Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sechuan Buttons: The Taste of Electricity

Nicolas Mazard, manager for micro-greens specialist Koppert Cress USA, is part ringmaster and part pusher. Dressed in company regalia he takes center stage at the Koppert Cress booth and presents an intriguing selection of microgreens to curious passersby at the 2008 International Chefs Congress. His melodious French accent and striking good looks are as riveting as the selection of micro-greens he presents; each intensely flavored and complex. The star of the show is not the Tahoon Cress (which tastes like the aroma of a beech tree forest after a good spell of rain) or the Purple Shiso (which tastes like fresh cumin and violets) or the Borage Cress (which tastes like the delicate brine of oysters and freshly cut cucumbers); it is a tiny flower head that Koppert calls the “Sechuan Button”. 

Sechuan Button is a term coined by Koppert Cress for Acmella oleracea, a plant developed through cultivation of Acmella alba, which is native to Peru and Brazil. The flavor of the flower head possesses a kick that resembles the spiciness of a Szechuan pepper, hence the name used to market it. Acmella oleracea became naturalized in East Africa and now grows throughout the continent. Its leaves are traditionally added to salads, soups and meat dishes, but the flower heads are more commonly used for toothache, throat and gum infections. 

The flower heads produce a unique sensation that is the umami of mouthfeel, creating a kinetic feeling on the side of the mouth where it’s chewed. Anesthetic effects of numbness and tingling accompany another sensory experience, which is unsettling to the novice Sechuan Button eater; watering of the mouth. When the puckish Mazard initiates the tasting of Sechuan Buttons, he carefully dispenses a quarter of a bud to each person, enthusiastically awaiting the response of audience members as they traverse a course that begins with fear and evolves into fits of giggling and laughter. “Remember what it felt like when you were a kid and licked a 9-volt battery?” Mazard asks, “That is the feeling you experience with Sechuan Buttons. It’s like having electricity in your mouth.” 

Koppert Cress suggests using Sechuan Buttons in sorbets and mixed drinks, but its application in flavors is limitless, provided that proper contrasts and pairings are achieved. Indulging in “buds”? That’s a bit Cheech and Chong. Chewing “buttons”? Sounds like an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s adventures with mescaline in The Doors of Perception. The marketing of Sechuan Buttons brandishes an element of the narcotic with the culinary, as well it should; the active ingredient in Acmella oleracea which produces unique sensations in the mouth is the molecule spilanthol (N-isobutyl-4, 6-decadienamide). Spilanthol is an antiseptic alkaloid that is a poison for most invertebrates, but harmless to warm-blooded animals. The molecule acts on the trigeminal nerve, which affects sensations in the face. 

My personal experience with the effects of Sechuan Buttons is a mild euphoria, which transpires after eating a single flower head over the course of an hour, one quarter of a bud at a time. Appetite makes the mouth water and Sechuan Buttons definitely trip a switch in the brain that triggers feelings of pleasure when you understand all of the plant’s sensory effects and aren’t frightened by them. There are six distinct qualities that are experienced when tasting Sechuan Buttons. As one chews the flower head, the senses course through green, bitter, numbing, electrical, tart, and lemon sensations. 

According to Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (also know as PROTA), essential oil distilled from the fresh flowers contains high amounts of the dietary cannabinoid β-caryophyllene (its flavor resembles black pepper, hence the appropriate marketing nomenclature on Koppert Cress’ part). Other major constituents include limonene (lemony), thymol (thyme-like), cadinene (green-like) and germacrene (spicy and woody). When one understands the sensory qualities of Acmella oleracea's molecules (referenced by flavor chemists as “organoleptic properties”) the science of taste becomes more fascinating as it is a yardstick with which one can measure sensory experiences. 

Sechuan Buttons have given the term “nipping it in the bud” a whole new meaning. Perhaps Koppert Cress USA should consider the California Milk Processor Board’s marketing of milk when promoting the exotic and zingy treat: "Got electricity?" Notes: Horizon Herbs sells three varieties of organic Spilanthes seeds (another species term for Acmella oleracea) that can be sown in the spring if you wish to grow your own flower heads. 

The plant also goes by the French name Brede Mafane or paracress. Micro-greens are a plant's first true leaves and are not to be confused with sprouts. Chefs use them as flavorful garnishes as their size belies the intensity of their flavor. The Koppert Cress micro-green selection is beautifully presented here. An equally compelling document on the Sechuan Button is available on the company’s site. Product photos and picture of Nicolas Mazard are from the Koppert Cress website.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fragrant Explorations: The Scent of Gardenia

The seed of an explorer lies dormant inside everyone. When carefully nurtured through travel, it blossoms and reveals this truth; the boundary between the senses and sensory objects is an illusion. We assimilate everything that we encounter in life and this shapes who we become. 

Travel is a catalyst for self-discovery and those willing to go where others have not sometimes bring the journey to others. This is reflected in the travels of Trygve Harris, owner of the fragrance shop Enfleurage in New York. Harris uses her love of scent as a compass for self-discovery that is passed on to her customers. The result of her recent quest is true gardenia essential oil and gardenia butter from Columbia, each an exquisite find in its own right. 

True gardenia essential oil is rarely used in commercial perfumery. It is expensive to produce and yields a kilo of absolute from 5000 kilos of flowers. In Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin author Steffen Arctander notes that French extraction expert Charles Garnier made gardenia concrete in the Indian Ocean Island of La Réunion, but eventually gave up the venture. 

