This is Niki Segnit. She is up there with the great British food writers. Her debut cookbook/compendium, The Flavour Thesaurus was an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. Lauded by her peers, it found an eager market among those of us who look beyond glossy recipe repetitions. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table, it delivered a unique, inspiring perspective on food combinations and the science and social mores behind them. EM Forster’s ‘Only Connect’ applied to our store cupboards.
If the ‘difficult second album’, Lateral Cooking (2018), saw her via diagrams consolidating the technical bedrock of her encyclopaedic taste research, it now looks like it was essentially the springboard for her masterpiece, the recently published The Flavour Thesaurus: New Flavours (Bloomsbury, £20). Those new flavours are predominantly plant-based. It was intended to be zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but Niki’s reluctance to abandon cheese and eggs won the day in this parade of 90 flavours and their cross-fertilisation in the kitchen. 800 references in total with a scattering of recipes spontaneously blooming out of them.
What was special about the original Thesaurus was the frame of reference equal to the greats, David, Grigson, Roden. And, of course the sheer chutzpah of her prose that’s the sweetener for so much erudite exposition.
Let’s celebrate the sly, almost metaphysical, wit she brings to the task of cross-referencing flavour profiles. Words stimulating appetite? Bon mots, bon appetit? Bring it on.
Take her tall tale about the penicillium origins of Roquefort blue cheese (in her Rye section) … “The story involves a shepherd retiring to a cave for lunch. He was about to tuck into his rye bread and cheese when a passing shepherdess caught his eye/ he set off in pursuit and by the time he came back – after what microbiology 101 yells mus have been several days of vigorous lovemaking – his food had gone mouldy. Here the story takes a bold narrative turn to focus on him eating the spoiled food.
“(Was it a lovelorn death wish on the shepherd’s part? Was the lovemaking so perfect nothing could possibly ever measure up to it? Or was he so smitten that he simply didn’t notice it had gone mouldy? Find out in my sizzling international bestseller, The Shepherd of Roquefort.)”
Corn and Honey yields this account of middle-aged inverted libido: It’s said that John Harvey Kellogg invented the cornflake as a means of suppressing carnal yearnings. Eat bland food, the theory went, and the fire in your loins would soon gutter and fail. He had it exactly the wrong way round. The Western world’s collective equator-sized waistband stands as proof that humans will drop anything for another bowl of something delicious. Across the world women reach across the bed to find a cool absence where their husband once was, as, downstairs, in the unflattering light of the open refrigerator, he tucks into the fifth bowl of breakfast clusters while browsing the Damart catalogue for the next size up in elasticated leisurewear.”
She recommends instead a few hot corn pancakes, glossy with butter and honey, Chestnut honey because of the slight bitterness that offsets the sweetness of the corn. Finally comes the inevitable scientific punchline: “It also contains an aromatic ketone called aminoacetophenone, which characteristic of corn tortilla, grapes and strawberries and for the unsentimental and more adventurous gastronaut, dog’s paws.”
Elsewhere there’s an abundance of rock and roll or film references, not all of which come off, but I do like her response (in Vanilla and Passionfruit) to Pornstar Martini creator Douglas Ankrah insisting the flavour pairing was inspired by cakes and pastries… “which is a bit like finding out that Mötley Crüe’s inspiration for Girl, Girls, Girls was a Women’s Institute Easter Bonnet Competition that Nikki Sixx attended with his gran.”
Aubergine and Miso
Chocolate with aubergine in a dessert is one of her more challenging forays (for me), even if my own addition of chocolate to caponata should make me welcome fellow Sicilian dish, melanzane al cioccolato. Nikki almost convinces me with “Some might say that given enough chocolate, ricotta, dried fruit and toasted pine nuts you could wolf down a boiled Birkenstock…” Instead I tried out her aubergine and miso combo, which turned out perfect culinary co-ordination.
“Aubergine mellows miso, absorbing its salty stridency to make a tender savoury sponge. Nasu Dengaku, a variation on tofu dengaku, is the classic Japanese take on the pairing. For 2-4 servings, as an appetiser or side dish, halve 2 aubergines lengthwise. Score the cut sides with a criss-cross pattern. Brush with a little neutral oil and roast at 200°C for at least 30 minutes until they have softened and charred slightly. In a small pan over a low heat, whisk together 2tbsp red miso and 1tbsp each of mirin, sugar and sake untril both the sugar and miso have dissolved. Glaze the scored sides of the aubergine with the miso mix, then put the under a hot grill for a few minutes until he glaze is flecked with dark brown patches and bubbling. Note: sweetened miso burns quickly, so don’t leave unattended.”
I didn’t and the result was so remarkable I didn’t regret the absence of chocolate!
The Flavour Thesaurus: more flavours by Niki Segnit is published by Bloomsbury at £20.