Food & Drink: Bouquets behind barbed wire: Michael Bateman enters the reclusive world of flavour scientists, whose lobster stock acquires the whiff of St Tropez in the laboratory

WE THINK of the Oz Clarkes and Jilly Gouldens as being at the sharp edge of flavour recognition. On television they are frequently seen identifying a dozen flavours in a wine: spring flowers, leather harnesses, vanilla, raspberry jam, hay, oak, blackcurrants. Some people think it ludicrous that they can taste everything except grapes in the wine they sip.

But flavour scientists don't think they go over the top. Given their insights into flavour, Oz and Jilly might have just invented the wheel; the flavour boffins have been to the moon and back. Take blackcurrant. Scientists have so far identified no fewer than 398 flavour compounds.

The public knows little of this, because flavour scientists are secretive, serving the big supermarkets and food companies. They are the highly paid alchemists who convert such base materials as maize and potato, sugar and fat, into golden profits.

In any case, the additives industry is painfully reclusive. It has been on the defensive since the mid-1980s when Maurice Hanssen published E for Additives, a dictionary of chemicals which sold over a million copies, underlining anxieties about the food industry's practices. But now, out of the blue, Borthwicks, the leading manufacturers of natural flavours in Europe, is saying: 'Come and have a look, we've nothing to hide.'

Borthwicks managing director, Kirk Veal, says the company has nothing to conceal. 'For the last 10 years the consumer has been dictating the rules. We've been moving away from artificial additives towards natural flavours.'

Flavour, explains Mr Veal, is the newest of the food sciences, emerging in 1952 with the invention of gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy. The most sophisticated human palate can identify perhaps a few hundred tastes; science has recorded some 5,000 different flavour components. Borthwicks uses a 'palette' of 3,500 in its work. 'We've found out how nature does it,' Mr Veal says. 'So we can reproduce natural flavours using natural, not artificial, elements.'

Art is allied to science to produce the essence of a flavour rather than an exact reproduction. The butter taste in margarine, for example, consists of about 20 key components out of several hundred possible.

So this is the first ever press visit to Borthwicks, in the former shoe town of Wellingborough, Northants. You can smell the factory, the wind wafting an unlikely mixture of perfumed sweetness: vanilla, sticky boiled sweets, passion fruit, marmalade, lemon peel.

Inside a compound protected with barbed wire and security men, Mr Veal waits with three of his colleagues: John Margetts, technical director; Barry Taylor, research director; and factory manager David Catherall, a bearded giant with the well-nourished look of a Pavarotti.

Warning notices are posted everywhere, but most are in the interests of food safety. On the factory floor they assemble the products brought back by their plant hunters: vanilla pods from Madagascar, raspberries from Aberdeen, strawberries from Poland, lobsters from Canada. It's a heady world of taste and smell, for they buy cola nuts and limes, fruit by the ton, berries, herbs, spices, ginger, ginseng, sesame seeds, peppermint, strawberry leaves, blackcurrant buds (from prunings), gardenia seeds (for crocein yellow), liquorice.

A guided tour takes in huge stainless steel mixers and an old-fashioned lab where steam drifts from glass retorts and pipes gurgle. One high-walled processing area has a roof designed to blow off in the event of an explosion. Here they process citral, which is so inflammable that if it comes into contact with cellulose material (wood, cloth, paper) it will spontaneously combust.

At the centre of the complex is a high-security lab. This is where they make up the flavour formulations that are known as Gazinters. Each concoction is kept under lock and key, the formula known only to a chief executive. This is what gazinter the product.

About 60 per cent of Borthwicks natural flavourings go into processed foods, yoghurt, fromage frais, cakes, biscuits, confectionery and ready meals. But the soft drinks side is catching up: lemonades, colas, squashes, fruit juices and recently the New Age drinks, like Aqualibra, made from the natural extracts of fruit, flowers and herbs.

Borthwicks flavour hunters are always on the look-out for the next trend. They exhibit a drink from China called Zonk (made from cherries), which sounds a better bet than their Ginseng and Bird's Nest refresher. But anything must be more appealing than the Japanese sports drinks Mucos and Pocari Sweat.

