Chemical Romance

Whisky chef Martine Nouet gets to grips with the science behind food pairing
By Martine Nouet
Chemistry has played a more important part in whisky making for the last two decades. Not that it was absent from the distillers’ and master-blenders’ concerns or training. But, industry was more based on practice than on theory. And maturation for instance was above all, and sometimes only, left to ‘father time’. Things have changed and now all master blenders as well as brewers have chemistry degrees. All companies finance research curriculums to help a better understanding of whisky making at all stages. Chemistry can be credited with the progress accomplished in the knowledge of aromatic profile for instance. The wheel of aromas developed by the Scotch Whisky Research Centre and perfected by companies or individuals is a superb tool to help describe the whisky.
A similar development has been made in cuisine through the ‘molecular gastronomy’, a concept invented some 20 years ago by French physicist Nicholas Kurti and French chemist Hervé This. It demonstrates how science can be applied to domestic and professional cooking. Molecular gastronomy is the application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of sophisticated food preparation. Heston Blumenthal, chef of The Fat Duck in London is one of the most renowned adept and artisan of molecular cuisine. In 1992, he studied the mechanisms of food pairing with a flavorist at Firminich, hypothesising that the best food is created when food components with a common flavour are combined.
A team of Belgian scientists, working with top chefs has started researching this hypothesis, creating Sense for taste in 2004 with a database of 1000 ingredients and launching a website called for professionals and for the general public.
Bernard Lahousse, one of the pillars of Sense for Taste, explains : “Foodpairing is a method for identifying which goods go well together. This method is based on the principle that foods combine well with one another when they share major flavour components. Therefore the foodpairing starts with a flavour analysis of the product that is to be combined. The process results in a Foodpairing tree”. A small tree will bear up to 30 ingredients but a more elaborate version can shelter three times as much.
To determine the flavour compounds in a product, scientists use the gas chromatography coupled mass spectrometry, a technique which separates and identifies the various components. The results are shown in a chromatogram. Of course all these ‘key odorants’ are present in different concentrations and only the major molecules will be retained for finding the best combinations. The cucumber contains dozens of aroma compounds but only a couple are important for the smell of cucumber. After that analysis, the food and beverage products which have flavour components in common with the cucumber will be searched in the database and a foodpairing tree will be created, placing the cucumber in the middle and branches all around with the names of all the different combinable products. The shorter the branch, the better the match. So, Beijing roasted duck seems to be a perfect combination, better than olive oil or cardamom.
This is the principle. Now what can its application be to pairing food and whisky? My passionate involvement in that fascinating field teased my appetite and made me very curious to talk with Bernard Lahousse.
“I did a presentation with Dave Broom some time ago, he explains. We analysed the whole process of whisky making, looking for the flavour molecules which were generated at each stage of the process and so to isolate the flavour compounds. From the cereal to the new make and also the matured whisky. For instance, the esters generated during the fermentation have molecules in common with blue cheese.”
The Foodpairing tree of Scotch whisky has a branch of dairy products featuring blue cheese, brie and yogurt. Chocolate or honey stand on shorter branches. The rest of the ingredients listed seem natural to me but I am surprised of the generalisation made for Scotch whisky. As if I would gladly pair a peated malt like Ardbeg with blue cheese or a port wood finished like Balvenie 21 Years Old, I certainly would not recommend a matching with Auchentoshan 18 Years Old or Dalmore 15 Years Old. The maturation (age, type of cask, strength) shapes the aromatic profile as much or rather more than the making itself
“We have started to analysis certain brands to constitute a database,” Bernard Lahousse continues. “We have analysed Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal 12 Years Old for instance.” For the latter, liquorice, blue cheese (a short branch), mandarin peel, apple, papaya, banana, raspberry and coconut feature on the Foodpairing tree.
Things start being a little clearer for me. So pairing food with food or food and beverage is based on similarities between products. But can’t we operate matching on the basis of opposition? I like to work in three directions : fusion, complementing and opposition. “Food pairing never works in opposition,” Bernard insists. “You are looking for the same key odorants in combination. “Opposition comes with textures and visual effect. Our analysis maps out the possible combinations but does not state in which quantity the elements can be matched. The trees are just an inspirational tool for chefs or bartenders. With the same tree, two chefs will come up with different recipes according to their creativity.”
I would like to be given more examples but the work with whisky is at an embryonic state. For instance, Bernard has not analysed peated whiskies yet. Given the principle of matching ingredients that have aroma compounds in common, it seems natural that they would place smoked food on the tree. A combination I strongly recommend to avoid as the two types of smoke fight together. I recently read an article about pairing food and whisky written by a French Canadian sommelier who proclaimed the combination of smoked salmon and peaty single malt as a hit.
Will science settle the dispute? It would be interesting to study the Foodpairing tree of a peated single malt. Maybe Bernard Lahousse’s roads and mine will cross again some day. We will be able to compare the pairing resulting from scientific analysis and those initiated by instinct-driven fondness of food.
All information on Foodpairing trees at