Why Describe Flavor?


Winter spinach is sweeter, the leaves are thicker, and it appears in an upcoming article I wrote for Local Banquet

I just finished an article for the Winter Issue of Local Banquet that is a quick (very quick) look at describing flavor. The concept for the article began after a local farmers’ market vendor told me that if I couldn’t taste what was special about her product then she wouldn’t be able to explain it to me. I couldn’t taste what was special about it. She didn’t offer explanation. I didn’t buy anything.

The Local Banquet article focuses on describing flavor as part of production, as both specialty food producers and farmers refine what they want their product to be. But, of course, there’s lots of reasons why it would be useful to improve flavor description skills. Here’s a starting list . . .

  • Marketing, of course. But marketing is a tricky business – it uses words to excite interest, which aren’t necessarily accurate flavor descriptors. Think about how little a beverage like Coca-Cola really describes its flavor. In fact, here’s a Planet Money podcast on what happened when Coke needed to explain itself to the people of Myanmar.
  • Marketing, again. Here in Vermont, food marketing often relies on attributes like “organic” and other production methods that speak to environmental values, and on the idea of local, supporting farming as part of your community. But what happens when we’ve built a strong supply of food that meets these standards? Then how do you choose between products? Price is a common answer. Or how likable the farmer is (admit it, it’s true). But perhaps flavor should be up there in importance.
  • Developing a product. If you’re trying to create a particular flavor, the chances are you’ll need to describe in some detail what that flavor *is* to other people, particularly people providing ingredients or helping you refine the recipe. For example, if I want to make an apple pie “just like my mother’s” but at a production rate in the thousands not the single home baked pie, I’ll have to be able to identify what is unique about my mother’s pie and know how the thousand run batch does or doesn’t meet that standard.
  • Quality Control I went to Coffee Lab International to get a brief introduction to quality control in coffee – tasting samples to see if the beans were producing the right flavor profile, they aren’t musty or fermented or simply the wrong beans. My friend Colleen remembers 4-H exercises of steeping pennies or grape nuts in milk to learn to recognize off-flavors specific to common production problems. “Tasting off” notes a failure of quality control, saying how it tastes off can help you fix the problem. Mary Roach provides a more detailed description of the taste-based quality control process for beer in this excerpt from her book Gulp.
  • Consistency over time. On one level, consistency is basic quality control. But there are systems like Protected Designations of Origin that go a step further to use precise flavor descriptions to keep a traditional food the same across generations. This system is based on a concept called terroir or Taste of Place. I wrote an article about terroir in the context of maple syrup for an earlier Local Banquet issue and you can see it here.
  • Introducing new flavors. People are programmed to prefer what’s familiar. Even adventurous eaters search for context. Having a new flavor explained before tasting lessens the danger of a “bleccch what IS that?” reaction.
  • Saving old flavors. Mara Welton, head of Slow Food VT, says the first step in saving endangered flavors is to talk about these flavors in an “evocative” way – that makes people want to try them.
  • Because you’re a food writer. Just putting it out there. Food writers should know how to describe flavors. I interviewed Melissa Pasanen about that challenge for the article, and will write more about our conversation in a later post.

How are you at describing flavor? If the answer is not great, never fear, I’ll be writing a lot more about the “how”, not just the “why” . . .

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