While I like to go out into the restaurant from time to time during service, I really dislike it when a chef parades around his or her tables in an effort to extort praise. This doesn’t happen so much these days, but I can remember chefs in vertiginous hats arriving at my table as if they were recreating a papal visit.
My solution is to make myself a cup of tea at the coffee machine: this allows me to have a casual look around the restaurant without making a fuss.
Quite recently, I was doing this when I overheard a large table nearby who were having a look at the pudding menu and discussing their options. When seeing a dish featured salted caramel, an older lady rejected it because she didn’t like salt in her puddings.
I realise that I should get angry that one of my creations was being rejected for such a trivial reason, but actually I had a lot of sympathy for her. In fact, I had the same feeling for a long time – why add salt to a sweet dish when you have been eating savoury food for the past hour?
It was working on this recipe a number of years ago that changed my mind. I had been trying to devise a cold chocolate dish that had a lovely slippery texture, rather like a just-set chocolate milk, and an intense taste.
When they are dreaming up recipes, chefs are always looking for ways of intensifying or exaggerating the taste of things so that they make more of an impact on the person tasting the dish. There are many different ways of achieving this. For example, when making a sauce, it is normal to reduce the liquid by rapid boiling. The water evaporates faster than the fats and other flavour-packed elements in the sauce, and so the taste becomes concentrated.
Another way to exaggerate a dish’s taste is to add highlights of the flavour profile of the main ingredient. For example, I add sugar, rose, lime and sesame oil to strawberry ice cream because I detect these elements in my perfect strawberry, and these help the strawberry taste to fight through the cream and the cold.
Another obvious way we exaggerate taste is to buy or grow the best possible version of the main ingredient: for example, I find the tulameen raspberry has such a great taste that it is almost the archetypal raspberry taste – so that’s the one we use.
With all of the above in mind, I was working on this idea of a just-set, slightly blancmange-like chocolate milk when I had to ask myself the question: how does one exaggerate or emphasise the taste of chocolate?
I had noticed before that the flavour of chocolate was hard to nail down and very elusive. I bought what I thought was the very best chocolate around, a 73 per cent Venezuelan variety. I considered adding a hint of coffee or orange oil – common tricks in industrially produced chocolate bars.
I had nailed the texture, but was still not happy with the taste until I realised what was missing was salt. When I tried it, I knew I had found the answer.
It seems that chocolate is not really a taste but a flavour. Taste is just what we sense directly on our taste buds, whereas flavour is a combination of this along with the volatile aromas hitting the nose that are produced when we eat something. When salt is added, the taste buds are stimulated and this, combined with the aromas in the chocolate, is how its flavour is produced.
Can you imagine me with a silly tall hat standing at the table, trying to explain all of that?