Reproducing a flavour out of entirely different ingredients is such a cool trick. Isolating the things that make us taste something, and then being able to copy them so well that we can convince our own tongues? Magic.
I got so into this idea when I came across the modern myth about artificial banana flavour. So this story goes, the reason banana syrups, lollies, and flavoured milks don’t taste that close to real banana is because when the flavouring was first being synthesized, (mid-1800s), it was based on the Gros Michel, which was then pretty much wiped out by a fungal disease in the 1950s. What we see the most of now, the Cavendish, survived, but it’s flavour profile is apparently much milder. Actually, it seems that maybe real bananas weren’t readily available at the time banana essence is first seen referenced, so maybe people were eating artificial banana flavours and when real bananas came along they favoured the Gros Michel because its profile was similar to what they were already used to. Seriously, I love this story more, because it means that chemists tricked people into deciding what a thing should taste like before they’d ever even seen it. (Nadia Berenstein wrote a thing about it if you want to read more about bananas. I highly recommend her blog as a resource in general. She writes a lot on the topic of synthetic and artificial flavours.)
Vanilla essence is a cool one. Vanillin is used, which is a compound that has the exact same structure as the main component of real vanilla, which is why they are really hard to distinguish. The chemical that occurs in barrel aged whisk(e)y to produce the taste of vanilla? It’s the same as the one that makes real vanilla bean taste lIke, well, vanilla. I’m simplifying a little here, but you get the idea.
I read once somewhere that strawberry is really hard to reproduce because its flavour profile is really complex, and can’t be defined by just one or two chemicals.
I’m working with the head chef at the moment to create a drink and food pairing. I told him that I would like to use fenugreek, so he has suggested that an element of the dish will use Château-Chalon. Château-Chalon is an appellation controlled wine from Jura that can only be made from Savagnin in the vin jaune style. It’s known for its nutty flavours, and as it ages can develop curry flavours because of the presence of sotolon. Sotolon is also know as fenugreek lactone. The molecule sotolon was first isolated in 1975 from fenugreek. It is the major aroma and flavour component of fenugreek seed and can also be found in lovage. It’s also present in molasses, aged rum, aged sake and white wine, flor sherry, roast tobacco, and even a type of mushroom. It is also thought to be responsible for the mysterious maple syrup smell that has wafted over Manhattan every so often since 2005. Yup, imitation maple syrup is made with sotolon. We’re going to use the same chemical, present in different ingredients naturally, to create a complimentary theme.