I am an umami’s boy

There are some politicians to whom the term “cipher” has been applied: they represent ill-defined figures upon whom a desperate public can project their desires. The notion of umami may be as poorly defined, at least in the culinary world.

While food science has long ago determined that umami is a form of glutamate attached to one or two proteins (know as IMP or GMP), umami has become variously known as “the smell of protein”, “the flavor of protein”, “the flavor of chicken soup”, of “the flavor of deliciousness.” Moreover, I have heard wine and culinary professionals insist that any rich flavor must a priori be umami-rich.
And umami’s existence, though identified in 1919 and a prominent component of flavored foods for half a century, is still in dispute by some recalcitrants. But like the little boy covering his face in fright, denying umami’s existence doesn’t make it go away.

In brief, umami is found in a variety of foods; that is in little dispute. It can be found in varying amounts in tomatoes, green beans, bivalves, shellfish, seaweed, mushrooms, many aged cheeses and in cooked meats, especially those that have been subjected to slow and long cooking.

What is still contentious is determining umami’s impact on other flavors (particularly sweetness and saltiness) and its impact upon wine. For instance, high amounts of umami can interact in somewhat unpleasant ways with high tannin wines, at least for many. But like all food experiences, the negative response to umami and tannin interaction is not universal. Many find the duo of tannin and umami gives a metallic taste, some find it only somewhat unpleasant and a significant percentage of people may have very little response at all.

This isn’t umami’s fault. There are no universal food or drink experiences, and therefore there are no universal experiences of food and drink in combination. You may like Brussels sprouts; I may find them annoying. I might enjoy liver and onions; you might be repulsed.

Certainly the combination of oysters and tannic red wine seems intuitively wrong. The high umami content of oysters is the culprit, and its kerwang effect on tannin explains the problem. But it’s important to accept that some people don’t find the two to be a bad match, though most people wouldn’t put them together.

And another complicating factor arises; salt can buffer tannin. Most chefs have noticed that salt buffers bitterness (chefs put salt on eggplant, don’t they?); yet the saltiness of oysters is not enough to overcome the umami effect on red wine.

Conversely, aged and/or well-cooked meats have plenty of umami, but you don’t hear anybody complaining about the metallic effect of cooked meats on red wines. Here again, there are other elements (including fats, proteins and salt) that provide plenty of counter-balance for red wine’s tannins. And most find it a happy match.

Finally, there is the age old pairing of blue cheese (rife with umami) with Port, a powerfully tannic wine. My palate finds a younger Port to be less enjoyable with blue cheese; maybe there’s too much tannin in the younger red to handle the cheese’s umami, despite the intense saltiness of most blue cheeses (remember salt buffers tannins).

But Port is also sweet. And that seems to be the missing piece. A dry red wine is unpleasant with blue cheese; a powerful and sweet wine is fine.

If this seems head-spinningly complicated, well, that’s hardly my fault. Foods and wines are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of myriad elements. But if there is a simplifying rule, it may be this: if both the food and the wine have a balance among the primary flavors of salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, they are likely to go well with just about any other well-balanced food or wine.

If not, then the food or the wine should not overwhelm its partner in any particular flavor category.

If all this makes you long for beer and chips, fret not. The business of food and wine matching is only complicated if you try to explain it. If you’re simply trying to enjoy it, then drink and eat whatever you damn well please.

Pink and light in Provence

Van Gogh came here for the light, writing to his brother Theo: “Under the blue sky the orange, yellow and red splashes of the flowers take on an amazing brilliance and in the limpid air there is a something or other happier, more lovely than in the North.”

Cezanne was born here, in the charming town of Aix-en-Provence. His love of the color in the trees and especially in the mountains was born of the clear, almost searching light in Provence. There are plenty of vineyards too; Van Gogh painted some of the stubby old vines, capturing one spot on the backside of Mas de la Dame, a great Provencal winery. Mas de la Dame makes a lot of lovely red wine and a vibrant pink wine.

They’re not alone in making a pink wine. Most everyone in Provence makes pink wine; they have a lot of tourists and tourists all the world round like the same thing: pink. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, as Jerry Seinfeld used to say. Pink is good and in the midst of a hot summer, pink (and cold) can be great.

This week, I’m drinking pink wine nearly every day. Why? I’m in Provence, and it’s the famous wine of the region. It certainly doesn’t represent the best of what this beautiful and rugged seaside region can offer, but in the powerful and clarifying Provencal sun, it seems just right. At its best (and when youthful), it has brilliant color, more like a rose petal than the dullish orange-pink of so many other roses. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either (thanks again, Jerry), but fresh Provencal rose is pretty to the eye.

The nose too should be fresh and fruit-laden: strawberries, raspberries, red cherries and currants are a pretty good approximation of Provencal rose’s aromas. But being that we’re talking about Provence, where rosemary bushes grow wild, and where the garrigue, a wealth of wild herbs and native plants, offer herbal, dusty notes to the wines, well, that note is present too. It makes for a hint of complexity smothered by a cold, pink, fruity, gratifying gush of juiciness. It’s as if you’re in a fascinating conversation about Schopenhauer with a beautiful woman, and then it turned out she just wants to make out.

Okay, maybe I got carried away. But Provence will do that to you: the sun is so bright, the air is so clear, the colors are so vibrant. Yes, van Gogh got carried away too, to rather unhappy effect. Not this Provencal visitor. For at least a few more summer days, I’m satisfied with pink wines.