Who, I wonder, actually uses DIY molecular gastronomy sets? A Canadian company, Molecule R, makes products to facilitate amateur modernist cooks turning all manner of perfectly good foods into "pearls", "noodles", foams and emulsions in the privacy of their own kitchens. But I'll wager that many of these sets are currently mouldering at the back of unwanted-gift cupboards. That said, a recent addition to their range caught my eye.
The new item, Aromafork, seemed less Generation Game (young people: this was a game show in which contestants had to attempt a skilled task after watching a short demo by an expert), and more of a fun way to experiment with flavours. The pack contains four metal forks, which hold disposable white cardboard tabs, and a library of flavour vials, arranged into the following categories: spices, herbs, fruits, beans (eg coffee and chocolate), umami (more on which later) and nuts. The idea is that, using the pipettes provided, you drop some flavour on to a tab, then inhale as you eat with the fork to see what nasal alchemy might occur (because flavour perception is 80% down to smell, or at least, that's the dominant estimate among flavour scientists).
After my initial flurry of enthusiasm, my new Aromafork set clogged up the kitchen counter for weeks on end. It turned out that I really didn't fancy using it. Eating is one of life's true pleasures and comforts, so it never felt like the right time to start pipetting fake flavours on to weird forks and masking the true flavours of my food (smell is, after all, a good way to determine whether a food is off or yummy). When I speak to Jane Parker, the founder and director of the Flavour Centre at Reading University, she sympathises. "I find it very strange," she says. "People don't want flavourings." It's all about clean labels, these days - foods that have the flavour of, shock horror, their key ingredients rather than synthetic facsimiles.
The trouble with fake flavours
I can smell the artificial strawberry flavour seeping out of the Aromafork box as I write. It is more melted ice pop, or Jelly Tot, than summer fruit. How can they get it so wrong? Flavourings are made by seeking to identify the volatile compounds in a food that form its flavour fingerprint. "If you take strawberry," says Parker, "you'll get your fruity note, but you'll also have a mushroom note in there. And you'll have a green note, a grassy note and a honey note." Ideally, the flavourings will be extracted from the real ingredient or, failing that, the important volatiles will be recreated in labs. Other fruits are sometimes used, and microbes are increasingly generating some of these aromas, but the chemicals will be what is referred to as "nature identical" to the compounds that occur in the actual ingredient. Strawberry, says Parker, is tricky to make naturally because "as soon as you crush them, they go off". And, in any case, the world cannot produce enough strawberries to meet flavour demand, so flavourists have to design cocktails of compounds themselves, depending on the intended market. "You can get creamy strawberry, jammy strawberry, fresh, sweet ... endless different variations," says Parker.
Opening the banana vial unleashes that classic banana sweetie aroma - a sickly caricature of the fruit itself. "I used to work as a chemist at the flavour company Firmenich in Switzerland," says Parker. "They used to laugh because they could make much better banana flavours, but in this country we think of banana flavour as banana milkshake and that's what we want." Expectations must be met. Similarly, the chemical benzaldehyde is the established go-to almond flavour compound. Almond liqueurs and marzipan taste nothing like the fresh nuts, but if someone messed around with the recipe now to make them taste of the actual nut, there would be an uproar. Good flavourists could add more complexity, some toasted notes for instance, but realistic flavours come at a price: "The more you pay, the closer you'll get to the real thing," says Parker.
You taste tomayto, I taste tomato
Another reason why it's hard to cook up authentic flavours, says Parker, is because smell sensitivities are personal, and people pick up aromas at different concentrations. "Everyone's got different receptors, so trying to make a flavouring that matches for everybody is very, very hard," she says. Lillies are a good example, with their lovely floral perfume. "To me they smell faecal," she says. "It's the same compound that to me smells faecal that to you smells like lillies."
The aromatic effects of these vials of flavours are also obscured by being unaccompanied by the ingredient's visual and textural qualities. Perhaps the peanut flavouring (which contains no trace of nuts) would less pungently infer stale, over-oily, roasted pub nuts if it were attached to real nuts. Plus it wouldn't be steeped in the unsettling, neutral-but-discernable aroma of the carrier liquid (in this case either propylene glycol or denatured alcohol). The chocolate flavouring is a shocker without sugar and fat - both tongue tastes - and that velvety, mouth-coating, melting sensation. All the vial gives off is an odd treacle liqueur smell.
Another flaw in the Aromafork experience is that when we say the nose detects 80% of flavour, this isn't purely governed by sniffing (otherwise known as orthonasal olfaction). When we eat, the aromas enter the nose from the back of the mouth (AKA retronasal olfaction). Orthonasal olfaction alone does not a flavour make.
Perhaps the oddest group of aromas in the Aromafork library is umami. Similarly to sweet, umami is a tongue taste. What these aromas give you instead of this taste are pungent, savoury smells: butter, olive oil, smoke. Aromas can influence the intensity which which we experience taste (vanilla makes sugar taste sweeter, for instance), but dropping weird synthetic smells on to a fork, it turns out, isn't a fun way to try this out.
Is your nose as easily offended as mine? Are there artificial flavours that you love or loathe?
Top Photo: The Aromafork: encouraging adults to play with their food Photograph: Public Domain