The award-winning author of The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit, will be speaking at the Food Festival this year. Bex Hobson caught up with her to find out what she’s got in store for us…
First of all let’s get this straight: all Niki wanted was a book that told her which ingredients went with what. Simples. Except rather than reach for Leiths and follow another tried and tested recipe, (as you and I might), she embarked on a culinary mission to document, categorise and list key cooking ingredients and their partners.
The result? A thesaurus of flavours, a guide: “informed inspiration” that has met with rave reviews, bagged multiple awards and flown off booksellers’ shelves ever since.
Organised into 16 flavour themes such as Earthy, Green & Grassy and Mustardy (my personal favourite), each flavour is listed alphabetically and paired with either classics (eggs and ham) or a lesser-known matches (avocado and chocolate).
The Flavour Thesaurus contains a comprehensive 980 entries – but Niki didn’t stop there. As well as consulting “chefs, relatives and taxi drivers” and scouring cookbooks new and old, she spent three years painfully compiling a directory of anecdotes, vignettes, recipes, jokes, musings and memories.
The effect is highly engaging; an inviting and intimate companion to foods and flavours that asks for minimal effort on behalf of the reader – photographs are banished.
“It’s good for the imagination not to have pictures,” explains Niki.
“The thing with photos in recipe books is that they’re very daunting – here’s the recipe and here’s the perfect version of it that you must recreate. The Flavour Thesaurus will never make you feel bad like that, your efforts will always look better!”
But the book isn’t a cookbook – though it does contain some excellent recipes – nor is it a homage to cookbooks or its antithesis either. A willing cook, Niki had grown fed up with always following recipes, and felt she’d relied so heavily on them she’d foregone her culinary intuition.
“The book is there to get your brain moving. It’s really a handy prompt list to get you going. There are lots of half connections in the book, I mention a lot of things but I don’t always mention what I do with them…
“Some people have it on their bedside table. Others use it as a source for inspiration, a springboard. It’s terribly easy to read, there’s lots of paragraphs,” says Niki rather modestly.
Of course the real reason it’s so “easy to read” is thanks to Niki’s prose. With all the cookery rules thrown out the kitchen window, the text moves seamlessly from very dry, witty asides to historical tangents, before passing through personal memories.
The book’s voice is dynamic; as kaleidoscopic as the flavours she so magically describes.
It took her three years to write, her quest to find the ultimate pairings weren’t easy. She begins laughing as she describes that time, “When you’re in the throes of it you really get to really them [flavours],” she says.
“You get to know ham, start really feeling eggs, and try to find something interesting to say about the couple which wouldn’t be repeating all the other books.”
Desperate to stay away from fads and fashion, The Flavour Thesaurus remains true to its subject. Alongside the photographs, also on top of the compost heap are food politics and health, “I tried to keep it as close to the subject as possible… with little vignettes, with geography and bits of personal stuff too”.
As for the Food Festival, Niki will be inviting her guests to taste some of her pairings while she talks them through “how their tasting apparatus works”. With the luxury of hindsight, she feels ready now to explore fully her experiences writing the book, exactly what she learnt; the sum of her 980 entries.
Those at her talk will be invited to delve into the flavour library of her mind and hopefully curate their own.
Not yet read The Flavour Thesaurus? Here’s a little taster…
Coriander Leaf & Tomato: Dancing partners in a salsa. So popular that sales of prepared salsa have overtaken ketchup in North America – and that’s not counting the huge amounts made from scratch. Basil needs to watch its back… Somewhere in the warehouse district in Minneapolis, a short gust of freezing wind from the Mississippi, stands the Monte Carlo, a supper club dating from 1906, when the lumber trade was at its height. The place isn’t retro: you’re just late. It has a tin ceiling and a copper bar and serves the kind of martinis to make you see the Prohibitionists’ point. Once your eyes have uncrossed, you’ll find yourself with the appetite of a timber baron, easily satisfied with one of the Monte Carlo’s trademark flatbread pizzas, topped with tomato, havarti cheese and coriander pesto. Every time I ate one I thought, they should make more pizzas with coriander. And that, basil, is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a pizza.
Lamb & Mint: The French say bof to the Brits’ love of mint with lamb, and they might have a point when it comes to the brutally vinegary strains of mint sauce. In 1747 Hannah Glasse wrote that a roasted, skinned hindquarter of pork will eat like lamb if served with mint sauce, which must have more to do with the overpowering nature of the sauce than any true similarity between the meats. But mint as a partner for lamb should not be dismissed wholesale. Lamb has a natural affinity for herbal flavours and, like citrus, mint’s cleansing properties serve the useful purpose of deodorising some of lamb’s funkier notes. Consider, for example, the lamb and mint ravioli served at Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant in New York. Or sauce paloise, which is like Béarnaise but swaps the tarragon for mint and is served with roast or grilled lamb. And in Azerbaijan a minted soup called dusbara is served with teeny lamb-filled tortellini bobbing in it. It’s most often garnished with soured cream and garlic, although some prefer vinegar and garlic, which sort of takes us back to where we started.
Bex Hobson is Blogger-at Large for the Abergavenny Food Festival
You can by The Flavour Thesauras online here through the festival website