Do you remember the scene from Amélie in which Audrey Tautou’s character delights in sticking her hand into a barrel of dry beans in her local grocery? I suspect that my supermarket might call for security if I tried to follow her example but I love the idea of such simple pleasures. Anyone who likes cooking knows that the enjoyment starts even before the food touches the lips. Long before I start preparing the meal—provided that I am not in a rush—I anticipate the textures and scents: the crisp sound of a knife cutting through an onion, the murmur of a pot of soup on a low flame, the bracing freshness of grated lemon peel. Even something as simple as a bean salad can be a gourmet experience.
My appreciation of citrus fruit came not because of its taste but rather its aroma. As a child I shied away from acidic flavors and even the sprinkling of sugar over the orange slices my mother would prepare did not endear me to their sting of tartness. It was not until I started helping in the kitchen that I discovered the fragrant excitement of citrus zest. A grating of lemon peel over grilled chicken uplifted a familiar dish. Candied orange peels folded into oatmeal made my daily breakfast more memorable. Slowly I grew to love the acidity and to welcome the way it made other flavors shimmer. As I explored more, I discovered the pleasant bitter taste of pomelo, the floral richness of mandarins, the sultry complexity of Seville oranges and the piney sweetness of kumquats. Thanks to the constant development of new hybrids, the citrus family is large and varied, so I can make up for the years of shunning oranges as a kid.
Perfumer & Flavorist recently reported the flavor trends for 2012 (information was obtained via Sensient Flavors, a company that specializes in such predictions.) They sound interesting, and I am particularly curious where black garlic and peach-rosemary flavors might show up.
"Aji Amarillo—Native to South America, the orange aji amarillo chile flavor offers a profile that features medium heat and fruity notes. Black Garlic—Popular in Asian cuisine, black garlic is fermented garlic that offers a sweet, syrupy flavor. Coriander—The seed of the coriander plant, this spice is native to the Middle East, southern Europe and Asia, and offers a fragrant profile with citrus and warm spice notes.
The Sugar Plum Fairy bade Marie and Nutcracker sit down while a feast was brought before them: teas, cakes and the rarest of fruits. The food was the feast, first for the eyes, then for the palate… Marie hardly had time to nibble at her sweetmeats before the next diversion was presented: the music abruptly changed to an adagio tempo. Arabian dancers dressed in gauzy veils garnished with gold medallions and jewels swayed hypnotically past… The rich aroma of coffee drifted past. --from E.T.A Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
The last days of each year are invariably orange hued for me: an evening spent peeling the stubborn orange peel with orange stained fingers and tossing the curls into the fire; the delicious icy chill of mandarins brought home from an outdoor winter market; the vanilla-orange sweetness of vin d’orange and slender orangettes dipped in chocolate. As I set the ingredients to make candied orange peel, I am once again a little girl watching her grandmother making this confection. To prevent me getting near the boiling sugar syrup, I would be given a large illustrated volume of E.T.A Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. To this day, the scent of oranges conjures visions of fairy kingdoms, groves made of candied fruit and coffee scented dancers.
The weeks leading up to the winter holidays are intensely aromatic for me, as I start experimenting with new recipes for pastries and cakes. I hardly even need to wear perfume because as it is, everything gets permeated with the scents of vanilla, lemon peel, ginger and rosewater. Winter holiday baking is a relatively new tradition for me, but I plunged into it with zeal. I strongly associate winter holidays with Vienna, where I spent some of my student days: Christmas decorations glittering in the snow covered streets, the seductive bitterness of hot chocolate, Strauss concerts at the elegant Kursalon Wien, the light-hearted exuberance of being exam free!
As much as I love the modern city, I also have a passionate interest in the Vienna of the fin de siècle when the Hapsburg Empire lost much of its grandeur. No longer the capital city of a powerful empire, Vienna became an imperial residence. It is fascinating to consider that this period of political and social crisis in Vienna produced some of the most extraordinary movements in art, music and psychoanalysis and attracted a fascinating mix of artists.