11.16.2010

Book Review: Season to Taste by Colin Dence

I found this book in the dark depths of the university chemistry library. I doubt you'll find a copy of it anywhere, and I think that's ok. Colin Dence tries to present a pseudo-scientific text on the art of seasoning food. Unfortunately, his presentation doesn’t clearly cover the topic as a science or as an art.

The book begins with a presentation of the various types of spices and the various tastes available to the human palette. Unfortunately, the poor organization of the various sections and what should have been subsections makes the material difficult to slog through.

Otherwise, the material in this section is quite useful. Dence makes two clear distinctions. First, he distinguishes between taste and aroma, and uses vague scientific explanations to categorize herbs, spices and seeds as aromatics or flavorings. Second, he distinguishes between two categories of dish—sweet and sour dishes and savory dishes.

This second distinction segues into part two of his book, where he goes into a rather lengthy discussion of the history of seasoning. This entire middle third of the book could be left out. Although some of the recipes are interesting, and well-presented, his argument that sweet and sour cookery gave way to savory cookery was not very well presented nor particularly relevant to the rest of the text. I found that the history did very little to improve my understanding of seasoning. Dence would have done better to use science, rather than history, to back his claims about the seasoning combinations. All of his digging into historic cookbooks also seems to have affected his style of writing, making it somewhat more difficult to read.

Based on the section titles, it appears the Dence will finally cover the scientific portion of the presentation, and maybe cover the chemistry behind flavour harmony and flavour balance. Instead he does nothing of the sort.

In his explanation of flavour harmony, he provides a very brief list of example flavour harmonies, such as tomato, sugar, onion and cinnamon as can be found in tomato ketchup, describing this harmony as very important. However, the section doesn’t cover why these ingredients are harmonious in any particular detail, or how to achieve other harmonious combinations. The section on flavour balance is similar, telling the reader to make sure no one flavour is out of proportion with the others, unless of course that’s the point.

Overall, I found the book to be a significant letdown. I had hoped for a scientific presentation of seasoning, and got a historical treatise on seasoning. Still I did learn a few things from the book. Most strikingly, I learned the difference between aroma and taste, and how the spices, seeds and herbs can help to balance the senses. I also learned to consider sweetness, sourness/acidity and savoury as distinct flavors that need balance first. Any more experienced cook probably already knew that.

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