Tuesday, May 06, 2008

An important flavour.

May 4

Nineteenth century scientist became intrigued by a substance that they referred to as ‘osmazome’. Osmazome was a substance - or perhaps it was a concept - that had been recogniseable to gourmets everywhere for ever, but was difficult to pin down. Was it a taste? A smell? A single substance? A combination of substances?

It was first given its name by a French scientist, M. Thénard, in first few years of the nineteenth century, and was finally defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A name formerly given to that substance or mixture of substances soluble in water and alcohol which gives meat its flavour and smell; (more generally) meat juice or extract.”

Brillat-Savarin, in his Physiology of Taste, described it thus:

“Osmazome is the most meritorious ingredient of all good soups. This portion of the animal forms the red portion of flesh, and the solid parts of roasts. It gives game and venison its peculiar flavor. …

Osmazome, discovered after having been so long the delight of our fathers, may be compared to alcohol, which made whole generations drunk before it was simply exhibited by distillation.”

In other words, osmazome is what the Japanese call ‘umami’ or ‘deliciousness’ – the savoury taste characteristic of soy and fish sauces, yeast and meat extracts such as Marmite, Vegemite and Bovril, parmesan cheese, anchovies, and roasted meats.

Osmazome and umami had to wait until very recently for scientific elucidation. It appears that this taste is imparted by glutamates, which are the building blocks of protein, and which are detected by specialised receptors on the tongue. We are biologically programmed, it seems, to seek out and enjoy the foods that provide these savoury protein-based flavours.

The carnivores of the world do not need to seek out osmazome/umami, and vegetarians can get their fix from strong cheese, but what of vegans? They must seek out mushrooms, which are naturally rich in glutamates. I had in mind to give you an recipe for potted mushrooms, but how could I resist the following recipe for a sort of poor-man’s mushroom vol-au-vents, from an advertisement in a little book called Mushrooms and their use (1897).

Mushrooms in Shredded Wheat Baskets.
1 can musrooms (Champignons), 2 bouillon capsules,1 ½ tablespoons butter, l tablespoon chopped carrot, 1 bay leaf, a little parsley, 1 ½ tablespoons Entire Wheat Flour, 1 tablespoon chopped onion, ½ cup heavy cream, 1 ½ cups boiling water, 5 Shredded Wheat Biscuits, salt to taste.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the carrot, onion, bay leaf, and parsley. Cook ten minutes, being careful that it does not burn. Then add the flour, stir in a little at a time the boiling water in which the capsules have been dissolved. When it thickens, strain, return to saucepan and add the mushrooms which have been drained and cut into thirds. Cook five minutes and add ½ cup cream; then keep hot but do not cook. Prepare the biscuit by cutting with sharp pointed knife an oblong cavity in the top of the biscuit, cutting about ¼ inch from sides and ends; carefully remove top and take out all loose inside shreds, making basket shapes. Place in a pan and toast lightly in oven, then fill with the prepared mushrooms. Cover with the caps removed from the biscuit, and return to the oven; heat through, remove to a warm platter, remove the cap, garnish with parsley and quarters of lemon. Send to table with remaining sauce served in gravy boat or pitcher to be added at table.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Poetic Smells.

Quotation for the Day …

Why is it that the poet tells
So little of the sense of smell
These are the odors I love well:

The smell of coffee freshly ground;
Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
Or onions fried and deeply browned …

Christopher Morley.


Anonymous said...

cute poem. feels "yummy." we need a term like Ozmazome but for the written word.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Fascinating - I have read many papers on people claiming to have discovered umami, but with no indication of this earlier "incarnation." The difference in language is interesting. The modern writers have struggled a bit describing it - using words like "savoury." What you recount may come closer to hitting the mark.

Anonymous said...

The name reminds me of Wilhelm Reich's "orgone" unfortunately ; )

And apparently human breastmilk has massive amounts of glutamate.