A flavour thesaurus – definitely a good idea

The sides and back of Niki Segnit's The Flavour Thesaurus

Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus is a pleasure to handle and to read.

It was my birthday recently. And for my birthday I got many wonderful presents, some of which you will hear about later. Today, I want to spread the word about a wonderful book. Not only is it pretty, it is also funny, inspiring and ingenious. There are no recipes, as such, but there are ideas aplenty. I’m talking about Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus.

A section of the flavour wheel.

A section of the flavour wheel.

The Flavour Thesaurus is a guidebook to flavour pairings. As such, it is useful. If you are interested in food but think you’ve tried everything you’re comfortable with, this is a nice little resource to get you inspired and kick-started. (Saying that, soup tonight was parsnip and apple, a pairing that isn’t listed in the The Flavour Thesaurus. It works though.) Don’t expect a scientific approach to flavours. This is an emotional and anecdotal collection of articles. The format is interesting and amusing. Segnit has picked a number of flavours and arranged them in a wheel that circles from roasted through to floral fruity. Each segment contains a number of flavours. Roasted, for example, holds chocolate, coffee and peanut. The floral fruity segment starts with raspberry and figs and moves through to white chocolate, closing the circle neatly. Looking at –and disagreeing with – the flavour classifications offers one level of fun. Another comes in looking for favourite ingredients and reading the articles. But be aware that this is not a thesis on chemistry but a memoir of food eaten and cooked, and flavours loved and hated.

I love books as much as I love food so I am particularly pleased about this one. It is beautiful. The cover is colourful and has a strong design element which is repeated inside the book. The paper’s fairly pulpy, but has deep rose edges. Gorgeous and a pleasure to handle.

The thesaurus isn’t a particularly practical guide, if you are shy in the kitchen but it is a great read if you enjoy food. I opened it randomly and found this article on white fish and saffron:

”Italians turn their noses up at this combination, according to Elizabeth David in Italian Food, as they think the flavour of saffron overpowers the fish. She doesn’t agree, and neither, surely, would anyone who’s eaten bouillabaisse. One evening in Antibes, a pharmacist slipped us the name of the place to get it, somewhere off the coast road between Saint Tropez and Cabasson. He didn’t know the address – you just had to keep your eyes peeled. Chez Joe, it was called, or so the pharmacist’s scrawl on the rumpled napkin seemed to say. We arrived at a patch of featureless headland and climbed down a rusty ladder to a narrow beach where a dozen folding tables had been pushed into the shingle. ‘Joe’, whose chez was a cave, attended to a large pot over a fire of driftwood, muttering to himself over a roof of dripping rock. Another man brought us a bottle of rosé from a coolbox and a couple of tumblers. We drank for a while, looking out to sea, before the soup was presented along with some garlic-rubbed bread.”

It goes on, and evokes an evening of rare perfection and a bouillabaisse to drive far for. Not all entries are that long or that evocative, but they all give you a source, an idea or, in most cases, simple an interesting pairing. The Flavour  Thesaurus is perfect for dipping in to, for fun or inspiration, and should be read in bits and pieces, not cover to cover, like any good dictionary or, indeed, thesaurus.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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