summer tastes: 19 posts

Bitter and Sweet Chamomile : Perfume and Tea Note

I am spending a summer afternoon at my grandmother’s in my favorite manner–stretched out on the grass, reading a book. Absentmindedly, my eyes glued to the page, I pick a small flower from a patch in front of me and bring it to my nose. In that instant, I forget about the book, and the only thing capturing my attention is the poignantly familiar aroma of chamomile, of bitter honey and green apple.

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The reason chamomile, a simple, ubiquitous flower, puts me under its spell so quickly is that the herb used to be a favorite cure-all remedy in our household during my childhood. It was used in tisanes to help me sleep, lotions to soothe rashes or hair rinses. It’s the smell of summer in the countryside, and when my great-grandmother was alive, at this time of summer we picked baskets of chamomile and dried them in the shade. These days we don’t bother anymore, and my grandmother is happy just to buy the ready-made chamomile teas from the pharmacy. But since I have nothing but time and plenty of chamomile around me, I find an old wicker basket and gather a few handfuls of flowers. Spread out in a thin layer, they look like a polka dot extravaganza, and the scent intensified by the sun is unexpectedly lush.

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Mango Paletas : Frozen Flavors & Scents

Andy explores how freezing changes our perception of flavor and tempts us with mango paletas.

When hot weather strikes, some dream of heading to cooler climes, but my strategy for beating the heat takes a note from the fiery summers of Mexico—where the cuisine opposes the weather with an array of frozen treats. In Mexico, ice pops, called paletas, are made using whole fresh fruit and interesting spices, with flavors including tamarind, jamaica (hibiscus), and fresh strawberry, melon, passionfruit, or other fresh fruits. Many towns are lucky enough to have their own family-owned paleterias that sell a variety each day. Taking a note from these shops, I stock a selection in the freezer, since making your own paletas at home is incredibly easy and allows you to experiment with whatever seasonal fruits and flavors you enjoy.

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Paletas are among the easiest of frozen sweets to make, but they are both incredibly addictive and gratifying. The inclusion of large amounts of fresh fruit certainly help make them tempting, but I’m convinced that part of the appeal lies in the exciting way we experience flavors when our food is frozen. Often when we eat, we receive cues about the flavor we are about to experience through the smell of the food, before we even put the first morsel in our mouths.

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Green Salad with Egg and Dill Dressing : Summer

Among the many things that perfumery and cuisine have in common is their ability to take you back into the past. A whiff, a taste, and you’re in another time and place. My Proustian madeleine was a  green salad my grandmother put together when we suddenly discovered that our lettuce patch was about to be overgrown. Since wasting food is a cardinal sin in our household, I was sent to pick the lettuce and herbs, while my grandmother boiled eggs and whipped a simple sour cream dressing. The combination of dill’s spicy licorice, tart cream and slightly bitter greens was refreshing, but it also reminded me of my childhood so poignantly that for a while I sat with my fork mid-motion.

green salad20 years later

Among my grandmother’s large repertoire, salads never played a big role. Depending on the season, we always had a large plate of fresh vegetables on the table–cucumbers sprinkled with salt, sliced tomatoes, radishes or spring onions, but the salad was hardly more than slivered cabbage tossed with parsley, dill and toasted sunflower seed oil. Green salad wasn’t even considered food fit for humans, and I vividly recall my great-grandmother pointing to a pile of lettuce and saying that only during the famine of the 1930s would she eat that “green nonsense.”

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Raspberry Cognac Jam

“Do you remember the scene from Anna Karenina about making jam?” asked my grandmother as we stood over a pan of raspberries slowly melting into sugar. The passage my grandmother recalled was about a newly wed Kitty introducing a new method to Levin’s household, with somewhat tense results.

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“Agafea Mihalovna, to whom the task of jam-making had always been entrusted, considering that what had been done in the Levin household could not be amiss, had nevertheless put water with the strawberries, maintaining that the jam could not be made without it. She had been caught in the act, and was now making jam before everyone, and it was to be proved to her conclusively that jam could be very well made without water….Agafea Mihalovna, her face heated and angry, her hair untidy, and her thin arms bare to the elbows, was turning the preserving-pan over the charcoal stove, looking darkly at the raspberries and devoutly hoping they would stick and not cook properly.”*

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Strawberry Orange Blossom Compote

Methyl anthranilate probably doesn’t sound all that delicious to you, and if you were never friends with chemistry, it might seem downright scary. I promise not to give an organic chemistry lecture here, but please bear with me for a moment. Methyl anthranilate is both fascinating and mouthwatering–this molecule occurs naturally in some of the most fragrant fruit and flowers, from Concord grapes to orange blossom, from mandarins to gardenias. And also in tiny wild strawberries, fraises des bois.

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Also known as woodland strawberries (Fragaria Vesca L.), they are only as big as your pinkie nail, but their flavor is so intense that a fistful of berries will perfume an entire room. They smell of caramel, orange flowers and muscat. When you taste them for the first time, you realize that this is what every strawberry flavor tries to imitate.

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