“It tastes like…”
How we talk about—or don’t talk about—flavor
Written onNovember 26 , 2013
A food’s flavor can be hard to describe. We have a whole vocabulary for talking about how food is produced with terms like organic, heirloom, grass fed, pasture raised, line caught, cage free, community supported, miles traveled. But talking about what you experience when you put the food in your mouth, that uses a different language, and it’s one that can be frustratingly imprecise. We say local food is “fresh,” but what’s the taste of “fresh”? For that matter, what does spinach taste like? Or a hard-boiled egg from a pasture-raised hen? It’s not easy to say. Still, even if it doesn’t always make its way to a label in the way that “organic” does, a definition of flavor can be an important factor in determining which foods are bought by consumers.
A small number of products have labels that hint at the flavor profiling behind them. Coffee is one of these. While Vermont doesn’t grow coffee beans, we’re home to many experts who craft coffee products and perform the sensory analysis needed for high quality coffees. At one sensory analysis center, Coffee Lab International in Waterbury, lab operations manager Eric Svensson gave me a quick glimpse into what’s behind this industry’s vocabulary of flavor.
Imagine you want to sell a specialty coffee. You know exactly what you want your coffee to taste like. To get that taste you’re going to have to navigate a system of beans that come from all over the world and flavors that change based on region, altitude, variety of tree, picking, handling, how long the bean sits around after picking, how it’s stored, milled, roasted, and how it’s ground. Plus, while we experience coffee as a year-round product, different countries harvest at different times, so you’ll have to balance out that part of the equation, too. Solving this challenge requires communicating what you’re looking for to a network of people—from the ones sourcing the unprocessed beans to the person in charge of final quality control—so that everyone understands exactly what you want. You can’t just say, “I want it to taste like coffee.”
Helping people describe the taste of coffee has taken decades of work: mapping coffee aromas and flavors, standardizing how coffee professionals prepare the coffee they’re assessing, and training employees on how to talk precisely about what they smell and taste. Eric showed me a box of numbered aroma vials. I sniffed #30. It smelled sweet, like pecan pie, but not like pecans—more like the gooey part between the pecans in the pie. According to the aroma key, though, it was the aroma of raw walnuts.
Eric explained that if I were learning coffee aromas, I’d have to remember that my “pecan pie goo” translated to the smell of “walnut” in the lexicon of coffee. My association could be anything—it could be as vague as “Thanksgiving dessert”—as long as it could be reliably translated into an aroma on the official list. The same principle applies to memorizing the flavors on a coffee flavor wheel.
Most Vermont food sectors don’t have their own flavor language or aroma vials, but producers still need to be precise about how they describe flavors. Susan Alexander learned this quickly when she started the Vermont Switchel Company. The idea was to turn her favorite home recipe for switchel — a traditional haying-time drink featuring cider vinegar and maple syrup—into a commercial enterprise. The recipe only had five ingredients, but each came with a choice. There’s ginger, but what kind of ginger? Powdered ginger reminded her of baking and warmth, while fresh ginger was more zingy. And lemon juice: freshly squeezed wasn’t feasible, so she did a whole new batch of experiments before finding an Italian lemon juice that faithfully recreated the freshly squeezed taste.
Dale Conoscenti, an advisor at Hardwick’s Food Venture Center, helps new specialty food producers like Susan get precise about the flavors they’re looking for. Take caramel (a current project of his). There’s the American style of Kraft caramel, there’s the French style that’s sugar-cooked until it’s almost burnt, there’s the sweet-to-salty spectrum, and there’s swirl texture or stick-to-your-teeth texture. “It’s a big world out there around caramel,” Dale says.
Furtunately, though, all of us have spent our lives developing ways to navigate that world. “If you think about childhood and all the food memories we have, it’s the same thing [as what professional product developers learn],” Dale says. “I learned sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, collecting memories and experiences of flavors. We do it every day without being conscious of it.”
