The Mysteries of Flavour and VANDERLYLE

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The mysteries of flavour. Halfway through a totally wonderful celebration meal at @vanderlylerestaurant in Cambridge, we ate this stew of chickpeas with tomatoes (served with a second lot of chickpeas in the form of panisse made with chickpea flour).


On taking the first mouthful, both of us had the same reaction. It tasted just like fish, in a very pleasing way. Yet Vanderlyle is a totally vegetarian restaurant. I wondered what it could be. Seaweed, perhaps? But when we asked @chefalex about it, he said that the only seasonings in the stew were oregano and celery and that he had been as amazed as we were when he tasted it that morning and had the same reaction. He can’t explain it, except that celery is an aromatic much used with fish.

It made me think how little we still now about the thousands of molecules that make up our food and how they interact to give us this wonderful thing called flavour. A few years ago, a scientist called Albert-László Barabási  published a pair on the ‘unmapped chemical complexity of our diet’. The fact that stayed with me was that a clove of garlic contains more than 2300 distinct chemical components. And we know almost nothing about most of them, whether for flavour or for nutrition.

Maybe there is something in some batches of chickpeas that has similar flavour molecules to some kinds of fish when it combines with celery and oregano and tomatoes? It reminded me what a deeply exciting and unexpected thing the world of flavour can be, especially in the hands of a chef as talented as Alex. I am going to try making my own chickpea stew with celery and oregano to see what happens.

It was such a treat to be back at Vanderlyle after a year. I think this might have been the best meal I’ve ever eaten here, which is saying something. There is nowhere I would rather go for a special occasion. See, for example, these cones of smoked carrot made with brik pastry and seaweed 'caviar'.

Carrot cones

Other highlights included a dish of three kinds of mushrooms with two kinds of mushroom puree plus parsley oil - a plate of deep umami joy - and a doughnut stuffed with cashew parfait with rhubarb ketchup (it tasted like foie gras except that it was vegetarian)

Doughnut Vanderlyle

and the famous Vanderlyle salad, which comes with its own menu because it contains so many leaves and other vegetables, fresh and fermented.

Vanderlyle salad

Also: elderflower sorbet with pineapple weed and lemon granita - essence of summer (even if the night we ate it was drab outside).

Elderflower dessert Vanderlyle