What are Chef’s Essences®?
Put simply, Aftelier Perfumes’ Chef’s Essences are essential oils, natural isolates, resins and absolutes that can be used to flavour food and drinks. They allow the creation of magical, multi-dimensional, heightened and brand new flavour experiences. They seem high-tech, almost Willy-Wonka-esque, like something from the future, space-age. And yet, they are all based on natural ingredients. One or two sprays or drops of these essences will transform your food or drink into an experience like no other. Known flavours become dramatically intensified, others display flavour nuances and characteristics that you haven’t noticed before in the raw ingredient, and new flavour experiences become possible. Have you ever eaten the following: Frankincense, Fir Needle and Tolu Balsam? I haven’t, and I know I want to experience these ingredients, not just as smells (which is how they are most commonly used and encountered), but as flavours too.
Being interested in all kinds of cross-sensory, sensuous experiences, and also being an adventurous home cook, I was very excited to learn about perfumer Mandy Aftel’s Chef’s Essences late last year. I love cooking, and often improvise in the kitchen; once I understand the principles behind a recipe or dish I like to add unusual flavours to recipes, adding my own twist, or combining unusual ingredients. And, as I also love perfume, the idea of putting essential oils and absolutes in my food appealed very much. I like all kinds of non-binary thinking and blurring of boundaries, so when I discovered that ingredients commonly thought of as suitable for sniffing only could actually be edible (and safely so), I was very intrigued!
I recently interviewed Mandy Aftel for my Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series, and we had some email chats back and forth at the time. In one of these emails I expressed an interest to Mandy in writing a piece about her Chef’s Essences. As Perfume Polytechnic is all about smell (not just perfume), and as this blog has explored phenomena such as synaesthesia, I thought this would be a very suitable and interesting topic for my readers. Mandy very generously offered to send me some samples of a few Chef’s Essences Sprays, and asked me which flavours appealed. Violet and Sarsaparilla appealed, and she offered to send those two. She also suggested I try a couple of flavours that were more familiar — Black Pepper and Litsea Cubeba (a citrussy, lemon-like flavour that I had not actually used) — so that I could detect the similarities and differences between using the raw ingredients and the essential oil version. The familiarity with these flavours (or flavours like them, in the case of the Litsea Cubeba) also allowed me to use them easily, and to think of suitable applications without too much difficulty. The Violet and Sarsaparilla however were more challenging to use, and it took me several weeks of working with and thinking about them to come up with some exciting applications and recipes. I look forward to publishing these for you in the coming weeks, in Part Two and Three of this post.
Chef’s Essences come in both concentrated form (small bottles with a dropper cap) and in spray form, in which the essential oils and natural isolates are diluted with organic grain alcohol. As well as the four flavours Mandy sent me, there are another 13 Chef’s Essence Sprays to choose from, including Blood Orange, Butter, Sweet Basil, Pear and Spearmint. All the sprays come in 30ml bottles (230+ sprays per bottle) and can be purchased from the Aftelier Perfumes website. The sprays are very versatile and easy to use as they can be added both during and after cooking, to complete a dish. As well as the sprays, the original Chef’s Essences range comes in concentrated, 5ml bottles with dropper caps. There are currently 54 Chef’s Essences to choose from, including some very unusual flavours such as Ylang Ylang, Magnolia Flower and Shiso as well as more commonly used flavours like Coriander Leaf, Cinnamon, and Thyme. The original Chef’s Essences range can also be purchased from the Aftelier Perfumes website.
Aroma, the Book, and the Development of Chef’s Essences
The Chef’s Essences range grew out of a book that perfumer Mandy Aftel co-authored with Michelin-star awarded chef Daniel Patterson in 2004, called Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance. I’m lucky enough to own a copy of this now somewhat difficult to find book (click on the link above to purchase it from Aftelier Perfumes), and it’s a wonderful publication. Aroma introduces the reader to the concept of using essential oils in food, as well as in fragrance and fragranced products.
When used in food and drinks, essential oils, absolutes etc. can add new and interesting aromas and flavours that aren’t often part of our existing flavour vocabulary. They can also be used as a more intense version of commonly used flavours, such as ginger and lime. Essential oils can also be used to replace certain flavours (e.g. fresh herbs like basil or coriander) that might not be available seasonally. Interestingly, the extraction processes used to create the essential oils sometimes change the qualities of the flavour of a well-known ingredient; for example, black pepper, which loses all its heat.
Aroma contains both food and drink recipes and recipes for perfume and perfumed products based on specific essential oils, as well as information on where to source essential oils, gourmet foods, kitchen essentials, and perfume making equipment. Aroma also contains recipes for some of the essences now incorporated into the Chef’s Essences range, including Litsea Cubeba, Shiso, Spearmint and Cepes Mushroom, so the book can help give you some inspiration and background on how flavour essences can be used in cooking. Beg, buy, borrow, or steal a copy of Aroma if you can! You won’t regret it; Aroma contains inspiring recipes that straddle the worlds of smell and taste and it’s a great addition to any cookbook library.