We would know whether the caramel Dale handed us was American style or not based on our memories of “caramel.” Susan uses our flavor memories when she introduces her product to new customers. “I walk them through the ingredients,” she explains, “Maple syrup, lemon, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and blackstrap molasses.” Most people, even if they’ve never had switchel, are familiar with the flavors of these ingredients and can imagine how they might come together.
“I warn them that it’s an unexpected flavor,” Susan adds. “Pungent, there’s the ginger and apple vinegar, then a sort of sweet, smooth, mapley finish.” She particularly wants customers to steer clear of using soda as a point of reference—anyone expecting a sweet, highly carbonated beverage will be taken aback by her drink. Food memories can be helpful but also misleading.
Farmer and former chef-instructor at New England Culinary Institute, Joe Buley of Screamin’ Ridge Farm in Montpelier, points to the example of green beans to show problems that can occur when we leave food memories unexamined. If one person knows green beans as something dumped out of a can in the school cafeteria and another person knows them as something eaten straight off the stalk in a backyard garden, they will have very different reference points for what a “green bean flavor” means.
When Joe talks about flavor, he backs all the way up to the science behind the essential taste of a plant and how we can bring out the best of that essential flavor in the kitchen. Consider spinach. A spinach’s flavor changes as the weather changes. In summer, it’s thinner and chalkier. In winter, the plant wants to reduce surface area so the leaves become thicker. They’ll begin to break and some customers will think the greens don’t seem “fresh” any more, even if they’re freshly picked. In addition, winter spinach is sweet, because sugar is, as Joe puts it, “a natural antifreeze.” Joe advises customers to balance the sweet with a sour vinaigrette, and that sweet-plus-sour flavor is familiar to most us, so it will taste “right” regardless of whether we’ve tasted winter spinach before.
The information that Joe shares isn’t just spinach trivia. It helps his customers gain a broader understanding of how flavor works. The same cold temperatures that signal spinach to produce more sugar also do so for plants like Brussels sprouts, which is why the ones trucked in from California, where it stays warmer, can taste bitter. And the idea of “fresh” needs closer examination. Joe notes that the same people who pass over his winter spinach as not fresh-seeming will also buy a freshly picked tomato and then pre-slice it and let it wait to go on a hamburger or in a sandwich. Within moments, half the flavor compounds in that cut tomato will dissipate, leaving a faded, some would say “not-fresh” taste. Then there’s the vinaigrette trick. Sometimes it’s easiest to think of flavors in terms of what they would go well with. Susan finds that many customers approach her switchel this way, saying things like “this would be really good warmed up with some cinnamon and pear.”
When Joe and Susan use flavor descriptions to introduce consumers to new products, or to recalibrate how they think about something like green beans, they’re broadening individuals’ flavor preferences. Mara Welton tackles this same challenge through Slow Food Vermont, an organization working to save rare flavors from extinction. In this context, an individual’s willingness to try, and enjoy, new things isn’t just about what they’ll have for dinner that night; it’s about what flavors get passed down through the generations. Slow Food Vermont begins the flavor conversation with the basics. For example, they appear regularly at Intervale in Burlington to talk people through simple exercises like how to distinguish the taste of sour or bitter in a vegetable. “It’s building a vocabulary for what’s going on in our mouths,” says Mara.
This vocabulary leads to conversations that can pave the way to trying new things. For example, when new customers talk to Susan Alexander about what they’re tasting in her switchel, they’re also practicing how they might describe her products to friends, who might then become interested in trying switchel, too. That’s good for Susan’s business, but also good for the future of switchel in a culture of Gatorade and colas. Mara is trying to generate this sort of attention to other flavors that are in danger of being forgotten. “One of the most important things is to be able to talk about flavor evocatively, so that people wanta flavor and want to bring it back,” she explains.
I asked her whether she sees those skills improving. She thinks so. “It’s very democratic,” she says. “Food is something we all experience…and because we get pleasure from it, that means we’re willing to geek out. I geek out, personally, about food.”
And with that willingness to get into the details of flavor, we’re all helping build and preserve the diversity of our food world.