Saturday, September 6, 2014

Flavor Stories: Dr. Roman Kaiser on Saffron's Affinity for Mullet and Shellfish

Shellfish and saffron have a natural affinity for each other. For some, the experience of savoring the flavor of a delicious paella is proof enough. Still, the desire to know why and certain flavors work so well together is enough to keep a curious cook up all night, or in some cases, inspire in a 2438 page corpus on molecular gastronomy.

Dr. Roman Kaiser is a renowned flavor and fragrance chemist who has dedicated his life to analyzing scents emitted by plants in their natural setting. Respectful of plant life and the environment he is known for utilizing dirigibles to conduct fragrance studies in locations including: Lower Amazonia, Papua New Guinea, India, and rainforest biotopes.

These days Dr. Kaiser can be found with both feet on the ground. He retired from Givaudan in 2011 and lectures at European universities. He spends more time doing things that he loves including foraging, canning and cooking; something he did in his youth as he spent a good part of that time in the hills and forests of Switzerland.

It isn't difficult to imagine a curious flavor story Kaiser shares from his childhood. As a young boy he added a few petals of Rosa centifolia from his father's nursery to a batch of homemade raspberry marmalade. The result was a memorable flavor pairing that inspired his pursuit of sensory science as an adult.

Last month I shared a recipe for parsley pesto with Dr. Kaiser via email and confessed that its success was the result of two unplanned events; accidentally buying parsley for a cilantro-based sofrito recipe and deciding to build a dairy-free pesto using the parsley as a flavor base.

I discovered that lemon zest and ground sumac temper garlic and parsley's assertiveness, creating multiple flavor complements. What I knew in the creation process as "instinct" is something I can now share as experience as there are clear reasons why this flavor experiment worked.

Lemon rind is not juicy, but if you add an umami enhancer like ground sumac berry you receive an added benefit; malic acid. Malic acid gives fruit a pleasant tart quality. In adding ground sumac berries to lemon zest one returns a sensory quality to lemon that is associated with a part of fruit that isn't present in the recipe; the juice-filled pulp. The effect is, in essence, a reconstitution of lemon's juicy character without the addition of water. The water forms in the mouth from the savory umami effect.

After sharing the recipe for parsley pesto with Dr. Kaiser he responded with a flavor story of his own. The event took place while he was dining at a restaurant on the Ligurian coast with colleagues (a story he relates on page 150 of his book Meaningful Scents from Around the World). If you're a home cook with a penchant for seafood and saffron you'll appreciate what Dr. Kaiser has to say about science and the role of a cook's instinct in the kitchen:

"...I would also like to describe a culinary insight. I was always wondering how the idea developed to add saffron to shrimps, prawns and red mullet. During a project at the Ligurian coast we once had lunch in a very simple but culinary-wise, wonderful restaurant where we could even see how the dishes were prepared. We had red mullet (rouget, Mullus barbatus) very delicately enhanced in its flavor with saffron, and I suddenly understood why they did this. 
The fresh red mullet itself already has a very faint saffron smell due to minute amounts of safranal and related compounds formed by degradation of carotenoids which gives the typical color to this and some other marine species, including shrimps. In fact, this faint saffron note is also perceivable in fresh shrimps and prawns, in which I have been able to demonstrate the presence of safranal by headspace trapping. 
Another fascinating example illustrating of how people are often able to do the right thing intuitively, in this case to support a very faintly present, but desirable olfactory note with a suitable spice.  

Dr. Kaiser's capacity for discovery defines him as a person and a scientist. These qualities make it a pleasure and privilege to know him. When I returned to read the passage about saffron and shellfish in his book, I found a note from Kate Greene, Vice President of Marketing at Givaudan. The note, written on July 1, 2008, was situated on page 152; one page ahead of the one Dr. Kaiser cited in his email to me. I must have used the note as a bookmark when I was writing about geosmin, a molecule that smells of freshly turned earth. Kate's note read, "On behalf of Roman, please enjoy his amazing book- it has given all of us much inspiration."

Meaningful Scents from Around the World has the approachable tone of an observational diary with a provocative scholarly flavor. It continues to attract readers because the human element in Dr. Kaiser's work, which is as much about curiosity as it is about science, is timeless. September 16th marks the eighth year since the book was published. Meaningful Scents from Around the World continues to inspire me. I have a feeling it always will...

Details regarding Dr. Roman Kaiser's childhood discovery of rose-raspberry flavor pairing can be found in an interview conducted by Dyptique.

Dr. Roman Kaiser pioneered an aroma capturing technique in the 70's referred to as "headspace" trapping. This technique allows scent samples to be collected in the field without harming the plant.

Image of a dirigible from a ScentTrek® in Madagascar's Masaola Peninsula via Givaudan.

Image of a pint of red raspberries by Dan Klimke via Creative Commons.

Image of saffron threads by David Hawkins-Weeks via Creative Commons.

A big thanks to my husband, A.J. Kydd, who encouraged me to invent something new when I bought the wrong herb at the grocery store. It's nice to be reminded that mistakes and inconveniences are often opportunities in disguise.

"Inside the Olfactory Mind of Dr. Roman Kaiser" continues to be the most popular post on Glass Petal Smoke to date. It is part of a series of interviews regarding the sense of smell and memory.