Molecular anecdoty

I don’t follow cook-book publishing that closely (or indeed at all), but you can’t help noticing a few things if you work in a library. One is that we seem to have bid farewell to the conventions of my youth, where the majority of cook-books were either reference manuals, like Bee Nilson’s The Penguin Cookery Book, or regional guides, like Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food; we now inhabit a culino-literary landscape populated largely by thematic discussions, such as Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, or personality-led recipe collections (that are frequently TV tie-ins) like Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef. At the same time, the standard presentation has morphed from something resembling a novel – hand-held format, largely text – to vast, glossy, lavishly appointed orgies of food-porn that take two people to lift.

Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus bridges some of these divides. It is a thematic reference manual, not far off novel format, and printed on the same kind of paper, without a single colour photo, and featuring only one illustration. Its theme – flavour combinations, weird and wonderful – could hardly be more modish, and Segnit makes frequent reference to those specific flavour compounds the knowledge of which has given us the (fashionable and reviled) term ‘molecular gastronomy’. It is also written in an informally anecdotal style that would probably have been horrifying to the likes of Elizabeth David, but it is nevertheless something of an old-school volume. For one thing, writing is at the heart of its writing: Segnit treats its creation as a work of literary production – rather than the sort of team-based Hollywood-style collaboration that brings most contemporary cook-books into existence. As such, she situates herself in a long and rich tradition from which the commercial mainstream of culinary publishing seems to have largely become detached.

The book is organised around the large flavour wheel which is partially visible on the cover. This wheel is not quite as systematic as the colour wheel from which it derives, or as other similar devices in other fields, such as the circle of fifths in tonal music, but it offers an effective guide to Segnit’s take on flavour affinities. It also serves as the table of contents, with each ingredient, within each sector of the wheel, the subject of a chapter, in which it is indexed alphabetically against whichever other ingredients Segnit found interesting or remarkable. Sometimes what she has to say has little or nothing to do with combining the two flavours, like her discussion of the symbolism of eggs and peppers in Italian-American criminal subculture, or her observation that studding an orange with cloves resembles the pleasure that Nicholson Baker describes in The Size of Thoughts, of writing on an eraser with a ballpoint pen. At other times she offers a bare sentence or two, and at others, an entire recipe – or on one occasion a poem (heavily indebted to Theodor Geisel).

Segnit’s cultural frame of reference can at times seem a little baffling. She claims there’s something about the combination of blue cheese and truffle ‘that feels like wearing  a low-cut top and a short skirt’; I had to ask Spouse whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, and she informed me it was the closest sartorial equivalent to burning in hell for all eternity (which also reflects her opinion of blue cheese), so I can only assume that Segnit is advising us against ever combining these two ingredients. But joking aside (I jest), she seems to have rather more anecdotes to hand regarding stumbling across some marvellous place in Tuscany or Provence than in Benidorm or Clacton, and rather more detailed knowledge of caviar than of Greggs’ meat pies. She doesn’t scruple to stoop to cola or hot-dogs, mind; it just gets a bit wearing how little she seems to notice her own privilege.

This book is a corrective to most of the things I find tiresome about contemporary culinary publishing. Not only is it clearly and exclusively the work of a knowledgeable writer, it is designed to be of practical use for the creative domestic cook with a well-stocked store cupboard, rather than someone who wants to go out and buy precisely what they’ve been told they need by A Recipe. It is also presented in a far more practical format than most cook-books, and as it is not printed on heavy, gloss paper, it is possible to lift it with one hand without risking tendonitis. Segnit is not, as far as I know, a professional chef, but she is clearly far better informed than the average lay-person, and has put as much work into researching this book as she has into writing it. It is likely to be my close companion in the kitchen, and it has been a real pleasure to read.

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