An Experiment in Blood and Chocolate
Have you ever been half way through a recipe only to realise that you’ve only actually remembered to buy half the ingredients? That happens to me surprisingly often, which is one reason that I’m pleased to have come into possession of Niki Segnit’s book The Flavour Thesaurus. Segnit promises to liberate you from the tyranny of closely following every detail of a printed recipe, enabling you to create your own concoctions from all kinds of unusual and unexpected flavour combinations. But, does it work? There’s only one way to find out. Rather than write a typical review of the book, I thought the appropriate thing would be to experiment and see how successfully I could cook a meal based solely on Segnit’s flavour pairings rather than a recipe.
While laid out and styled as a reference book in the vein of a normal thesaurus, The Flavour Thesaurus is, in truth, a rather subjective work. Segnit herself admits that: “in writing about the pairings I find most interesting, or like to eat the most, I will inevitably have left gaps that come down to nothing other than a matter of taste”. Commenting that a reference guide to every single flavour would be extremely unwieldy, Segnit arbitrarily dismisses courgettes, in particular, for some reason. As I’m not particularly bothered one way or the other when it comes to the squash sometimes known as zucchini, this isn’t too much of an issue, but that lack of completism does make you wonder why she bothers to include the more obvious combinations. She devotes a not insubstantial paragraph across pages 168-169 to the “quintessentially English combination” of bacon and egg. If you’re not already aware of that as a pairing then the rest of the book is going to blow your mind.
To test The Flavour Thesaurus properly I needed a more unusual starting point. The book begins with chocolate and this seemed like a pretty good basis for my experiment. I’ve always enjoyed the many potential uses of chocolate and, in particular, the possibility of using it in savoury dishes. A little while back, Professor Plum challenged me to prove the versatility of both chocolate and potato, which I claimed could be used in any part of a meal, to produce five courses with both chocolate and potato in every course. You can see the results in the picture.
Looking through Segnit’s suggested chocolate pairings, one of them stood out as something unusual that I’d never seen before – black pudding and chocolate. Segnit refers to the Italian sanguinaccio, a mix of chocolate, cream and blood, to support the success of a chocolate black pudding, adding that this reflects cooking a jugged hare in its own blood and dark chocolate. Blood and chocolate sounded intriguing, and not just because it’s the name of a little remembered werewolf movie.
Of course, two ingredients don’t make a dinner, nor does the simple fact of using black pudding and chocolate suggest a way to cook them. And that’s one of the principle issues with the book. It only has the space to give flavours in pairs. Sure, it gives a huge list of other things that work with chocolate, but it’s a truly eclectic list and chocolate and black pudding is already a pretty oddball combination. In fact, by cross-referencing other things that go with both, you get a pretty limited selection. Here’s a Venn diagram.
So, that’s it. The only things that actually go with both chocolate and black pudding are mint and bacon and they don’t even go with each other, leaving you still some distance away from making a decent meal out of these ingredients. Given my previous experiments with the versatility of chocolate and potato, however, we can also safely assume that we can move potato from the black pudding half of the diagram and into the middle. On top of that, potato, by Segnit’s estimation, goes with virtually everything, opening up a much wider world of flavour combinations.
Bacon is listed as working with chocolate, black pudding and potato, but it’s not really a substantial enough meat to form the basis of a main meal, so a bit of experimentation beyond the remit of the Thesaurus was required. I attempted to pair black pudding and pork (one of Segnit’s flavour pairings) and use a chocolate sauce but the flavour of the pork seemed overwhelmed. Again, the problem with flavour pairings is that a third flavour can unbalance whatever made the first two work. So, I moved onto chicken, although not suggested by either chocolate nor black pudding in the book, I was aware that a mole style chocolate sauce tends to work with chicken, but again the black pudding and chocolate proved too strong a flavour pair for it. Finally, I returned to the idea of blood and chocolate, imagining that a steak cooked so it’s nicely pink and rare could play into the theme quite well.
So, that gives four key ingredients, but the Flavour Thesaurus links between them felt quite loose. Each of the four only pairs with one other flavour. As a result, I felt like I needed to boost the links between them as I introduced other flavours to the dish. A vegetable component, therefore, needed to be something that paired well with beef and potato, but that had a pungent, spicy flavour that could work with the chocolate. For this I chose red cabbage, which I decided to braise with red onion and cider vinegar in order to take advantage of some of black pudding’s suggested pairings.
While this worked pretty well in general, there were a few problems with this version of the dish. Firstly, the cabbage didn’t have enough strength of flavour to compete with stuff as strong as blood and chocolate. Secondly, it’s obvious from this diagram of the flavours in the dish that the chocolate element, the original point of the whole thing, had been a little sidelined in terms of not connecting to anything else. So, it was back to the Flavour Thesaurus to look for something that would pair with beef, add an interesting extra flavour to the red cabbage and actually fit chocolate better into the recipe diagram. That something is anise.
Anise is another area in which The Flavour Thesaurus moves from quite a narrow focus to quite broad. While some of its flavour combinations are based on one specific instance or recipe of the two flavours being paired together, the anise section covers anise seeds, fennel, liquorice, star anise, tarragon and anise flavoured drinks like pastis, absinthe and ouzo. It is, in Segnit’s description, “a very combinable flavour” (possibly because it’s about six ever so slightly different flavours), which perfectly suits something to go with both chocolate and beef. I decided, then, to add both a fennel bulb and some fennel seeds to my braised cabbage and this addition suggested further elements that the Thesaurus said could tie the dish together, adding garlic and almonds to the mix.
Segnit declines to bother with condiments and seasonings, so no guidance is given on salt and pepper, oil, vinegar or butter. I figured, though, that a buttery sauce would be a way to utilise the richness of the chocolate and, therefore, wanted to combine this with the indulgent butteriness of fondant potatoes as the best way to use my potato component. Because of using fondant potatoes I ended up substituting out mint, the only other thing in the central overlap between chocolate and black pudding, in favour of thyme, the more common herb for making fondant potatoes, and something Segnit places as a possible pair for both beef and chocolate.
So, that’s it, all the ingredients are there and, as the latest version of the flavour crossover diagram shows, each one has multiple other ingredients that fit with it. I put this together to make rump steak with a black pudding and almond crust, fondant potatoes, red cabbage, red onion and fennel braised in cider vinegar, all served with a chocolate, butter and red wine sauce. It sounds interesting, but did it work? Just how successful is it to cook a meal with The Flavour Thesaurus in place of a recipe?
Well, it took a few experiments and changes, but what I came out with was a nice enough meat, potato and cabbage dish. What really made it into something novel and exciting, though, was the chocolate sauce. It actually worked with all the flavours in the dish and was something that I hadn’t thought to try. The Flavour Thesaurus is not quite everything that it promises to be, and it may require a bit of trial and error, but when it works it can genuinely offer your cooking something extra.
After making my blood and chocolate dish work, I returned to the Thesaurus’ eclectic chocolate selection for a starter and put a piece of dark chocolate at the heart of a fig stuffed with goat’s cheese and wrapped in bacon. For this one, the experiment worked first time and I finally did get to combine chocolate and bacon. There’s twenty-three more potential pairs for chocolate in the book, I’m just getting started.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: We had a few attempts at this, and I think Colonel Mustard really nailed it on the final attempt. It works really well as something a bit unusual for a dinner party, and I recommended everyone goes out and has a go at it themselves.