Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

A quite incredible book on how flavours work together, Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus is part cookbook part reference work, with frequent digressions into anecdote á la Elizabeth David.

She devotes a whole chapter on the culinary properties of Globe Artichoke, a vegetable related to the thistle: 

Globe artichokes contain a phenolic compound called cynarin, which has the peculiar effect of making anything you eat directly afterwards taste sweet. It temporarily inhibits the sweet receptors in your taste buds, so that when you follow a bit of artichoke with, say, a sip of water, flushing the compound off your tongue, the receptors start working again and the abrupt contrast fools the brain into thinking you’ve just swallowed a mouthful of sugar solution. This makes for a diverting, if swiftly tedious, party game – sweet radicchio! – but it’s bad news for wine. And the enemy of wine is my enemy. The problem can be minimised by using ingredients that create a bridge between the wine and the artichoke (or simply taking a bit of something else before you take a sip of wine). Or you could ditch the wine altogether and drink Cynar, an artichoke-flavoured liqueur from Italy.

The obligatory recipe and anecdote follow. I reproduce it here with an eye to purchasing both a jar of artichokes and a bottle of cheap Italian white:

Globe Artichoke & Bacon: In Lazio, a boyfriend and I were speeding through a landscape of fairytale castles, well on our way to not living happily ever after. We had been arguing with such uninterrupted intensity that it was only a promising road sign that reminded us that it was well past lunchtime and we were hungry. Our motherly Italian hostess, perhaps picking up on the friction between us, took pity and led us to a table under an olive tree. Mercifully soon, she brought a label-less bottle of cold, dry white wine, an enormous spoon and a terracotta dish of something covered in breadcrumbs and cheese, molten bubbles popping on the surface like the meniscus of a volcano. My boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, or whatever he was at that moment, took the spoon and, breaking through the crust, emerged with a steaming heap of rigatoni, pancetta and artichokes, in a rich béchamel savoury-sweet with Parmesan. They say hunger is the best sauce, but if that lunch under the olive tree is anything to go by, the point in a relationship where it doesn’t matter any more runs it a close second. We smiled at each other. I topped up our glasses. He piled the pasta on our plates. The bitter, nutty greenness of the artichoke cut through the richness of pancetta and cheese. It was by far the best last date I’ve ever had. If your relationship is on the rocks, get 200g of rigatoni on to cook. Soften a finely chopped onion and 2 garlic cloves in olive oil with 75g sliced pancetta. Add 4-6 cooked artichoke bottoms (good jar ones will do), sliced into sixths. In a bowl, mix 125ml milk with 150ml double cream and 50g grated Parmesan. The pasta should be al dente now. Drain it, empty back into the pan and add the milky, creamy, cheesy mixture and the onion and artichokes. Stir and check for seasoning, then transfer to a baking dish. Cut a ball of mozzarella into slices and lay them on top. Cover with a mixture of 50g breadcrumbs and 25g grated Parmesan and bake for 30 minutes at 200oC/Gas Mark 6, covering it with foil if it looks in danger of burning. Serve with a bottle of cold, cheap Italian white.

It definitely sounds worth the trouble...


  1. While it seems I had neglected to keep reading this blog for some time, stumbling upon this post is what one calls fortuitous! It is something I will most certainly want to cook myself, though perhaps for the day before a break up.

    1. Despite its relationship with the thistle family, Jo doesn't like artichoke, so we're safe there! I can definitely recommend the book as well, it's a wonderful thing to dip into, whether you are cooking or not, although for some reason, the author has omitted courgettes. There's an apology at the beginning of the book, but no mention of them thereon...