What’s your flavour?
We know salt, orange and coffee all taste great with chocolate. But what about lavender or rosemary? It’s time to push your palate
Amid the wood panelling, ancient paintings and glittering chandeliers of the Spanish Embassy, waiters carry trays of skinny, olive-oil-drenched toast smeared with chocolate ganache and sprinkled with salt. This was 2008, Ferran Adrià was doing the food, and the chocolate-salt-olive-oil combo was considered risqué. Pairing chocolate with salt – as is the way when things become fashionable – has now moved from risqué to passé. We were aware of the oldest ‘unusual’ pairing, that of chocolate and chilli (as used in Mexican cooking) but salt seemed so opposing – since salt is the very definition of savouriness – that the combination encouraged us to visit wilder shores. Chocolatier Paul A Young has enthused about chocolate and cheese (something my children, who munch cheddar on chocolate digestives, get) and even with black pudding and Marmite. I haven’t gone that far but I have thought, again, about what goes with chocolate and why.
The chocolate and salt thing was obvious once you tasted it (we love contrast, and salt is the great ‘heightener’ of flavour). It was adding olive oil that was a revelation (though it was well known in Spain), bringing out and echoing both the chocolate’s fruitiness and its acidity, encouraging its richness to blossom in the most gloriously mouth-filling way. That is what is so riveting about blending flavours: it isn’t just ‘putting things together’, it’s about each ingredient bringing out something in the other, so that you end up with a combination that is more than the sum of its parts. When exploring flavour potential, I often look at pairings that I know work – chocolate and orange, or chocolate and lemon, for example – and go from there. Orange works with cardamom, lemon works with rosemary, so do cardamom and rosemary also work with chocolate? They do. If rosemary – with its resinous tones – works, why not lavender? Flavours are multi-faceted. Chocolate isn’t just chocolatey: it can taste bitter, like coffee; tart and fruity like red berries, and citrusy. When you pair flavours you are often bringing out components of what seem like very different ingredients, but that actually have similar notes.
Some combinations are more obvious than others. I used to always pair deep, dark flavours – especially coffee – with chocolate. An espresso with bitter tobacco tones and a thin sliver of chocolate cake is one of my favourite desserts. (It also makes me feel thin and sophisticated and as if I’m idling around in some smoky bar, so it works on my imagination as well as my palate.) The combinations here are not revolutionary but they aren’t obvious. Chocolate is a great ingredient to spin off. You think it just works with orange, raspberries and coffee? Think again.