Friday, March 18, 2016

Chemistry on the Menu

In a development that has more potential to start a new European war than anything Angela Merkel says, German chemists have identified the chemical blend that makes Parmesan cheese from Italy taste like Parmesan cheese.

Italy, of course, is not likely to recognize culinary expertise in any country except itself (French? Sure, if you like snails), but most especially someplace like Germany. If you were to say that the Alps exist so that Switzerland and Austria don't have to carry the whole load of keeping sauerkraut at a safe distance, you would get little disagreement from la bella Italia. So the diplomats have a lot of work ahead of them.

What's interesting about the discovery is the reminder that tastes are created by chemical combinations, and how eventually those combinations can be discovered. Our taste buds are really just chemical receptors, transmitting different messages to the brain based on which chemicals they receive. Something sweet makes them say, "Mmm, chocolate!" Salt makes them say, "Does your doctor know you're eating this?" Ghost peppers make them say, "Sonova(edit)!"

So apparently Munich chemists Hedda Hillmann and Thomas Hofmann found the proper combination of some 50 chemicals which makes Parmesan taste like Parmesan. Cheese producers can use the formula to monitor output quality, they say. Test a sample, measure it against the ideal and if it falls too far short in some category or another, sei fuori di qui! Or send it to Berlin; they won't be able to tell.

Or, depending on the process, the missing chemicals could be added to the cheese to help make it taste the way it's supposed to. Which opens up an interesting possibility. What if you took something that wasn't Parmesan cheese -- say, cabbage -- and sprayed it with essenza di Parmigiano? You'd wind up with cabbage that tasted like it ought to be sprinkled on your pizza, and that goes way beyond just being a cause for war into outright blasphemy.

Of course, that thing actually happens pretty often. Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation has a chapter on how chemicals are added to French fries in order to make them taste good. The same thing, he says, happens with hamburgers. Our ubiquitous fast-food joints have good-tasting hamburgers because they're engineered to.

On the other hand, that practice is essentially a mechanized version of what we do all the time. I don't know anyone who grills who just slaps down plain ground beef without some additional spices, salts or other flavor additives. The whole point of cooking is to measure and add together ingredients in proper amounts to create desired flavors and textures. But while reducing the category "ingredients" down to its most basic chemical form may allow for standardization of the product, the best work in this area, as well as most others, will still come from those who take the basic science and with it create art.


fillyjonk said...

This is an interesting development, considering a couple of the big US "powdered" "parmesan" blends were outed as being mostly cellulose a couple months ago.

Also wonder if this means an end to the concept of "terroir." Find the right bunch of microbes and boom, you can make wine/cheese/coffee/whatever that "tastes just like" somewhere more expensive than where it was actually made...

Though I admit I'm more concerned about Wal-Mart and others pushing the limits of the Pure Food and Drug act with shredded paper that is flavored to taste like food, than I am with "French" wine that actually came from Hoboken.

Friar said...

I'm more worried that someone's going to use this to make soy paste that's "just as good" as a hmaburger.