BRUGES, Belgium — Tired of sending the same old Valentine’s Day gifts?
How about the finest Belgian chocolate filled with smoked salmon, cauliflower or crispy bacon? Or maybe roses served not in a vase, but blended with raspberries and lychees in a heart-shaped Parisian pastry?
Such edible oddities have been inspired by the work of scientist Bernard Lahousse and his colleagues at Sense for Taste, a Belgian company that acts as matchmaker for ingredients in need of that special partner.
“As scientists, we are always asking questions, like ‘why do classic combinations like strawberries and chocolate or tomato and basil work?’ If you look at the science behind that, you can see that other combinations work too, so we want to push the boundaries,” Lahousse said.
His team, which includes former Michelin-starred chef Peter Coucquyt, break down the chemical components of food to find out which ingredients have aroma compounds in common and are therefore compatible. Recipes on their website include an appetizer of potato chips with Brie cheese, vanilla and coffee, and baked bananas with tomato ketchup ice-cream.
“The curiosity to discover new flavors has always driven people to explore,” Lahousse said. “If you look through history, maybe we would never have discovered America if it were not for the search for spices.”
Not convinced? Some of the world’s top chefs are. Culinary superstars like Heston Blumenthal, Reni Redzepi and Feran Adria have all worked with the foodpairing concept developed by Lahousse’s team.
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Blumenthal, a three-Michelin star chef whose Fat Duck restaurant in southern England is consistently ranked in the world’s top five, was one of the instigators of the concept. He teamed up with scientist Francois Benzi to try to explain why unlikely couples such as caviar and white chocolate, or jasmine and pork liver seem to go so well together.
Since then, Lahousse and his team have developed an online database of 1,300 ingredients using interactive “trees” to illustrate perfect pairings. It works by showing a central ingredient with a series of branches leading off to clusters of products that match with it.
The avocado “tree,” for example, has links to the likes of mackerel, gin and white chocolate. Foodpairing fan and star Australian pastry chef Darren Purchese makes a dessert that uses avocado with mint, cucumber, apple and white chocolate.
“Foodpairing is to ingredients what the thesaurus is to words,” said Emmanuel Stroobant, chef at Singapore’s renowned Saint Pierre restaurant.
The science behind foodpairing stems from the fact that 80 percent of our eating experience is determined by our sense of smell rather than taste, Lahousse explains.
To illustrate, he tells me to eat a spoonful of sugar while holding my nose – I get sweetness, but only after releasing the grip on my nasal passages does my brain flood with aroma that tells me the sugar was mixed with cinnamon. “That’s a retro-nasal experience,” Lahousse said. “The aroma comes back from the lungs to the nose while we eat.”
By indentifying the main groups of chemical compounds in those aromas, foodpairing establishes affinities between different ingredients. Not all combinations are whacky. The science confirms that strawberries really do match up with cream and white chocolate, as well as make an interesting partner for clams or roast chicken.
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Being based in Belgium, Sense for Taste naturally pays particular attention to chocolate. Self-styled “Shock-o-latier” Dominique Persoone, who lists the Rolling Stones among the fans of his original creations, has used the science to inspire his pralines filled with salmon, bacon and various vegetables.
“You can see, for example, that there’s chocolate from Venezuela that matches very well with the aroma of grass from the garden,” he said. “These ideas are amazing, so I took some freshly cut garden grass and made a juice of it and used it to fill single-origin Venezuelan chocolate. If you find the right balance, it's very surprising.”
Also in from the garden, Parisian pattisier Pierre Herme’s Ispahan pastries that's blended with roses, raspberries and lychees have become a sweet-tooth legend.
Looking out over Bruges’ medieval skyline from his bright, open-plan office in a restored paint factory, Lahousse is quick to point out that foodpairing is not only for the culinary elite.
“Because all these famous Michelin star chefs are using the tool, people have the perception that this is only for the high-end food professionals. But some of the things are very simple, like what you can do with oysters — serving them with passion fruit instead of the usual lemon for example,” he said. “It’s an inspirational tool for people who are passionate about food.”
Basic entry to the website is free, granting access to dozens of recipes and flavour trees, though there’s a 15-euro monthly fee to get the full picture. Lahousse says the site got about one million hits last year, mostly from chefs and other food professionals, including a growing number of bartenders seeking innovative cocktail ideas.
The launch of an iPad app is imminent, with 30 bars and restaurants around the world — including The Aviary in Chicago and Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco — offering free drinks or nibbles to the first customers who show up with it downloaded.