Flavour, and the Interrelationship Between Smell and Taste
The sense of smell and the sense of taste are intricately interconnected. The following passage explains this interrelationship:
“Have you ever wondered why food loses its flavor when you have a cold? It’s not your taste buds’ fault. Blame your stuffed-up nose. Seventy to seventy-five percent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell. Taste buds allow us to perceive only bitter, salty, sweet, and sour flavors [and umami]. It’s the odor molecules from food that give us most of our taste sensation.
When you put food in your mouth, odor molecules from that food travel through the passage between your nose and mouth to olfactory receptor cells at the top of your nasal cavity, just beneath the brain and behind the bridge of the nose. If mucus in your nasal passages becomes too thick [if you have a cold, for example], air and odor molecules can’t reach your olfactory receptor cells. Thus, your brain receives no signal identifying the odor, and everything you eat tastes much the same. You can feel the texture and temperature of the food, but no messengers can tell your brain, “This cool, milky substance is chocolate ice cream.” The odor molecules remain trapped in your mouth. The pathway has been blocked off to those powerful perceivers of smell–the olfactory bulbs.” (Source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/C10/C10Links/ericir.syr.edu/Projects/Newton/11/tstesmll.html)
The term flavour is often misunderstood to mean the taste of a particular food or drink. In fact, flavour refers to a combination of taste (the bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami sensations that our taste buds detect) and aroma ( the scent molecules that the nose/olfactory receptors detect). Together, aroma and taste combine to form flavour.
Aftelier Perfumes’ Chef’s Essences are so special because they seem to magnify the interrelationship between taste and aroma. They also demonstrate, as highly aromatic substances, the primacy of smell in determining the majority of the flavours that we experience.
My Experiences with Chef’s Essences Sprays: Litsea Cubeba and Black Pepper
My Chef’s Essence Sprays samples arrived beautifully packaged with a note from Mandy suggesting that I add a few sprays onto ice cream, chocolate puddings and to finish off dishes. Mandy had also suggested spraying them onto plain, dark chocolate in a prior email. These ideas gave me a good launching point from which to start my exploration, and I decided to use the Litsea Cubeba and the Black Pepper first, as I could immediately think of many uses for them.
When I first used the Chef’s Essences sprays I was struck instantly by how much more intense the aroma of my food had become. Particularly when sprayed onto something just before eating it, I experienced the sense of a strong and beautiful aroma hitting my nostrils first, followed by the taste of the essence as I ate the food. That two-part sensation: smell, then taste (combining to form flavour), is not something I really notice much when I eat food generally, so I think that the Chef’s Essences really highlight and intensify the aroma component of eating, almost as a separate and discreet thing. I noticed that my eating also became more mindful and I ate with more care and took more time to savour the smell, taste and flavour of each Essence. Each mouthful was a heightened, sensual, novel, intensified flavour experience.
Litsea Cubeba, also known as May Chang or Mountain Pepper, is distilled from the small, pepper-like fruits of the Litsea Cubeba tree. It has a taste and smell similar to that of lemongrass or Lemon Myrtle, a beautiful Australian native shrub which is used as a herb. The flavour of Litsea Cubeba is lemony, but not as acidic or sour as lemon, and is quite aromatic, like lemongrass. It has a very bright, sunny, yet sweet character and livens up any food that you add it to. Litsea Cubeba Chef’s Essence will become a staple in my kitchen as it is so versatile. It is a wonderful replacement for the more commonly used citrus flavours, while fulfilling similar flavour functions.
How I used Litsea Cubeba Chef’s Essence Spray
I sprayed some Litsea Cubeba onto grilled salmon in place of the lemon I would normally squeeze onto the fish at the end of cooking. I also added a little smoked sea salt and ground black pepper. As a less acidic/sour flavour than lemon, I found I needed quite a few sprays (5-6 per fillet) to really notice the Litsea Cubeba, and for it to soak into the fish beyond the surface. It was a lovely combination though, and I’m considering marinating the fish in it next time, along with some olive oil, prior to cooking to ensure that the flavours penetrate the fish a little more.
Litsea Cubeba is amazing on avocado! Cut a ripe avocado in half, spray twice with Litsea Cubeba, sprinkle with sea salt and eat with a spoon. You can’t get much better than this: it’s utter simplicity, but the creamy, neutral base of the avocado really allows the Litsea Cubeba to sing!
On fresh fruit
Litsea Cubeba goes beautifully with fresh fruit. Here are a few suggestions:
Strawberries with Litsea Cubeba
Take six medium strawberries (or a serve for one person), hull and halve them. Put them in a bowl and add 2 sprays of Litsea Cubeba and about a teaspoon of sugar (I used coconut sugar). Mix it all together with a spoon and let it macerate a little for 10-15 minutes, as the strawberries come to room temperature. Eat alone or with yogurt, cream or ice cream.
Pineapple with Litsea Cubeba
Cut up some fresh pineapple into cubes (enough for one person). Put it in a bowl, spray 2-3 times with Litsea Cubeba and sprinkle with a teaspoon of coconut sugar (or sugar of your choice). Mix it all together with a spoon and leave it to macerate a little for 10-15 minutes. This is intense and amazing. You don’t need to add anything to this dish – it’s perfect as is without any accompaniments. The pineapple and Litsea Cubeba compliment each other beautifully: both are bright and sweet and tangy and they are a match made in heaven!
