Monday, November 7, 2011

Playing With Taste

It was a double treat at Harvard last week. First, we got a mini-lecture from the man who kicked off the whole idea of studying the chemistry of food: Harold McGee. I am fascinated by this man and his ideas. As the author of the seminal book: ON FOOD AND COOKING: THE SCIENCE AND LORE OF THE KITCHEN, McGee began the whole scientific pursuit of food in 1984 and has figured prominently in this Harvard lecture series. Besides that, we have a common trait in that we are two of the skinniest food writers you will find. I suspect McGee was brought in as back-up just in case the featured Chef, flying in from Spain, was delayed by the October snowstorm which, in fact, she was, by two days.

McGee discussed the "Maillard Reaction" a phrase bandied about quite frequently in food circles these days, which most chefs and cooks know as "browning" or "caramelization." To demonstrate he had a student take a simple pan of water and sugar and introduce it to heat as he explained what was happening at the molecular level. As the student stirred the pan slowly the mixture changed completely in texture, color and smell. The aroma of bubbling caramel wafted over the lecture hall and you could trace the path of diffusion by the murmured "oohs" and "aahs" in the audience. This is the Maillard Reaction. If you've ever had a great cook in your life, a parent or grandparent, who instinctively knew how to cook or who was taught by years of tradition, these are the things they knew through trial and error, lots of mistakes, maybe even generations of burnt offerings. It amazes me, each week, to think that I am sitting in a Harvard lecture hall and studying these things that Grandma practiced every day but knew nothing about.

Another thing McGee casually mentioned concerned the anatomy of human taste. Up until now it has always been thought and generally accepted that taste buds on certain parts of the tongue are only capable of experiencing specific tastes. We have all heard it, the front of the tongue tastes only sweetness, the sides saltiness, the back sour. The latest research indicates that ALL buds on the surface of the tongue experience ALL tastes equally. Those taste combinations are recognized, realized and remembered in thousands and thousands, almost endless, distinct and different tastes.

The name Carme Ruscalleda rolls off the tongue in all of it's Spanish glory. She is the captain and creator of Sant Pau, the legendary restaurant that celebrates the beauty and wonder on the foods of Catalunya. Her lecture is entitled: Playing With Taste Through Browning. She presents food as art, playing with texture and color and each month her eatery features a different color. October was brown: color marron. As most chefs in the series, she mixes centuries-old traditions with the very latest technology. She has an uncommonly huge staff. She is far less concerned with the bottom line than with the quality and beauty of the food experience.

She speaks to us through a Spanish interpreter but I still drink in every syllable she utters of this romantic language. She tells us, lovingly, of the menu she does each month of the four small bites of color: Micro-Menú De Aperitivo. There is a demo of the browning of bread crumbs and for a few, lucky people like me, a taste. She tells of the restaurant she opened in Tokyo and explains that the "impresario" who backed it owns thirty other restaurants and apparently has the very deepest of pockets. He understood that the Sant Pau experience is about the food, not chasing the money. She accepted the offer on that understanding.

We were able to snag one of the menus for the De Aperitivo. The beautiful hand drawings printed on the finest quality linen paper put to shame most menus. These little works of art.

Science and Cooking Monday nights at Harvard

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