This book has had stunning reviews in the national newspapers, and I decided to buy it as a present for my husband, the chef in our household. On the tube home, I had a quick flick through it out of curiosity...and I haven't been able to part with it since.
The concept of `The Flavour Thesaurus' is utterly, utterly genius. Segnit has taken 99 basic flavours (mint, coriander, basil, strawberry etc) and researched 980 pairings of them. The result is part recipe-book, part food memoir, part flavour compendium. (The English Language geek in me feels compelled to point out that `thesaurus' is a misnomer - even similar flavours are NOT synonyms, jeez, though the book retains Roget's format).
Some of these pairings are familiar, such as Bacon & Egg, whilst others (Avocado & Mango, anyone?) are not. Now and then, Segnit provides a recipe; many of these sound incredible, and despite being the most amateur of cooks, I reckon even I could manage many of them. Under Melon & Rose, for example, she merely tells you to drown a cantaloupe melon in rosewater syrup, so that it tastes like "a fruity take on gulab jamun". Can you even read that sentence without wanting to dash to the supermarket for the ingredients?
Segnit also peppers the book with restaurant and dish recommendations - not in an insufferable shiny London lifestyle way, but in an enthusiastic, unpretentious, eating-out-with-your-mates "you really have to try this" way. If only she had supplied phone numbers so we could immediately make reservations.
The real revelation, though, is Segnit's language. It is, quite simply, superb. Modern cookery writing seems to fall into three distinct camps: venomous snob, obsessed with tablecloths and ambience rather than the food itself; faux-geezer dahn the faux-pub; and flirty girl breathlessly enthusing over cake. With `The Flavour Thesaurus', Segnit may well have ended the careers of many of these over-hyped morons.
For a start, her prose is endlessly entertaining. Breezy erudition sits alongside hilarious similes. She is a whizz with description: when she tells you that cloves on their own taste the same as sucking on a rusty nail, you half suspect she conducted a comparative taste test just to be sure. She incorporates references so wide-ranging that both Sybil Kapoor and Velma from Scooby Doo rate a mention. Then there are her unmissable riffs: p 148 instructs us on that "essentially unitary quantity, fishandchips", and insists they must be served in "newsless newspaper" (never polystyrene boxes) and always eaten at a bus stop or "on the wall outside the petrol station". Read about Instinctos and you will be snorting with laughter (and visiting Pizza Hut at the first excuse). I have now read `The Flavour Thesaurus' from cover to cover, and still I have not finished.
I must temper my enthusiasm with a few tiny criticisms just to prove this is a genuine review. At nigh on £20 full price, it's expensive for a book without illustrations or photographs (though note Amazon has since discounted it). It assumes a certain level of prior culinary knowledge, which was sometimes frustrating to a novice like me, though it won't bother those with lots of cookbooks and greater competence in the kitchen. The integration of the recipes into the text - Elizabeth David and Simon Hopkinson style - can be irksome until you've got busy with post-it notes. The index needs further sub-division: `crab', for example, offers 11 entries in the index, but the recipe for crab cakes is easily missed under Butternut Squash & Bacon.
But these are such minor complaints given the enormous appeal of this book. My husband hovers over it constantly, anxious for his promised present. My brother and my best friend have already asked to borrow it. `The Flavour Thesaurus' is truly a classic in the making, and no foodie's bookshelf is going to be complete without it.
EDITED TO ADD, the husband (Latin geek) points out that 'thesaurus' means treasury. Well, whatever language you're using, this book is ACE.
UPDATE - JANUARY 2011 Recently, the aforementioned husband, brother and I went to a "book dinner" organised by a local restaurant with recipes inspired by 'The Flavour Thesaurus', at which the author read from her book. Niki Segnit was lovely and exactly as she comes across in the text - funny, clever, and passionate about food in a very down-to-earth way. There was much discussion and disagreement about which flavour combinations worked, but most options on the menu were utterly delicious. If you get the chance to do this, I highly recommend the experience.
UPDATE - FEBRUARY 2011 In response to comments below, my husband and I were both wrong - 'thesaurus' is Greek! Also, a fellow customer reviewer has expressed scepticism about the number of positive votes I've had for this review. I don't know why I've had so many votes (though I'm very grateful for the ones I've received), but I haven't been voting for myself, and I don't have 200 friends to vote on my behalf. In response to his/her insinuations, I also want to make clear I'm not related to this or any other author, nor paid by anyone - including Amazon - to submit reviews (more's the pity). Please also click on the link which leads to my other reviews so you can see that I regularly leave critical reviews as well as "effusive" ones. Of course other readers may disagree with my opinion of this book; but it has been a bestseller, and the author now writes for The Times, so I'm definitely not her only fan. As always, your mileage may vary.