Kiwi Fruit with Litsea Cubeba
Simply cut a kiwi fruit in half (I used gold kiwis), spray each half once with Litsea Cubeba, leave for a few minutes and eat with a spoon. Yum!
Apricot Jam and Litsea Cubeba
Litsea Cubeba sprayed onto apricot jam on toast is simply incredible. I have some gorgeously sunny, thick and tangy apricot jam that I made with fruit from a friend’s tree in Autumn. The jam is divine on its own, but with one spray of Litsea Cubeba, the flavour of the apricot really pops and the wow factor is amplified more than the sum of its parts. This is a “must do” now every time I eat apricot jam on toast!
Mandy Aftel explained in an email that the Black Pepper spray doesn’t taste hot, as ground black pepper does. This allows for all sorts of other elements of flavour in the pepper to come to the fore and get noticed by the nose and taste buds, which is really interesting to experience. The Black Pepper Chef’s Essence Spray tastes quite woody and almost resinous to me, and a bit like frankincense. I also detected a subtle pine needle note, and something a bit fruity. It’s lovely and is another incredibly versatile Chef’s Essence that you can use on most foods, just as you would ground black pepper. Just don’t expect it to be hot!
How I used Black Pepper Chef’s Essence Spray
On Poached Eggs
I replaced my usual ground black pepper with the Black Pepper spray (one spray per egg), adding a little sea salt, and serving the eggs on plain, buttered toast. To get to know these new flavours, it really helps to try the Chef’s Essences (at least at first) on fairly simple and plain foods, like eggs, in order to fully experience the flavour and any subtler nuances that might be masked by more complex foods.
Strawberries with Black Pepper
Black pepper and strawberries is an unusual combination, but I have heard they are complimentary, so I thought I would try it out with my new Black Pepper spray. The combination works incredibly well and the woody, resinous flavour of the pepper enhances the sweetness and flavour of the strawberries beautifully.
Take six medium strawberries (or a serve for one person), hull and halve them. Put them in a bowl and add 2-3 sprays of Black Pepper and about a teaspoon of sugar (I used coconut sugar). Mix it all together with a spoon and let it macerate for 10-15 minutes, as the strawberries come to room temperature. Eat alone or with yogurt, cream or icecream. I ate mine with coconut yogurt, a really yummy accompaniment.
Black Pepper on Roast Beef
I added one spray per small slice of roast beef. The woody, aromatic properties of the pepper compliment the beef so well. This was my favourite use of the Black Pepper spray.
Melita’s Caprese-esque Salad
In this variation on a classic Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil), I added both Black Pepper and Litsea Cubeba sprays, to great effect.
Ingredients (serves two as an accompaniment, generously)
One small zucchini (courgette)
Two medium, ripe tomatoes
Two handfuls of rocket (arugula)
One or two handfuls of fresh basil leaves
Bocconcini or mozzarella (100-200g, it all depends on how much cheese you want to eat!)
Litsea Cubeba and Black Pepper Chef’s Essence Sprays
Slice the tomatoes into sturdy slices at least 1/2cm thick. Shave or slice the zucchini into thin pieces lengthwise. Slice the cheese into pieces about 1/2 cm thick, or if you’re using little bocconcini, halve them. Arrange the rocket on the bottom of a plate or a shallow salad bowl, and top with slices of zucchini, tomato and cheese. You can do this artfully or more haphazardly, it doesn’t really matter. I tend to layer the ingredients a little. Strew the basil about (or tuck in between layers), spray with 3-4 sprays each of Litsea Cubeba and Black Pepper Chef’s Essences, drizzle on a good quality olive oil, and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Leave the salad alone for 10 minutes or so for the flavours to combine and then tuck in with gusto! You can toss the salad gently to help the Chef’s Essences really do their thing, but be careful not to destroy the tomatoes. Melita’s Caprese-esque Salad goes well with grilled meats or fish of any kind, and is marvellous to eat on a hot Summer’s day.
I haven’t delved into the use of the Chef’s Essences in drinks yet with these two flavours. I’m not much of a drinks person: I tend to drink water (copious amounts of it), tea, and occasionally alcohol. However, in part three of this post on Chef’s Essences, I’ll provide you with a recipe for a really luscious hot drink. I have read that the Chef’s Essences work beautifully in cocktails, as discussed in this 2012 article in the New York Times.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Part One of my review of Aftelier Perfumes’ Chef’s Essences. Have you tried any of the range? If so, please let me know in the comments box below which ones you’ve tried and how you used them. I would love to hear about your experiences!
You can purchase the Chef’s Essences and Sprays online at the Aftelier Perfumes website. The website also has suggestions on how to use the various flavours, as does the Aftelier Perfumes Pinterest account.
Part Two of the Aftelier Perfumes’ Chef’s Essences Review, in which I write about my experiences using Sarsaparilla Chef’s Essence Spray, and provide some exciting suggestions for its use, including a really exciting cookie recipe, is coming soon!