Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
One place I have gotten hung up repeatedly when trying to write about food is flavor description. I have been fighting a pitched (yet polite) battle against people who insist that most worthy and meaningful things defy description: the “picture is worth a thousand words” school of thought.
It’s all easy to explain. A word person like me, a word-ist if you will, naturally bridles when people give up on language without straining their resources in a manner I consider appropriate. After all, such work sometimes results in an expansion of resources, or the dreaded big vocabulary.
Yet I too am frustrated mightily in trying not only to convey the flavor I sense in a bit of food, but also to distinguish that particular flavor from others similar to it.
Wild bergamot is a flower whose very name reveals the trouble we have acknowledging differences among food flavors. In appearance, it is a ragged explosion of dusty pink. In flavor, it is quiet in some ways and loud in others.
As I write, I have a wild bergamot petal sitting docile on my tongue. For a second. Then as soon as it has melted into my papillae, it burns briefly. Finally, it quiets again, eventually becoming a mellow but noticeably bitter flavor.
This description problem gets more manageable if I think about flavor as a behavior, or better yet as a series of interactions. The petal just sat there, then it punched my tongue, so I punched back, and finally we both returned to our normal states of existence — except I, being the bigger, ingested the little petal.
By this logic, I can guess that my ability to describe tastes hinges in part on matters of scale. Small packages of flavor either need to be concentrated, or an eater’s perceptual capacities carefully developed, in order to register properly on any big dumb tongue.
It would be interesting to create a poster of a various-tongues-and-hotspot map, how flavor receptors abut one another — sort of a taste-proximity visualization. This idea owes something to my delusion that my husband is a supertaster and something to questions I have about specific flavor combinations reinforcing each other — why, for example, mint and chocolate pair so well.
Wild bergamot, which also goes by the names horsemint, Oswego tea, and the much more generic bee balm, seems to have been named by Europeans for its gustatory similarity to bergamot orange, the peel of which provides some flavoring to Earl Grey tea.
Native North Americans have used wild bergamot to cure headaches and other ailments. Homesick settlers of the Colonial era imitated natives’ medicinal use and re-named it in tribute to a flavor remembered from their ancestral lands. The flowers are now more frequently used to make a spicy midsummer tisane.
Because I like Earl Grey tea-flavored custard, I decided to try a wild bergamot version, the better to capture a summer flavor. I steeped wild bergamot petals in the cream as it warmed, straining the petals out before combining the cream, eggs, and egg yolk.
In the first trial, I added about two tablespoons of freshly picked petals to the cream without omitting the vanilla bean; in the second, I added no vanilla and four tablespoons of petals, which were now a bit dryer and presumably less flavorful.
The wild bergamot flavor was not strong either time, though my husband and I both detected it, especially the warm finish. I could have tried the recipe a third time, but the volume of eggs it was taking to test the recipe was beginning to appall me.
I understand that my task in improving the recipe is to get those herby, smoky wild bergamot molecules to bond to all the fat that makes the pudding jiggly. One day in the future, I will work on the cream end of things, fiddling with the fats until the essence of bergamot is unmistakable.
However, since I am still struggling to describe that flavor, not quite having found the words to carry it satisfactorily through my readers’ eyes and into their memory banks of green spicy hits and smoldering vaguely medicinal touches, I feel doubtful anyone will pick a few dozen flowers and try this experiment on her own.
But if you do, we will both have tried to capture the flavor and keep it close in our spice jars and pudding cups. We will both have taken part in preserving the legacy of a North American wildflower. That’s not a bad summer day’s work.
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