It’s no secret that I love food, I think that much is obvious by now. But for all the history and fun stories we’ve been getting into on these little History Bites, we haven’t really talked about flavour. I was speaking with one of our regulars while doing deliveries the other week, and we got to talking about wine. Now, I’ve known this guy for a while now, and had no clue he was so into wine. He knows all the regions and varieties like the back of his hand, but he mentioned that he didn’t know much about the tastes, especially when it comes to pulling out the exact tones that sommeliers look for.
So when I was thinking about what we needed to do for our pairing this week, I was struck with the idea to look at why and how we do pairings in general.
To start off, we need to talk about one of my favourite terms in the kitchen: flavour profile. This is a term used to describe the dominant characteristics of a food or beverage item. It applies to everything you put in your mouth. For example, let’s look at how two of the bags of coffee beans sitting on my shelf are described. The first is described as “smooth and balanced,” and the second is “rich and caramelly.” Believe it or not, this tells you a lot about how they’re going to taste.
There’s a lot of information to cover here, so let’s start with the basics: your taste buds. We’re still learning a lot about how we taste and sense food. Before 1990, the Western world thought there were only 4 taste buds: salt, sweet, bitter, and acid. But since the early 1900s, the Japanese had known of another flavour, that of umami. Umami is the meaty flavour commonly associated with savoury foods, added to the Western understanding of flavour in 1990. In 2015, pungency (or heat) was added. Today, we also consider temperature as another taste bud. So in my lifetime, we’ve gone from four to seven taste buds.
There’s more to a flavour profile than just its taste. Aroma, or smell, is categorized much the same way as taste is, and it’s also largely important. The smell of what we’re eating often hits us before we even see it. It also directly influences the taste of the food.
In addition to taste as smell, we also have to factor in texture (or mouth feel) and temperature. Texture and temperature affect how the flavour molecules are absorbed by your taste buds. Just think about the difference in flavour between a nice hot cup of a coffee, and a coffee that’s been sitting on your desk for 20 minutes.
Now on to how we discuss flavour. When you think of the kinds of words used on coffee bags or wine bottles, you’ll find the same terms coming up again and again—terms that you can see in the above image. Professional sommeliers (wine tasting experts) get paid lots of money to extend this wheel and use it to pick out the precise flavours in a wine. If you want to be a professional sommelier, you can use this wheel for reference when describing your wine or meal. But I’m going to show you an easier way.
Chefs and other food and beverage professionals often have their own ways of thinking of flavours. I know people who think of it in terms of colours or layers. For me, it all comes back to music. To me, bright flavours and aromas like lemon are high notes. Dark and rich flavours like beef stew are low, slow notes. These are more or less the two opposite ends of the spectrum. Every other flavour falls in between.
This approach to flavours is actually really well captured in my favourite movie, Disney’s Ratatouille, which is a movie about a rat who likes to cook. Check out the first 30 seconds of this clip to see exactly what I’m talking about.
Each flavour has different notes, but those notes also have a shape to them. They can be played sharp and short, like someone blasting a note on a trumpet, or they can be played long and slow like someone slowly pulling a bow across a cello. When you translate a flavour to something that is relatable to you, you don’t need to use precise words to describe it. It really makes the whole process a lot easier.
So how does this work in regards to pairings?
Different instruments or notes work well together, but you need a balance. Think of any band. Each instrument has a part, but they all come together to form a sound. When you put together a dish, you want to make sure that you have a little bit of everything. If you want to accent something, and bring it more to the audience's attention, you add a second instrument, or have someone do a solo.
A good example of this is the salsa on our tacos in this week’s Love Box. Think of it as a piano. A wide array of sounds and flavours that stretch from the low end all the way to the high end. This carries the melody, and functions to bring out each of the other flavours. Deep tomato and spice tones bring out the low end bass notes of the braised barbacoa, while the bright and aromatic tones bring out and bridge the gap between the sharp acidic notes of the pickled cabbage. It melds things together.
So when we pair a beverage, we’re introducing a new instrument. When we do several, we order them from light to dark so they flow into one and other. Here’s how we see this week’s beer choices fitting in with your meal:
Last Duel Lager: Light, refreshing, and palette cleansing. This acts as a crisp pallet cleanser. In musical terms, think about it as a rest, a silence which clears things for the next bite. It’s refreshing, but also plays off of the spices.
O'Canada Maple Ale: Light to medium amber, notes of maple. This is full of slightly sweeter tones than the lager, but it also has more richness. The maple flavours (which hover in that middle end) accent the smoky flavour of the charred meat, grilled tacos, and the ancho chilis. But the sweeter element also hushes the spicy tones. It also has a pallet cleansing nature to it.
Wet Hop Cascader Invader: Medium to full body, malty start, slightly bitter finish. Not overly hoppy. This beer is the most complex on the list. It has bitter notes, but also malty tones. It plays right in that middle to low end. It’s rich and deep while not overly dark. This plays against the barbacoa’s complexity, draws it out, and brings it to your attention. Because of this, it also accents the high notes of the pickles and citrus, making it stand out more.
Whalesbone Oyster Stout: Rich and dark, with chocolate undertones, incredibly smooth while having a substantial body. This dark beer functions similarly to the Wet Hop, but it lingers more in the rich flavours of the meat. Think of it like a cello. It draws out the flavours, making them long-lingering and resonant. It also contains deep malty tones that play against the spicing in the dessert, leaving you feeling full and satisfied.
This is a topic that I could spend hours writing on. I find the abstract nature of flavour combinations an endless source of entertainment. Although it’s difficult to pin down, it’s something that everyone experiences. Somehow we find common ground to discuss our tastes, and each find things that make our meals unique.
So whether you view it as music, colours, flavours, or words, there is always something to think about with every meal you eat. Each bite becomes a new adventure, or if you're like me, each plate a symphony.
Until next time,