A view From the Bridge

Savouring seasonal science

The holiday feeding frenzy has begun. If the visions dancing in your head are of modified soy proteins and aromatizers instead of sugar plums, your seasonal bout of gastronomy is likely to be molecular. Luckily, there has been a smorgasbord of books this year to tantalise.

From Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine.

From Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine.

R.M. Smith/The Cooking Lab

This autumn Hervé This — the physical chemist who with physicist Nicholas Kurti pioneered molecular gastronomy in the 1980s — announced that a new revolution is at hand. ‘Note-by-note cooking’ (in the eponymous book, reviewed here) aims to create symphonies of flavour by harnessing molecular compounds such as sotolon, which smells of nuts, caramel or curry depending on concentration.

Food science, it seems, now sports more twists than a molecular martini, as Dave Arnold’s handbook of cocktail science, Liquid Intelligence (W.W. Norton), bears out. (Arnold, a food-science writer and educator, also runs techie New York cocktail bar Booker and Dax.) Cue searches for centrifuges and liquid nitrogen (procurable from your “local welding supply shop”, notes Arnold),  gear without which the innovative mixologist would be confined to mere blenders and peelers.

You are then ready to enter the culinary lab and concoct Peanut Butter and Jelly with a Baseball Bat (vodka, peanut butter, grape jelly and a freezer). Or infuse pineapple spears with rum using a vacuum machine that compresses pores in the fruit with a force of 1.026 kilogram per square centimetre. Or follow Arnold’s “procedure for a simple drink in excruciating detail” — basically, an Old-Fashioned built with the Zen-like concentration of a neutrino tracker. Think knocking the corners off ice cubes to fit the glass, and observing the finished drink for some minutes “without touching”.

Blood flies and Chimp Sticks

Meanwhile experimental psychologists Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman round up research on the criteria for gustatory nirvana in The Perfect Meal (Wiley), reviewed here. Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman explore variables such as lighting, plate size and the behaviour of wait staff. And speculate broadly about the future of food, including entomophagy or insect-eating. (See also The Insect Cookbook, and an interview with its author Arnold van Huis). Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman reference the Nordic Food Lab as a hotbed of insect-based chow, not least the Chimp Stick — a liquorice root studded with honeyed ants (Formica rufa and Lasius fuliginosus).

They have all, however, been pipped to that post not only by the 2 billion people whose traditional cuisine, notes the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, already encompasses everything from grubs to blood flies, but by Vincent Holt. The Victorian naturalist’s 1885 pamphlet Why Not Eat Insects? suggests a menu featuring Moths on Toast.

For linguist Dan Jurafsky, words are essential to the gastronomic experience, and in The Language of Food (reviewed here) he slices and dices menus to reveal the subtle links between the cost of a dish, and the length of its description. He also etymologically traces foods to their roots: ketchup, he reveals, originated as a Fujinese fish sauce with more or less the same name.

If after all that you’re still hungry for the fusion of science and food, see our 2009 interview with chemist Harold McGee, who reminded readers that his 1984 paper revealed why beating eggs in a copper bowl makes them fluffier. (The eggwhite protein ovotransferrin absorbs copper, changing its properties.) Last holiday season McGee celebrated the role of fermentation in everything from chocolate to chorizo — look out for this piece in Nature’s ‘festive flashback’. From features on wine and climate change to interviews with food science pioneers such as Nathan Myhrvold, Tous les goûts sont dans la Nature (‘All tastes are in Nature’).



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