Seeking affirmation

Food - Bee Wilson on the scent of chocolate and cauliflower

When you next find yourself eating some fine, dark chocolate, you might like to perform a little experiment on your senses. Place a square of the chocolate on your tongue and, before you allow yourself to savour it, close your nostrils firmly with a finger and thumb. Now try to describe the flavour. You may find this frustrating. No matter how much you swirl and push and melt the morsel in your mouth, it won't unleash its pleasures. A little sweetness and a hard, fatty feel in the mouth is more or less all you can detect. Yet when you release finger and thumb, behold! A wave of bittersweet cocoa warmth assails you: dark, complex and vinous (I'm assuming that you're not eating Bourneville). It's strange to think that these flavours were there all along; you just couldn't recog-nise them without your nose.

This simple experiment confirms what most of us already know - that flavour depends heavily on smell. Until recently, however, scientists have been relatively baffled about how this relationship works. How do the chemicals we ingest in food (the stimuli) translate into the flavours we experience through olfaction (the response)?

A team of flavour scientists based at Nottingham University have been developing a new technique for testing this, known as AFFIRMr. It works by attaching a tube through the nose of the eater and, as the eater munches, a machine monitors, breath by breath, the chemical composition of the flavours received by the nose. This can be compared both with the chemical composition of the original food, and with the diner's own perceptions of what he has eaten. AFFIRMr potentially offers a much more exact means of measuring how we experience flavour than those currently available.

In Switzerland, Professor Anthony Blake and his colleagues have used AFFIRMr to look at how adding certain ingredients can change the flavour release of food during cooking. For example, they added cream to various vegetables. With onions, there was no change to the amount of onion odour detected. When carrots were eaten with cream, however, there was a dramatic reduction in the amount of carrot odour reaching the nose. The most interesting case was cauliflower. It turns out that, when cream is added, more of the essential cauliflower flavour reaches the nose than without it. Thus all those cooks who have sauced cauliflower with cream over the years (as chou-fleur a la Mornay, creme Dubarry or humble cauliflower cheese) have shown precocious intuition.

This information is tantalising. One longs to know whether the same is true of other "classic" combinations. Does rosemary really enhance the flavour of lamb? Are pears with chocolate sauce a brilliant chemical match or merely a mindless convention? Is there any reason why tomato and basil should work better than tomato and chives? I trust that future scientists may provide some answers. In the meantime, it's extremely good news that, when we slather cauliflower in thick double cream, we are merely following the latest scientific intelligence.

Cauliflower-filled pastries
(A dish adapted from Michel Guerard's Cuisine Gourmande)

To serve about eight people as a starter or four as a more substantial dish. For this, you need 40 florets, trimmed and cooked in boiling salted water (for about six minutes). Remove from the heat and keep warm in the cooking liquid. Roll out 180g flaky or puff pastry and cut into eight rectangles.

Glaze with egg and bake in a preheated oven (220 C) for 12-15 minutes. Put the drained cauliflower and 4tbsp of its cooking water in a shallow saute pan with 2tbsp chopped chervil, watercress or flat-leaf parsley. Boil to reduce by half. Add 4tbsp best double cream and 200g butter, cut into dice, shaking the pan. Season with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and remove from heat. Assemble the pastries with some fresh chervil, parsley or cress over each divided portion of filling before you top with the pastry rectangles (to serve four, use pastry on the bottom, too). As you eat, smell that cauliflower!

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place