The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

Thesaurus 3

The Flavour Thesaurus is a unique and wonderful book, and a must-have for anyone seriously interested in developing their own recipes. I have no natural aptitude for pairing new flavours, I really don’t, and hence this is exactly the book more me. In it, Niki Segnit takes the innovative approach of creating a ‘flavour wheel’, in which similar flavours are placed near one another. As you move round the wheel, you move through one type of flavour to another to another. These are grouped by a general type. So for example, you can see below that hard cheese sits next to soft cheese which sits beside mushroom and then comes aubergine. Each flavour shares qualities with both its neighbours, and within its group (here ‘Cheesy’ and then ‘Earthy’).

Segnit flavour wheel

Segnit flavour wheel

Why is this so useful? Well, I’ll let Segnit explain how she came to create the thesaurus:

It was at a dinner … that a friend served a dish two ingredients it would never have occurred to me to pair. How, I wondered, did she know that would work? There was something in the air about surprising flavour matches, the kind of audacious combinations pioneered by chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Grant Chatz. What lay at the heart of their approach to food was, as far as I could see, a deeper understanding of the links between flavours. Being an ordinary, if slightly obsessive, home cook, I didn’t have the equipment of resources to research these; what I needed was a manual, a primer to help me understand how and why one flavour might go with another, their points in common and their differences.

So she set about creating just that. Starting with a list of 99 flavours, which she then sorted into categories based around the concept of ‘flavour families;: citrus, floral, roasted, spicy etc. She explain that within these families, the flavours share particular qualities:

Take the Citrussy family, for example. This covers zesty, citric flavours like orange, lemon and cardamom. Cardamom, in turn, has flavour compounds in common with rosemary, which is the first flavour in the next flavour family, Bramble & Hedge. At the other end of Bramble & Hedge, blackberry leads to the first flavour in the Floral Fruity family: raspberry.

From this point, she worked through flavour pairings, and this forms the bulk of the text. Under each flavour entry, she discusses various pairings. But fear not, this is no dry, scientific tome that systematically explains each pairings merits and demerits. Rather, the explanatory text is rich with historical background to the pairing of particular flavours, wise tips for how to combine to best effect, and fascinating facts about why some things work together and others do not. For example, the entry on ‘Chocolate & Peanut’ commences:

According to Alexandre Dumas, the Spanish called peanuts ‘cacohuette’ because of their resemblance in flavour to cocoa. He goes on to note that they took advantage of this flavour harmony by mixing small amounts of expensive cocoa into a peanut mixture to make a sort of cheap chocolate. Fifty years late, in 1912, the Goo Goo Cluster, a mixture of chocolate, peanuts, caramel and marshmallo, became the first combination chocolate bar in the US.

But from this interesting forray into the history of chocolate / peanut pairings, she then explains just why peanuts and chocolate are such cordial flavour-mates:

the success of most peanut-chocolate combinations if down to the formation ofpyrazines during the roading process, which are harmonious with roasted notes in the chocolate.

And this, in turn, explains why chocolate and unroasted peanuts are far less appealing.

The text is evocative and great pleasure to read. While this book is overtly a reference text, it is also a simple joy to wander through the pages and immerse yourself in Segnit’s elegant prose. Mint, according to her, ‘is moody’, and has a ‘sweet melancholy’, which is ‘cheered up’ when partnered with strong flavours. An especial favourite, of rose’s floral muskiness, which can:

unless you’re careful … recall nothign so much as being pressed to your auntie’s perfumed cleavage.

A warning, then to pair the cloying sweetness of rose ‘bitter-edged spices like clove’.

The book is also impeccably organised. The sections follow the wheel, but an alphabetised index via flavour, with pairings below, allows quick access to whatever combination you’re hoping to explore. Meanwhile, a fuller index guides one to the many and varied topics Segnit manages to cover in this short, but detailed and hugely well-researched tome.