Wednesday 23 November 2016


I was writing the other day about the new Brewing and Distilling degree, and my Food Fermentation module within it. As this is the first such course and first such module in the country I had to dream up a couple of Text-books. The first (of course) was The Art of Fermenation by Sandor Katz which I came across on our visit to Sherkin last year. The second was Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan [Guardian review]. We've met him before on The Blob with his aphorism "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much" Hey Cooked is on Netflix, so you don't need to struggle through the book. Or just get it straight from the horse's mouth talking to foodie Googlers.

ANNyway, Cooked. Pollan (four visits to Google; TED talk; at the RSA; Mondavi Center UC Davis) has Harry Pottered himself to the top of the heap of trendy food philosophers. Poor Bill "Heat Braise Shanks" Buford is probably chewing his beard with frustration. Both these books / authors have been successful partly because they are already successful but also because each book has a clearly thought out structure. Buford lays it out explicitly in a far too wordy subtitle ": An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher". Poor Buford, trained on the job as a journalist and editor on the New Yorker and Granta thought he could do without a ruthless copy-editor on the title. Pollan otoh affects to shoe-horn his extensive musings and experiences in and around the food industry into four parts called Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Those are the four classical 'elements' of Greek cosmogony.

Phew, there is room for my Cook Book which, with devastating clever-clogs-ness, nods towards the Wu Xing with sections called Fire, Water, Earth, Metal and Wood. In it I will cover the essentials of a happy life: rashers, soups, pizza-oven, sharp knives and dull spatulas.  Into the section Earth / pizza-oven, I will lurry all the stuff that doesn't fit into the wholly artificial structure suggested by my rather unimaginative publisher.

Now, now Bob enough of your sad-sack sniping at Mr Pollan because people listen to him and ignore you and your thoughts on food engineering and the intestinome. What The Blobbies want to know is if there anything of value in Cooked, because it's coming up for the Xmas book-buy season and they have daughters in the catering trade. Verdict: it's okay, the fact that it's taken me 4 weeks to get through half [Fire, Water] is more to do with falling asleep after dinner and a hard day anticking about while teaching at The Institute.

The book has value if only because it looks in some detail at umami, the fifth chemical class for which we have embedded taste-receptors on our tongues. When I was being educated there were only four: sweet, salt, bitter and sour. Up till this month, I have thought that umami = savouriness = glutamate = MSG which is really far too simplistic analysis. The glutamate angle was revealed by a Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda more that 100 years ago. He noted [1908] that the taste from kombu was distinct from the original four and discovered that it could be purified as the salts of glutamic acid, one of the 20 amino acid building blocks of all proteins. MSG is, of course, mono-sodium glutamate one of those glutamic salts. Ikeda's student and successor Shintaro Kodama isolated [1913] a different chemical from dried bonito flakes, another key ingredient in Japanese cooking, called inosine monophosphate IMP that had umami characteristics. The third element in the troika of taste, guanosine mono-phosphate GMP, had to wait until 1957 to be discovered in shiitake mushrooms by Akira Kuninaka. If guanosine tinkles a bell, it's because it is the G in the ATCG of DNA and the AUCG in RNA, the nucleic acids that carry the genetic information.

It had to wait the bones of another 50 years before we in the West heard about umami to start a raft of trendy eating fads and launch a hundred new restaurants.  Of course, like M. Jourdain in Molière's le bourgeois gentilhomme who is surprised and delighted to have been speaking prose for the last 40 years, we have been seeking out and sucking up umami foods since long before the Romans made a batch of fish-sauce or parmesan.

Pollan makes the case that three key ingredients in stock: carrots, onions and celery are the western equivalent of seaweed, fish and mushrooms which perform the complex synergy between three different chemicals to have a positive effect on other dishes. Quoi? I don't believe it, there is no evidence put forward to suggest that carrots are rich in glutamate or inosine.  You just have to think parmesan or soy sauce to realise that they don't cut the mustard. There's slightly more evidence to explain the omnipresence of chicken stock [which includes carrot, onion and celery] in french cookery. The result is not really that everything tastes like every night the goddam chicken, no it's more like everything tastes better from being jazzed up by the glutamate in chicken stock.

A large chunk of the Water section of Pollan's book follows him as it masters the art of slow cooking - the braises, the shin of beef, the lamb-shanks. His position is that long slow cooking will not only transform the unchewable fibres of collagen into succulent enriching gelatin but also will reduce the proteins in meat into its component amino acids . . . including glutamate.  This means that the ropier cuts of hawg and beef can be rendered into a valuable food source and we don't have to satisfy our desire for meat with expensive chops and steaks.

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