12.10am. On the stove, at a bare simmer is 5 kilograms of roasted veal bones, together with 2 kilograms of carrots, celery and onions. Together with the proscribed 10 litres of water, and according to Escoffier, in a couple of days, I’ll have the perfect brown stock, provided I skim it regularly.
This is an experiment, albeit a time consuming one. There’s now growing evidence that the bases of all great food can be found in just a few traditional recipes, which include veal stock.
As a home cook, as many of us are, for decades I’ve been a searcher for the key to making good food great; the Holy Grail of cuisine.
Read any blog or celebrity cookbook, and we’re told fat is flavour; use the lardy bits (in moderation), and your guests will praise your culinary skills forever.
But even as an unashamed fan of Asian cuisine, I’ve never really understood how a bowl of Miso despite being little more than flavoured water, can be profoundly more satisfying than a bowl of fat-filled cream of pumpkin soup.
Escoffier knew. As did the Romans, and most Asian cooks.
Yet only recently has modern science accepted that the tongue has receptors able to pick up the L-glutamate amino acid, and turn it into satisfying brain fodder in the form of serotonin. With, or without fat. Traditional theory that we can only taste sweet, sour, salty or hot has been overturned.
A char-grilled steak, particularly if served with a sauce from deglased pan juices is positively riddled with glutamate. That’s why we salivate at the thought of a juicy steak; less so at the prospect of a green salad.
Many of the bases of Japanese cuisine, including kelp, bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms are rich in glutamate.
The Romans invented fish sauce, a staple in most Asian diets. Two millenia later, the English tried to make it their own, by calling in Worcesteshire Sauce, but the Swiss pipped them at the post with Maggi seasoning. Both are full of L-glutamate, which often gets a bad wrap in modified MSG form (it should be noted MSG doesn’t seem to create the same degree of happy brain chemicals).
If we think about the foods that we crave, a healthy number are naturally high in L-glutamate, regardless of their fat, sugar or salt content. A perfectly ripe tomato is a minefield of the stuff. Oysters, alongside most of the more expensive seafood items, and nature’s superfood - the mushroom - are stacked with L-glutamate.
Missing in action are many of the ingredients and products found in Vegan and Vegetarian restaurants, unless heavily seasoned with soy sauce, another rich source of L-glutamate. A nice Quinoa salad might be healthy. It might be low in fat, and help save the planet. But most people could only endure a diet without the serotonin boost of burned meat, or a similar alternative, for a limited time. Perhaps that’s why Nathan Pritikin ended his own life - another two decades of brown rice was possibly too much for him to endure.
The good news? Vegetarians are well catered for in the search for a glutamate high, even in a fat-free context. Mushrooms, most Asian vegetables, soy sauce, tofu and particularly a number of Japanese vegetarian ingredients fit the bill.
Some of the richest sources of the amino acid are in cheese - parmesan and roquefort topping the list, confirming that the Italians, not just the French and Asians know the value of glutamate.
So what’s the appeal? Scientific studies indicate the taste, or more correctly the impact on our taste receptors, is that of death; rotting meat and decay. It seems we like it that way.
After all, we’re conditioned to it. Breast milk contains 10 times as much L-glutamate as cows’ milk. Hopefully my veal stock will contain even more. — Love Jarvis xx