This past Fall, on a trip to visit friends in Connecticut, I was afforded some time to catch up on my hobby reading whereupon I discovered (and this is really cool) that there are two schools of thought for describing how something tastes (to think that humans think about how we think about taste is what’s so interesting). One originates in Europe and the other in America. In the older, European school of thought, food and drink–wine, for example–is given such descriptors as “bold, distinguished, robust, refined, brash, delicate”. In this mode of thinking, food and drink are personified. In the newer, American school of thought, efforts are made to describe the flavors that present themselves to the palate: “This white wine has hints of orange-blossom, lavender, and raspberry.” This, I understand, is a fairly recent way of talking about food and drink, a fact confirmed during our assent of the Heublein Tower in Avon, Connecticut.
The Heublein Tower was built by one Gilbert F. Heublein in 1914 as a summer retreat high on the ridge of the mountains that surround the small borough known as Avon. Gilbert Heublein: renowned hotelier and restauranteur from Hartford, “an innovator in the American gourmet food and liquor industry” (www.friendsofheubleintower.org). Vintage advertisements within this now-historical site described Heublein’s cocktails and liquors with just such personifying adjectives. My thoughts began to turn to the several samples of beef I had been acquiring from Michigan farms, how I was looking forward to assembling my tasting panel of refined palates to begin the work of tasting and then describing beef. But which school of thought would we employ to describe the beef?
Though the European school certainly has its charm, I appreciate the exactitude of the American school. One European beef aficionado, having adopted the American method, uses flavor descriptors of beef such as: “green (cucumber, swamp, green shoots, green woods, forest, fresh cut tree); brown (dry straw, silage, timber, furniture, waxed wood); earth (dust, earth, wet earth, humus, mushroom); gamy (venison); nuts (light/hazelnuts, Chestnuts, strong/Walnut); blood (fresh blood, gamy); caramel (light caramel, toffee, treacle); dairy (semi-skim, whole, cream, clotted cream, butter).” (Schatzker, 105) When reading this, I was just a little incredulous that the aforementioned flavors could be discerned in beef, at least by the average person. Then again, I am reminded that red wine has 386 flavor compounds and beef has 340: that’s a heck of a lot that could be going on in a grilled steak.
After tasting eight different cuts of beef (including ground) from five different farms what I’m really impressed by is just how different the meat from each farm tastes. It’s a further confirmation of a terroir of beef (please see “The Terroir of Beef“). Clearly, we’re discerning that something is tasting different with each sample. My tasting notes includes terms like “deep, rich, full, dark, wild but not gamey”. The flavors also noticeably present themselves to the palate at different times: something “hits” you at first, then something else comes in the middle, and something else lingers. A member of our tasting panel just the other night identified the flavor of iron, as is found in blood. Looking over still more notes, I talk of “tasting the grasses,” and someone else speaks of an “earthy” flavor.
Two concluding thoughts. First what I’m finding after tasting beef from these various pasture-raised herds of cattle is that I can pretty much tell when I bite into a piece of beef that was raised on a conventional grain diet. It simply lacks flavor in a similar way that a Bud Light lacks flavor when compared to a nice microbrew. Secondly, while I like the precision and accessibility of the American school of describing flavor, I appreciate the depth of meaning behind the European school which personifies food for food, after all, was a living thing that now gives us pleasure and enjoyment–even amusement.
There will be a commemorative post next week at Midnight on December 25
Schatzker, Mark. Steak. New York: Penguin Group, 2010.