Top critical review
26 people found this helpful
Useful, but ridiculously over-hyped by people who should know better
on 10 February 2013
It's taken me 18 months to review this book. Largely because the only illustration - the flavour wheel - completely baffled me initially and I couldn't be bothered to work it out. I'm a scientist and firmly believe that illustrations are either an invaluable blessing or a pointless curse - too often the latter, particularly in cookbooks. The main value of a good illustration is that it presents complex information in a simple way - much clearer than words, for example. The flavour wheel does the opposite! It takes simple information and presents it in a complex way that completely muddies the waters. All it does is present the arbitrarily chosen 99 flavours, grouped into very subjective categories, in a graphical, very pseudo-scientific way. It gives you no useful information about how any of the flavours might be combined, or how they should not be combined. Compare this, for example, with a colour wheel - from which, presumably, this pointless graphic was derived. Colours can be grouped scientifically, and the wheel is invaluable in showing what colours work with others, which clash - and why. I'm not at all sure that the concept can be usefully translated to flavour pairings - it certainly isn't here. Calling the book a Thesaurus doesn't help either - it isn't! So, what about the text?
The Pairings Index, 17 invaluable pages tucked away at the back of the book, is the main really useful element of this book. It takes the 99 ingredients and lists suggested flavour pairings. Generally, these work well, although omissions should not be taken too seriously, and are presented simply and usefully. Each pairing is referenced to pages in the main text that discuss the pairing in more detail, sometimes with terse, but useful, recipes. Bearing in mind that, for most courses, two or three main elements is all you need, the Pairings Index can be invaluable for creating your own menus. However, it does assume a lot of understanding of cooking options to get an appropriate balance of textures and an interesting and complementary sauce. Like many reviewers, I can take or leave the chattier bits of the text, but the stuff expanding on why flavour combinations work can be extremely interesting and useful.
Some reviewers criticise the limitations of the 99 ingredients, but you have to stop somewhere! It is easy to find something similar to your favourite missing ingredient and use the pairings listed for that. For leeks (missing), reference onions, for example, or fennel (missing) - anise, and so on.
So, a really useful reference, let down by a silly diagram, inaccurate title, and unnecessary padding - that some obviously find entertaining. Hence, three stars and a recommendation to buy it if you are an experienced cook that wants a more complete understanding of what goes with what, and why. This is not a succinct scientific reference because there is little science behind flavour combinations. Understand that, and you'll find the book useful.