The deep-seated urge to convert tastes on the palate and odours on the nose into words on the page, as exemplified by the special issue you’re holding, has generated some of the most impressive passages of description in the English language. I am a great fan of the American wine writer Robert Parker, or at any rate his nose, since this is the organ responsible for detecting the following wafts eddying from Château Talbot ’86: “sweet crème de cassis, intermixed with freshly ground pepper, melted road tar, herbes de Provence and beef blood”.
On this side of the Atlantic,whisky guru Jim Murray boasts a schnoz of equal or possibly even greater sensitivity. In the bouquet of Ardbeg 21 Years Old, he spots a whole scenario: “marmalade on slightly burnt toast while in the background a peat fire smoulders and salt melts on porridge.”(Since the melting point of salt is 801C, I hope Mr Murray allowed his porridge to cool before eating.) Recently, I came across a culinary reference work that rivals Messrs Parker and Murray for inventive analogies. What type of comestible is being described here? A) “The aroma has an earthy intensity like fallen autumn leaves.”B) “The flesh [has] notes of the burnt, crispy edges of the white of fried egg and the dark meat of a chicken.”C) “The burnt electric, filament smell of the underside of a Scalextric car that’s just been raced along the track.”D) The flavour has “notes of salted caramel and the mild acidity of the flesh of a green apple that has browned on exposure to the air.” Hands up all those whose minds drifted to the seaside. The descriptions can all be found in Young’s Lexicon of Fish (£5 including p&p from www.youngsseafood.uk). They were respectively inspired by organic farmed salmon, wild gilthead bream, sailfish and brown shrimp. Who would have thought that crayfish smells of “chicken stock and the lightly savoury smell of peeled button mushrooms”(completely different from unpeeled button mushrooms, of course) or that the taste of lemon sole has “underlying oaty biscuit notes and a suggestion of sherrylike sweetness”? Among other surprising perceptions in this booklet,we learn that Greenland halibut tastes “a little like milk pudding”, ray has “a suggestion of blanched asparagus with the depth of flavour of pork knuckle”,while the flavour of farmed turbot is “similar to gummy milk bottle sweets”. The Scalextric aroma of sailfish hints at a peculiarity of the Lexicon’s tasting team: Rob, Serge, Simon, Guy and Mitch. The sensory organs applied to the creatures of the deep were entirely male.
Yet psychologists point out “women’s superiority at identifying and detecting odours at even very small concentrations”. (Any husband could have told you that.) In order to remedy this omission, I asked Young’s if they would kindly supply a range of fish for evaluation by Mrs W. The resulting delivery, freighted from Grimsby, was rather surprising in its generosity. I was expecting sufficient fish for a plate of assorted sashimi. What I got was enough to stock a small fishmonger. After an extensive session of gutting and scaling (we’re still finding the red mullet scales that whizzed round the kitchen like machine-gun bullets),we got down to our dégustation. The illex squid went down very well with my tasting panel.“Mmm. It’s fantastic!” “And the flavour?” “Like eating lardo. It just melts in the mouth.”Perhaps the cured Italian fat isn’t too far from the conclusion reached by the Lexicon lads: “Pistachio with a hint of the mild lactic tang of fresh cream.” The mackerel was equally appealing to Mrs W.“It’s lovely.” “But what does it taste of?” “It’s very good.”Annoyingly,my tasting panel adhered to the maxim that all comparisons are odious. “Do you get ‘a low-key coal-dust or driftwood aftertaste’?”
“Yes, I suppose so.” By this stage, the appeal of fish was beginning to wear off for my tasting panel. “It’s amazing how that fish smell spreads. It’s gone upstairs.”
“What do you think of the red mullet?” “Big flakes. The texture’s a bit like chicken. It’s quite a filling fish, isn’t it?”In my kindly way, I decided to postpone tasting of the
yellowfin tuna steaks, the vast chunk of swordfish and the huge,whole turbot, also supplied by Young’s, until the following day. “But what does red mullet taste of?” “A bit iodiney. There’s a taste of the sea. It’s very seasidey.” It may seem obvious that a fish, particularly one spanking fresh from Grimsby, should taste of the sea, but Mrs W’s reaction was astonishingly close to the Lexicon, which notes “iodine freshness of
seaweed and salt spray”in the flavour of red mullet and a texture of “clearly defined flakes,which are smooth and dense, like chicken oysters”. Probably the Lexicon is spot on about the sailfish’s bouquet of Scalextric as well, but I wouldn’t know for sure. I was more of a model-railway man myself.