The Most Important Ingredient for Optimal Flavor in All Food

we baker’s know that the most important and least expensive ingredient in baking is air. but it’s taken me years to put together the importance of air in all aspects of food, especially the consumption of it. the idea has so intrigued me i am prompted to share it on this blog. i think it could well change our way of experiencing more fully the dining experience. oh let me not formalize my favorite activity—let’s call it what it is--just plain night a few weeks ago, on the back porch in hope, nj, where it had just rained all afternoon unearthing the usual woodsy aromas from the forest around us, i noticed that dinner had the flavor of mushrooms. the odd thing is that i hadn’t added mushrooms to any of the dishes. that’s when i remembered all the incidents over the years when i noticed how what i smelled was affecting what i was tasting. a little bulb went off in my head: great way to diet: smell more, eat less! good luck! but the idea of smell and taste intrigued me and remembrances of times when i noticed the phenomenon kept popping up. the first was when i decorated a chocolate cake with freesias and happened to smell them as i was tasting the cake. suddenly i was eating freesias! (but without putting them in my mouth of course—i think they’re poisonous—but not to the nose—ah ha!) then my mind leapt back 40 summers, eating al fresco (italian translated as in fresh air) on a hill top at my uncle nat’s farm. actually it was just off bean hill road in the berkshires. my father was in the midst of building a log cabin nearby so i went up for the weekend to help him strip logs. he made an outdoor fire and we grilled a steak, accompanying it with freshly cooked vegetables from my uncle’s large garden. the panorama was unforgettable: the hilltop surrounded by the berkshire mountains in the distance with only the stockbridge bowl and one large white house belonging to leopold stokowky in sight. watching the fireflies dancing in the twilight, breathing in the country air, the simple meal tasted better than any i had ever had before (no i didn’t breath in any of the fireflies!) years later i ate an unusual dish at the river café in brooklyn. it was my first introduction to a chef’s using the concept of aroma’s influence on taste and to great dramatic effect. chef david burke served steamed scallops, sitting on their shells, and placed on a substantial bed of toasted black peppercorns. with each bite of scallop, one tasted the heady perfume of black pepper without the accompanying irritation had one actually consumed enough black pepper to have the same flavor impact. then, for dessert, talk about drama: he served it on a miniature cast iron stove with little cinnamon logs burning in its oven. there’s a chef who knows how to maximize flavor and presentation. i mentioned this concept to my friend michael batterberry, publisher of food arts magazine, and he immediately delighted me with the image of a rosemary branch twined around a fork (it somehow had to have been antique silver—perhaps even vermeil) so that with every bite one tasted the aroma of the herb without the overpowering flavor had it been in the dish itself. The possibilities here are endless. just one thing i’d like to see take place immediately: a stringent ban the wearing of perfume or scented cosmetics in eating establishments (it certainly is and needs to be so at wine tastings). well, at least cigarette smoke is no longer a taste distorting presence. maybe eventually perfume will bite the dust as well but in the meantime i think i’ll either design a nose blinder or eat at home, most happily on the back porch of hope. (not, however, if a skunk should happen by!)

to find out what the food world's favorite use of air is these days stay tuned for the next posting!