Gardenias are native to southern Asia so it was no surprise when China and Formosa entered the market and began producing gardenia concrete from Gardenia florida, the same genus and species used in traditional Chinese medicine. (The berries of another variety of gardenia, Gardenia grandiflora, are used by the Chinese to produce a yellow dye called wong shi). When Arctander sampled gardenia concrete from China and Formosa he deemed them weak and unimpressive; an assessment that preceded the publication of his book in 1961. 

Modern perfumery relies on a mixture of natural and synthetic molecules to produce long lasting effects in finished fragrance products. In the industry, this quality is referred to as "tenacity". Robert Piguet's Fracas (1948) is a good example of this; middle notes of tuberose and gardenia can still be experienced in the perfume's powdery and musky drydown. When a person’s reference point is a finished product versus the raw material itself, it's hard to ferret out a single odor profile by smell. This is a serious issue for the true fragrance connoisseur who wants to feel connected to the source of their olfactive pleasure, as well as the history of that source. 

A similar sentiment is embraced by the Slow Food movement whose members emphasize the need to connect to the source of food on a local level. In an article in Food Arts entitled “Massing Links”, author Paul Hawken articulates opinions that shadow those expressed by fragrance connoisseurs;  
One of the drivers of the food system is the loss of nutritional literacy. We cannot taste the things we once did and do not recognize the importance of taste. And since taste drives consumption and purchasing, it’s critical to what we grow and how we produce our food. Our nutritional literacy can be reduced to a few intense flavors: salty, sweet, fat. Yum. It’s called McDonald’s and Fritos and Cocoa Puffs. Manufacturers know far more than we do about olfactory responses and mouthfeel and how these affect the brain and our sense of well-being. These taste buds in our mouth are not baubles to be toyed with. They are evolution itself, a teacher, a kindness, a guide. Because the natural food stores have been taken over by Whole Foods, it’s left to restaurants to curate the wisdom of our taste buds and remind us of what we have lost.                                                        —Weintraub, Judith. “Massing Links.” Food Arts June 2008: 109-113. 
Trygve Harris blogs on Absolute Trygve and her profile includes this revelatory quote; “I own a small company in New York City specializing in aromatics from the natural world. I was very excited to learn that nearly everything I had ever learned about everything, including myself, was wrong and continue to be surprised and delighted by this discovery daily.” I have never met Trygve Harris, but shop at Enfleurage regularly, eager to catch a whiff of her latest find or satisfy an exotic yen. (Enfleurage is not far from Aedes de Venustas and Aphrodisia Herb Shoppe, so it would be sacrilegious not to include the store when scentripping in the West Village). Based on her personal ethos it would be safe to say that Harris would sooner sample gardenia concrete herself as opposed to allowing Arctander's sacrosanct evaluations to set a limit on her curiosity; which is exactly what she did. 

Harris visited an organic farm in Columbia that makes essential oils using the enfleurage method and was present for the extraction of gardenia. Enfleurage is a method of fragrance extraction that involves layering petals or whole flowers in fat and separating the plant’s scent compounds from the infused pomade using a solvent (usually alcohol). The process is one of the oldest means of extraction used in perfumery, one that does not degrade the fragrance through excessive heat. The process is laborious and not as efficient as modern methods that utilize organic solvents or liquefied gases. This is evident in the tenacity of organic gardenia extract that has been produced for the Enfleurage shop; it is beautiful, but lacks the complexity of a conventionally extracted fragrance material. 

The gardenia butter is a sensorial gem. It's a luxurious pomade enriched with particles of perfumed palm fat that come out of the alcohol distillation process used to extract gardenia. As expectations of tenacity are not at the forefront for this product, it can be enjoyed for its sensual texture, moisturizing properties and delicate fragrance. The creamy green facets of gardenia rise above its fruity floral character, a quality that is also found in tuberose. The result is a product that resembles the scent of gardenia in its natural setting. It is initially impactful, leaving little to linger over when the nose draws away.

Does gardenia butter's short-lived tenacity matter? If you are a consumer that's only been exposed to commercially prepared perfumes, the answer is “yes”. The average fragrance user's expectations are framed by the marketplace and most fragrance consumers have little exposure to raw materials used in perfumery. If consumers are fortunate enough to live in climates that support the growth of plants and flowers used in perfumery, familiarity will be established with regard to how these raw materials smell in their natural setting. All travel, by foot or across an ocean, exposes the senses to new experiences. The fact that Trygve Harris's explorations echo the sentiments of Paul Hawkins is not a coincidence. Terroir extends beyond the gustative and into the olfactive, an important fact to remember when navigating among sensory menageries. Where will the explorer's compass take you? 

Notes: Enfleurage's gardenia butter and essential oil are in limited supply. A quarter ounce of the butter is $15. A 2 ml bottle of the essential oil is $50.00. The store is located at 321 Bleecker Street in NYC. Phone: (212) 691-1610 or (888) 387-0300. The purview of perfumery has widened since Steffen Arctander’s book on natural materials was made available to the public (it is part of a set and only recently became available as a standalone). 

The first picture that accompanies this post is from a work entitled "Seed Fire". The third picture is called "Heart Offering". Both were created by artist Krista Lynn Brown. Her artwork can be found on Devaluna. Photo of a magnolia flower is taken by brianrosshaslam on Flickr. "Red Flower, Old Compass" is a thoughtful photo by claireikalena on Flickr. 

This post is inspired by my sister Jayne, a gardenia lover who is celebrating her birthday today. Guess what she's getting for her birthday present?