Review: The Flavour Thesaurus

I was browsing in Waterstone’s today (or more correctly Waterstones, as it has recently become, given that in the retail paradox to end all retail paradoxes, this retailer – a bookshop – has apparently resolved that to appeal to its clientele it ought to appear less literate by removing the apostrophe in its name).  I digress.  I was browsing in Waterstones today, just mooching around the cookery section in the hope of finding Rowley Leigh’s No Place Like Home.  I didn’t find it, and although I could have purchased hundreds of other books on impulse I found myself rather put off by the fact that these days it seems that you can’t publish a cook book without a picture of its author on the cover (is there any other interest area in which this is now the standard)?

And with the exception of Rick Stein, you can’t get your face on a cook book cover unless you are hot.  (Judged by generally accepted notions of hotness, that is.  No offence intended to Rick, by the way, who’s by far and away my favourite “celebrity” chef, if indeed he calls himself that.  I’d probably do him if he were 20 years younger.  Get a few pink gins into me and ply me with talk about turbot and Graham Greene and I’m anybody’s).  And that makes me feel sorry for all the ugly but talented chefs out there who were probably passed over in favour of the Lorraine Pascales and Rachel Khoos and Sam Sterns of the world.  Which made me walk out without buying anything.

And that prompted me to write about The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, which is something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I was given a copy for Christmas last year, on the grounds that not only does it not a have a picture of its author on the cover, but it has no pictures at all throughout.  That puts it in very highbrow company indeed as far as food and drink books go.  It goes on the bookshelf next to Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste and Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking, which by the way are very important books for you to read if you are at all interested in enhancing your life by the consumption of food and drink.

So yes, in short, the Flavour Thesaurus is a masterpiece.  It is so good, in fact, that I am going to put it on the bookshelf reserved for the finest writing I own: the one next to the toilet.  Only one book about food and drink has ever made it there: Oberon Kant’s Big Book of Wine, which is simply the best book ever written on the subject, or possibly even any subject.

You’re probably sitting there thinking “come on, how hard can it be to tell me that tomato goes with basil or that pork goes with apples?”  Well, you’re a tough audience, but the Flavour Thesaurus is much more than that.  It is part recipe book, part travelogue, part TV guide, part history lesson, part restaurant guide, part self-help treatise, and entirely absorbing.  If it had been written by anybody else it would be tiresome.  Here is Niki Segnit on the combination of mint and chocolate:

Mint & Chocolate:  Hell is a milk-chocolate mint crisp.  The kind whose flecks of mouthwash-flavoured grit the manufacturers hope we’ll be too drunk, after dinner, to spit back into the foil.  Fudgy, saccharine milk chocolate meets sinus-widening menthol:  I’ve had more appetising things collect in my dishwasher filter.  Mint with bitter dark chocolate, on the other hand, you can feed me till my teeth ache.  It was around Christmas 1978 that I realised the potency of the After Eight mint as a symbol of infinity.  First, it was always after eight, if you thought about it.  Second, there was the subtle, if not occult, clue embedded in the name:  After 8…After ∞.  What came after ∞?  Nothing.  Exactly.  Then there was the wafer-thin mint itself.  First the delicate snap of dark chocolate, bitter as plum skin.  Then soft fondant so sweet your ears start straining back, until the peppermint invades your nasal passages like an inhalation, not so much refreshing your palate as dry-cleaning it, and leaving you fidgety for your next hit of chocolate before you’ve tongued the last trace of fondant from the roof of your mouth.  All seemed powerful arguments for never stopping eating.  And the packaging smells so good.  The crisp foil of a Bendicks chocolate mint isn’t a patch on the After Eight’s musky black envelope.  I could imagine tearing them open, this those fold-out samples you get in magazines, and smearing a hint of Rowntree’s No. 8 behind each ear.”

There is simply nothing more to say on the topic (as you would know if you have ever eaten an After Eight).  The end.  On the combination of pork and potato, Segnit takes us to Tuscany, Peru and Korea.  On Pork and Beef, she takes Vinnie from Goodfellas as her authority for the correct meat combination for good meatballs. Sylvia Plath is used to explain how chicken works with caviar (although I’m still not altogether sure I understand).  A recipe for borscht (beetroot and pork) comes directly from Audot’s French Domestic Cookery of 1846, without further elaboration.  All of it is compelling.  In short, Niki Segnit writes like precisely the sort of person I would want to go out on the lash with.

Segnit really thinks about flavour.  Have you ever really thought about flavour?  What flavour is a flavour?  Being one keenly interested in wine, and describing the flavours of them by reference to other, better known flavours (“cabernet is like blackcurrants”), I had wrongly assumed that those flavours were the prime numbers of the food world.  This book has corrected that misconception.  Segnit actually has a knack for describing what flavours flavours are.  Is there a better way of describing parsley than as tasting “of rocks, rain and lush vegetation” , or of coriander seed as having “a delicious citrus and balsamic character not unlike a nice version of those wooden balls some people keep in their underwear drawers”?

If you’re looking for culinary hand holding or some sort of didactic panacea about how to make the perfect meal, then this book is not for you.  But if you are interested in some inspired combinations and some even better, more universal, ideas behind them, then this is the book for you.  I shudder to think how long the person behind me in the bathroom queue will have to wait.

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