Why does lamb go perfectly with apricots? And why are chocolate and peanuts ideal culinary bedfellows? It’s a subject the food writer Niki Segnit explored brilliantly in her 2010 book The Flavour Thesaurus, which has become something of a cult classic. Covering ingredients from alpha to omega, she deftly intertwined food science and her own experience to unlock the mystery of aromas and tastes. Take coriander and blueberry – why does adding a pinch of coriander to a blueberry dessert magnify the flavours? It’s down to a compound called linalool, which has a bright floral-citrussy fragrance: coriander is around 85 per cent linalool and the same molecule is responsible for the aroma of the blueberry.
I assign some reading from it during my perfumery courses to heighten my students’ sensory awareness. Each page reveals something marvellous and unexpected, such as the affinity between banana and clove, or coffee and rose. Though the marriage of flowers and coffee wouldn’t be a surprise to a perfumer, as demonstrated by fragrances like Tom FordCafé Rose (£162 for 50ml EDP) or Atelier Cologne Café Tuberosa (£115 for 100ml cologne absolue). The bitter notes of coffee can either offset the floral sweetness as in Tom Ford’s creation, or make the blossoms appear creamy as in Atelier Cologne’s version.
Segnit’s latest venture is Lateral Cooking (Bloomsbury). This time she breaks down recipes to examine their nuts and bolts, illuminating the connections and relationships between one recipe and another so that you look at the standards afresh, in the process cooking more from instinct and less by slavishly following recipes. She encourages experimentation and her voice is confident and reassuring, even when she discusses the most complicated of techniques.
Segnit relishes discovering interesting tidbits about food, such as the fact that trendy tea-flavoured ice creams have much earlier antecedents. She digs into early-19th-century cookbooks for green and black tea ice cream recipes and adds: “In the Art of Cookery, from 1836, John Mollard suggests infusing a pint of cream with coriander seeds, cinnamon and lemon zest for 10 minutes, before adding 150ml of strong green tea and sugar. The mixture is then strained onto six egg whites and returned to the hob until thickened. Segnit recommends serving the airy pudding with bitter-almond biscuits, like amaretti.
On trialling the recipe in my kitchen, I discovered this combination was reminiscent of Spiced Green Tea by Elizabeth Arden (no longer in production, but can be found online), a variation on the house’s bestselling Green Tea (£22 for 50ml EDP). To create it, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian highlighted the verdant brightness of tea with ginger, lemon and cardamom. Just as in the dessert described in Lateral Cooking, the contrast makes the flavours explosive. When I explored the idea further by making the custard with Darjeeling, the aromas conjured up Serge Lutens’ Five O’Clock au Gingembre (£110 for 50ml EDP), a composition of sweet spices and black tea. It’s often said that perfumers make great cooks, but as I explored Lateral Cooking I wondered if the reverse could also be true. Either way, Segnit’s pairings demonstrated a deep understanding of flavour and fragrance. The book’s a delight and Segnit’s curiosity and passion make it a book to savour.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.