Musings on flavor
A few weeks ago, I blogged about a bake that was destined for dinner with friends. I had asked what they would like us to bring and the response was "Something that would go well with snoek pate." Since I didn't have a clue about what Marthinus put into his snoek pate, other than that snoek is a fish, that left me with (in positive terms) a lot of freedom of choice. I wound up choosing two breads: a sourdough in the pain de compagne vein and Reinhart's pain a l'ancienne.
Before I go further, I should provide some context. Marthinus had an 18-year run as chef/owner of one of Pretoria's top restaurants. Although he has changed businesses, he remains passionate about food and cooking. He is still very selective about the ingredients he uses and very creative with how he puts them together for the finished dish. When presented with something, he wants to know what went into it and what process or processes were used. And he is not bashful about sharing his opinions. For Marthinus, flavor matters. A lot.
With that in mind, I was both relieved and pleased to see Marthinus enjoy both breads. He was especially taken with the flavor of the pain a l'ancienne. So much so, in fact, that this chef and self-avowed non-baker has begun experimenting with pain a l'ancienne at home. He's already made it twice, with neither effort quite reaching the goal that he wanted to achieve. One was, from his description, over-fermented. The other was probably under-hydrated.
In spite of not hitting a home run with the first two attempts, Marthinus is soldiering on because the flavor of those breads was still captivating. As he put it, "There isn't a bakery around here where you can get bread that tastes like this!" Knowing Marthinus, he will have bread whose crust and crumb is as satisfying as its flavor in the not-too-distant future. It might even be the final motivation to press ahead with a WFO that he had already been contemplating.
Seeing his interest in the bread's flavor has caused me to give some more thought to the importance of flavor.
We all bake for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is as fundamental as putting food on the table for our families. Sometimes we bake because it satisfies an inner longing to master a craft and produce something that appeals to the senses. Sometimes we bake because it is better to knead a batch of dough than it is to punch someone or something. Sometimes we bake because it lets us take an active role in making foods that are wholesome and unadulterated. Sometimes we bake to be reminded of a special place, or time, or person. Sometimes we bake because we can produce something better than we can get at the store for less cost.
Whether our reasons for baking are utilitarian or esthetic, we all bake for flavor. If bread tasted or smelled like cow flop, we wouldn't eat it.
As you read through the posts here on TFL, you will see frequent mention of the flavor and fragrance of the breads that are being produced. People get downright lyrical as they try to describe the flavor of the breads they make. It isn't surprising. Every bread sooner or later goes into our mouth. And as we chew it, the initial visual impression that we had of it is supplanted by the flavors and aromas that permeate our mouth and our nose. At that point, our attention has shifted away from whether it had a open crumb or a tight crumb, a dark crust or a light crust. What we want is flavor; the kind of flavor that tells us "Yes! This is the way that bread should taste!"
Flavor is so important to us that we aren't content to simply savor the notes that come from the grain, the yeasts, the bacteria, or the enzymes that have all contributed to a specific bread's flavor. Bread's flavor calls for other flavors, sweet and savory. Depending on the bread, we may want the simple luxury of butter or a drizzle of olive oil or a scattering of salt. Or maybe a PB&J is in order. Or we might marry some good ham, Havarti cheese, and a grainy mustard with an earthy rye. The possibilities are as infinitely variable as the people making the decisions and the ingredients they have to work with Every one of those choices is driven by the desire for flavor.
Although I have used Marthinus, with his training and experience as a chef, as an example of someone who cares about flavor, each of us in our own fashion is also concerned about flavor. Whether or not we consciously acknowledge it, every loaf of bread we bake is another step in the pursuit of flavor. Some of us are adventuresome, others are cautious. Some of us crave the new, others want familiar comforts. Some want in-your-face flavors, others prefer to thoughtfully consider the more subtle flavors. We each, though, want our bread to taste good.
The next time you chew a piece of bread, think about what you are tasting. And enjoy!