unpredictable and much more alluring. In Swedish it is called vresros (Japanese rose, Rosa Rugosa Thunbergensis) and grows so prolifically that some consider it a weed. I just happened to have an opened bottle in my fridge and the result was far superior. It did not mask and overwhelm the flavour of the apple, but balanced it very nicely. It would also be interesting to try an extract from the wild ”äppelros” (Sweet-Briar, Rosa rubiginosa). As a part of an interesting project, the sommelière Mischa Billing and a few other experts sniffed their way through a few hundred roses and proclaimed the Sweet-Briar the most pleasant-smelling. According to the expert panel,it is characterized by the smell of apples with notes of anise, fennel, jasmin, honeysuckle, ripe pears and ripe citrus fruits.
Well, after a day of culinary false starts and dead ends, I simply stopped trying to think like a molecular gastronomer. With a sigh of relief, I relaxed into my old erratic, rather unscientific ways of composing a dish.
I knew that rose water works very nicely with rhubarb. So I made a very simple soup with wine rhubarb and vanilla. Lovely! When I seasoned it with a quick dash of rose water it improved. But still… I found the flavours getting a bit too dense, intermingled and lacking in clarity. I have a preference for comprehensible flavours. Fortunately I had some cardamom and rose parfait left over. The parfait, though aromatic, was a bit lacklustre and flat on its own. But with the acidic and piquant rhubarb soup it was divine. The flavours were at once distinct and in harmony. The only problem was that the melting parfait clouded the soup. So next time I may try adding gelatin to the parfait mixture to keep it a bit more stable.
Apple soup scented with cinnamon and rosewater
4 small portions
- 2 apples, El star
- 70 g sugar
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp lemon juice (to taste)
- small stick of cinnamon
- 1 leaf gelatin
- 1/2-1 1/2 tbsp rose water to taste
- To serve:
- Lemon balm
- Almond bisquits
- Peel the apple and slice it thinly, avoiding the core. Bring peelings, core, sugar and water to a boil in a small stainless pot. Cover the pot. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove skin and core (I think these add valuable aromatics).
- Soak the gelatin in cold water.
- Cover the pot. Simmer the apple slices in the liquid until they just start falling apart (7-10 minutes). Beat the soup lightly with a whisk until rather smooth but with small apple chunks.
- Stir the gelatin into the still warm soup until dissolved. Chill the pot in cold water. Serve lightly chilled or at room temperature.
Rhubarb soup served with cardamom and rose flavoured parfait
Unfortunately, the beautiful, intensely aromatic red wine rhubarb is harder to find than the green, coarse Victoria variety found in most Swedish gardens. If you use Victoria and prefer a stronger pink colour you can add a few drops of red food colour or a thin slice of raw beet to the soup. As the earthy beet flavour is quite similar to rhubarb it does not clash. I’ve actually had an… ahem, interesting dessert att Noma with beets, rhubarb and woodruff.
I am not usually a big fan of Tahiti vanilla, which I think gives a coarse, cardboard, off-flavour to many dishes, but in a fruit compote or soup the more flowery fragrance is beautiful. After reading Malin’s thoughtful piece on cardboard flavours caused by 2-nonenal I suspect that Tahiti vanilla is more susceptible to the xantine oxidase in milk.
- 350 g rhubarb, peeled weight
- 1/2 vanilla pod, Tahiti if possible
- 90 g sugar
- 400 ml water
- To serve:
- Vanilla parfait (below)
- Lemon balm
- Peel the rhubarb if it is coarse, reserving the peelings if they are red. Slice the rhubarb thinly.
- Put the rhubarb (and red peelings) in a small pot made with stainless steel or teflon. Slit the vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds. Add vanilla seeds, pod sugar and water to the rhubarb. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer genty until the rhubarb is soft. Remove peelings, if any.
- Use an electric beater to purée the soup. Chill the pot in cold water. Serve the soup lightly chilled with cardamom parfait.
Cardamom and rosewater parfait
8 small portions
This is the simplest possible ice cream. As the egg yolks are raw it should be eaten within a day or two, as the texture and flavour deteriorates in the freezer.
- 4 egg yolks
- 80 g sugar
- 300 ml cream (40 %), chilled to +5°C for a minimum of 12 hours
- 1 ml salt
- 1 tsp cardamom seeds
- 1/2 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
- 1-2 tbsp rose water
- Toast the cardamom seeds lightly in a dry pan until fragrant. Quicky transfer to a mortar and leave to cool for a few minutes. Grind finely but not to a powder.
- Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and salt until stiff and white. Add the cardamom and the newly grated lemon zest. If you use a Microplane grater you need to chop the lemon zest to avoid threads.
- Whip the cream gently until it forms soft peaks. Never overwhip the cream as the tiny butterfat globules have a very unpleasant texture when frozen. The few strokes used when mixing the cream with other ingredients kan be critical, so slightly underwhipped cream is preferrable.
- Stir one tbsp rose water into the egg mixture. Gently fold in the whipped cream. Add more rose water to taste, bearing in mind that the cold will mute the aroma slightly.
TGRWT: Tastebuddies for rose water
- bay leaf
- lemon juice
- lemon zest
- star anise (in moderation)
- saffron (miniscule amounts)
- lime juice