Secrets of the flavour lab

Secrets of the flavour lab

Have you come across the word ‘flavourings’ of the ingredients list of a food packet and wondered what the word actually means? I have, and the word fills me with a sense of trepidation about what’s in the food I’m about to consume.
What are these mysterious ‘flavourings’, and how do they enhance (or alter) our perception of how things taste? Where do they come from and how are they made? What are they doing in my food? A few weeks ago, thanks to the folks at Castello cheese, I found out. 
I set off with Sophie, Castello’s account manager, to a secret lab (okay, an industrial estate in Northhampton) to find out about a thing called ‘molecular pairing’. The term conjured up images of men in lab coats and goggles, all strangely looking a little bit like Heston, grappling with steaming, bubbling beakers and test tubes.

Danny the flavour man

Enter Danny Hodrien, owner of F&F Projects who, for the last 40 years, has worked as a creative flavourist. Using the power of his super-sensitive nose and a big grey box called a gas chromatography mass spectrometer, he identifies and creates the natural flavours used in many foods. 

The science bit
Danny’s vast array of flavour compounds
Once you get your head round it, the science is quite simple. Samples of a substance (in our case Castello cheese) are broken down in the mass spectrometer and their flavour-giving molecules identified and mapped through a computer system. Once that’s done, Danny can set about re-creating the flavour by combining the food’s specific compounds from his vast array of little brown bottles. 

It’s fascinating stuff and the stories Danny tells about how certain smells and tastes are created are fascinating. “Here, smell this,” he says, waving a strip of paper under our noses. A wary sniff reveals the unmistakable smell of maple syrup. “Now this one,” as he offers another strip emitting the unmistakable smell of pineapple. Then, unable to contain his excitement, he asks us to smell the two together. The two very distinctive scents mingle in our nostrils and create… celery! Despite our best efforts, Danny refused to let us know which food manufacturer brand has used this particular mix to produce their celery soup.
The trusty spectrometer

Once a product has been profiled, Danny can take things a step further, into mysterious world of flavour-matching. This is the scientific approach to food-pairing, and aims to explain why certain ingredients complement each other. Danny says that the key to a successful pairing is to look for the overlaps in the molecular makeup of the products, which indicate the flavours that might make good bedfellows.

Sophie handed over a selection of Castello’s best-selling cheese to see what potential ideal partners Danny could come up with. Armed with the chemical profiles from his trusty spectrometer, he then looked for other foods where some of the same molecules occur, reasoning that they may be a good partner for the particular cheese, and from there came up with some potential partners.

What we found…
Over lunch, Danny revealed his findings. First up, Castello’s creamy white cheese was partnered with grapefruit and a pistachio and fennel-seed sprinkle. I can’t say that I was completely convinced but did discover that pistachio and fennel make a pleasing, if unusual, combination.
Next was a creamy blue cheese, which Danny paired with smoked mackerel and creamed coconut shavings. I’m not sure what it was that made the combination so intriguingly moreish but we managed to polish off quite a lot before moving on to pairing number three.
Chemistry? Or magic?

This was Tickler cheddar, the new boy in the Castello cheese gang. We found ourselves dipping cubes this cheese into papaya and passion fruit coulis with a dusting of powdered cashew nut. Although we could see the potential, somehow the fruitiness was too much for the poor cheese.

Finally, the infamous Pineapple Halo… I confessed to Sophie that I was a little scared of this fruity cheesy concoction but after, on her advice, I thought of it as a dessert rather than a cheese, I was won over. Danny paired it with a cinnamon and clove spiced iced tea and the effect was rather pleasing – a kind of tropical spiced cheesecake.
We left the lab, our noses tingling with a multitude of scents, not sure quite whether we had just witnessed chemistry or magic – but certain that I’ll never look at the word flavourings in the same way again. 

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