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.