This brave new world of flavours may be good news to the multinational food companies, makers of snacks and soft drinks, though not much of it yet seems to benefit the home cook. This could change. One of Borthwicks steady little earners is a soup concentrate made from natural flavours, its Major brand. Major stocks are 10 times tastier than conventional stock cubes, but this should not be seen as a party political message since the Major brand was launched long ago, around the time of Harold Wilson's stewardship.

Major stock bases are good, but not as tasty as the real thing. You will not yet get the chance to make a comparison yourself because the stocks (beef, lamb, chicken, ham, vegetable, mushroom, salmon, lobster) are on sale only to the top end of the catering trade. They are state-of-the-art stocks, made with no artificial flavourings, and they are not cheap.

This new generation of stock bases has the ring of truth about it, but it's not the whole truth. The aromas are fantastic. The chicken stock fills the house with the simmering smell of a Jewish chicken soup; the lamb stock smells how it should when you lift the lid off a good Lancashire hotpot. The lobster stock has a whiff of bouillabaisse from a St Tropez quayside restaurant.

We put their lobster stock to a blind tasting in the kitchens of one of the finest chefs in the country, Bruno Loubet, at his restaurant, Bistrot Bruno in Frith Street, London. On a scale of nought to 10 we gave 10 to Loubet's chefs and five to the Major brand. A minor triumph. (The normal stock cubes don't even register a decimal point on the Bruno scale of taste.)

A Loubet lobster stock is made with the roast shells of the lobster, herbs and spices, brandy and wine, simmered, reduced and seasoned to perfection. The Major brand of stock, by contrast, lacked this texture, richness and complexity. 'It actually smells rather like crab,' said Monsieur Loubet. 'If my chef made up a lobster stock like this it wouldn't do for a sauce; I'd tell him to put it in the fish soup.'

But Monsieur Loubet agrees that it is a start. The technology is in place, because what you put in, you can get out. It might cost a bit more, but imagine, with the guidance perhaps of a Bruno Loubet, they could take us into a New Age Cuisine.

FUMET DE POISSON

This is Bruno Loubet's fish stock. You can store it in the fridge in a covered container for three or four days, and you can freeze it as well.

Makes 1 litre/1 3/4 pints

1lb 2oz/500g fish bones and heads from brill, sole or whiting

3 1/2 oz/100g onions

2 1/2 oz/75g leeks

2 1/2 oz/75g celery

2 1/2 oz/75g bulb of fennel

200ml/7fl oz dry white wine

6 coriander seeds

4 black peppercorns

a branch of fresh thyme

Rinse the fish bones and heads under cold running water for 5 minutes to clean them thoroughly.

Peel or trim the onions, leeks, celery and fennel, then finely chop all these vegetables. In a large saucepan, combine the chopped vegetables the wine, spices and thyme. Bring to the boil and boil for 5 minutes, then add the fish bones and heads. Cover with 1 litre/1 3/4 pints of cold water. Bring back to the boil, skimming the surface to remove all the scum and impurities, then leave to simmer for 15 minutes.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve, and use as required in fish soup or in a sauce for fish.

For lobster stock: You will need at least 2 lobster shells. In a large saucepan heat 100ml/3 1/2 fl oz olive oil and add shells. Stir with a wooden spatula and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the shells. Then, in the same pan, cook finely chopped 100g/3 1/2 oz of carrots, 1/2 bulb of fennel and white of one leek, with a bunch of fresh thyme and a strip of orange zest on a low heat until the vegetables are soft, without colouring, stirring frequently. Put lobster shells back in the pan. Add 3 1/2 tablespoons of brandy and warm it briefly, then set it alight. When the flames die down, add 3 1/2 fl oz dry vermouth, 5oz chopped tomatoes (remove seeds and skin), 1 clove crushed garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom (or 1 or 2 lightly crushed pods). Stir well, cover with water and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste. Pass the sauce through a very fine sieve into a clean saucepan, pressing down on the shells to extract all the liquid. -

(Photograph omitted)

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