Renee Webster Reviews A Taste of Molecules: In Search of the Secrets of Flavor

Review by Renee Webster

A Taste of Molecules: In Search of the Secrets of Flavor
by Diane Fresquez

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Food is an essential requirement for life. Not just to feed metabolic processes and provide us with energy, but to forge relationships and discover more about the world around us through cooking and shared meals.

Diane Fresquez explores the space straddling the scientific and social aspects of food and flavour in her book A Taste of Molecules. Fresquez is captivated by the overlap of food, flavours and aromas with memory and psychology. How do certain foods define or capture periods in our lives or specific events? What is behind our enjoyment or displeasure of certain foods and flavours?

This book is often more about people than food and the book begins with Fresquez meeting Hughes. A French journalist and part-time food critic, he enjoys pantry detective work looking for insights into people’s personalities and lives thorough the foods they keep and eat in their homes. Mead brewer Xavier also features throughout, and we follow his quest to create a beverage that may only exist in his mind. Xavier is fostering a lifelong obsession with bees, honey and creating the perfect mead with careful planning and experimentation.

The reader is introduced to several more professional and academic food scientists, each with their own specialities ranging from the transferral of flavour compounds into the breast milk of nursing mothers to the masking of manure flavours in pork products. It is gratifying that the scientists in the book are presented as real people, with personalities, passions and quirks. There’s Debbie Parker, a “flavour training manager” with 18 years professional beer-tasting experience, Inge De Wit, a “fruit designer” and apple aficionado, and Jos Mojet, a behavioural scientist involved in establishing “The Restaurant of the Future”.

This is one of two unique restaurants the author dines in. The Restaurant of the Future is a research dining room at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Here, the entire dining experience is monitored and recorded for research purposes and customers are required to sign a consent form before dining. Secondly, there is the Only4Senses dark dining restaurant in Brussels, where blind wait staff serves meals to customers in pitch black darkness. Here, Fresquez attempts an experiment on her dinner companions with surprising results.

A strong theme of food and family history runs through this book, with many of the characters including the author, recounting tales of how their relatives invoked a love of food and flavours within them. Vivid childhood cooking experiences, recipes handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, boulangeries and breweries under many generations of operation are some examples. Fresquez as an American in Europe, is experiencing new countries and cultures through the exploration and discovery of their food.

It was a pleasant surprise to find several recipes at the back of the book, although many require ingredients which require venturing a little further than your local supermarket. I did however try making the apple chutney, which was simple to cook and a delicious accompaniment to a barbecued pork chop.

There is just enough science to interest those who have come to the book lured by the molecules in the title, but not so much as to scare off anyone without any formal training or specific interest in science. Where specific molecules are mentioned in the text, descriptions are thorough and their inclusion is not a jolt to those who don’t speak the language of chemistry. A Taste of Molecules is an engaging introduction to anyone interested in learning more about the science of food and flavour.

Webster_Renee_BeakerRenee Webster

Renee graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Chemistry from the University of Western Australia in 2005. Since then she has applied her chemical skills and knowledge to a variety of fields including environmental science, food chemistry, air quality and forensics. Renée specialises in analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis, with particular emphasis on gas chromatography and advanced molecular separation techniques. Renée currently works for the Australian government researching the chemistry of transportation fuels and is also completing her PhD at Monash University.

Renee’s Twitter: @reneewebs


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