Salt, that is what you use to season food with, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Yes, it is probably what cooks reach for first as a flavour enhancer, but it isn’t the only option. We can distinguish between five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. These, when combined with the senses of smell, sight, touch and sound, make up the organoleptic qualities of food. So, as a chef or cook, you have more than one thing that can be manipulated to change the overall experience of how a food eats.
I remember an extract from one of Heston Blumenthal’s programmes that examined the effect of sound on the perception of texture; a noise made crisps appear more crunchy. Technical stuff, and maybe way beyond where most chefs go in their understanding of the science behind food! That having been said, consciously or subconsciously, as cooks when we taste food and make adjustments by adding salt, science is broadly what we are dealing with.
If you start to get into the idea of seasoning being more than just salt, I think you have to start with learning to taste. I mean really learning to taste, not just chewing, swallowing and pronouncing something delicious or disgusting but concentrating a whole lot harder than that.
You look at the food, you smell it, you engage your brain, look and smell again, concentrate, now really concentrate, focus on what you are about to taste. Put the morsel in your mouth, keep concentrating, suck in some air with the food and start to chew. Is it hot or cold, sweet or sour, crunchy or slimy, chewy or soft, sweet or savoury. Is it balanced, is it pleasing or does something jar? You can ask so many questions about what you are tasting: tasting not eating at this stage, remember. I firmly believe that it is the norm, to a greater or lesser extent, to eat without tasting. One of the first steps in elevating your cooking, whether you are a professional chef or not, is to learn to master the art of properly tasting things. It is more normal when we talk about wine – the swirling, swilling and slurping is an accepted norm – but how often are the same principles applied to food?
I always tried to teach chefs working for me to learn to taste. A dish, sauce or garnish can be drastically improved with some minor tweaks, but only if the tasting is done properly. One of my stalwart sauce bases is a reduction of dry vermouth, white wine and fresh vegetable stock with butter whisked into it. This sauce can be flavoured and adapted in many ways, but the basic sauce is transformed not only by salt but also the balance of sweet and sour. A pinch of sugar, squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar along with the salt can really make this simple sauce sing. And that brings me to the vinegar at last!
Under-used and often unappreciated, vinegar is an ingredient that is so useful in the kitchen, and is right up there with salt, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and butter as an essential part of my basic larder. The varieties are endless, with vinegar being fermented from beer, cane, cider, rice, wine, dates, fruit, malt and a whole host of other products. The first step, at least in the artisan production, is to make a wine with the base ingredient which is then allowed to slowly ferment with acetic acid bacteria fermenting ethanol into acetic acid. A process that may takes months or years depending on the vinegar being made.
Balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar and cider vinegar are all in my cupboard. The cider vinegar is a real favourite for salad dressings and homemade mayonnaise but I do use them all. Vinegar at the restaurant was really important for pickling fruits and vegetables that were then used to bring balance to a dish. One of my signature starters was a charred rump of rose veal with a white bean casserole and pickled carrots, the carrots cut into a julienne and pickled in a mixture of vegetable stock, Cava vinegar and orange juice. We also regularly pickled mushrooms, fennel, pears and shallot rings. And that is before you start to look at chutneys and relishes.
One of my key suppliers at Sienna was a company called Mediteria Ltd, a Spanish food specialist whose real skill is sourcing the best possible quality in whatever range of products they add to their list. Olive oils, chorizo, pulses, chocolate, vanilla, hams and, of course, vinegars. Their cider and PX sherry vinegar are the best I have tried, so the introduction of a new range of fruit vinegars is well worth a closer look. There are nine flavours in the range that are all produced from fruit wines, with six to eight kilos of fruit being used to produce each litre of wine, which is then inoculated with a vinegar culture and has oxygen added before being stored in stainless steel vats rather than barrels. This allows the pure fruit flavour to be retained. Many fruit vinegars are infusions or have purees added: not so in this case.
The flavours are true and the vinegars are smooth – I can see so many uses for them! A splash of redcurrant vinegar in a port and redcurrant sauce, strawberry vinegar in a strawberry jelly and pickled blackberries using the same vinegar to go with some Grouse or Venison maybe? The apricot vinegar in a fruity salsa to go with some pork, or a touch of the cider vinegar in an apple and vanilla syrup to go with a tarte tatin, perhaps? With nine flavours to try, there are certainly lots of options.
Mediteria Ltd are wholesalers who supply to restaurants, hotels, delicatessens, etc.
DISCLOSURE I received a free set of samples of the vinegars for testing in relation to this article, but as always these are my genuine opinions.