When you were a child you may have learned in school, as I did, of the four basic tastes: Sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness. What I wasn’t taught (damn you Mrs Hamilton!) was that there is an elusive fifth taste: Umami.
A word loaned from the Japanese language – Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo University first scientifically identified umami in 1908, after noticing that glutamate was responsible for the palatability of kombu dashi, a broth made from seaweed. Looking further into it, he surmised that the flavour was entirely distinct from sweet, salty, bitter or sour, and came from a synergistic effect between glutamates and ribonucleotides.
Prior to its discovery, umami had long been used in cooking, but without the knowledge of the chemical source of the flavour. In the late 1800’s, legendary chef (and fraudulent rogue, but that’s another story) Auguste Escoffier used ingredient combinations that would create umami in many of his dishes. Even as far back as ancient Rome fermented fish sauces, rich in glutamate, were used to sex up culinary offerings.
The flavour imparted by umami can perhaps be best described as a pleasant ‘brothy’ or ‘meaty’ taste, with a sensation of coating furriness on the tongue that stimulates the roof of the mouth, creating a mild but long lasting aftertaste. Foodstuffs that contain a high level of umami include mushrooms, aged cheese, cured meats, shellfish, soy sauce, tomato ketchup and umm, breast milk. That last one may go some way toward explaining our craving for the flavour (Pseuds Corner alert).
Noctua is a Paris-based collective founded in November 2012 by Alexandre Mendy and Johan Afriat. Working mostly with electronic music, they have a keen interest in the enhancement of digital culture and have also dabbled in visual arts performances. Now, with baby brother side-project Umami up and running, they complete their first foray into the culinary arts.
Focusing on experimenting with the afore-mentioned mysterious taste sensation in its namesake, Umami have hosted several dinners in Agora – an arts centre in Neukölln – each one themed around the cuisine of a different European country. Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and France. Sadly, it seems that the internationally lauded British gourmet culture was a potential minefield that the chefs –experienced as they are – did not feel comfortable enough to negotiate. Yes, I am English.
Victor, who organised the whole shindig, is a graphic designer and a DJ, and I suppose he can now add top-notch pop-up dining creative director to his list of accomplishments. He was joined by Noctua founder Alexandre, and Benjamin Schnitt, both of whom chef in Michelin-starred restaurants.
Victor prefers to work in ‘series’, rather than produce one-off events, feeling that this way they can ‘have a more thorough exploration of different dimensions of concepts’. Each event was approached with French techniques and sensibilities, so although the dishes may have come from Valencia or Bavaria, they were studied, examined and executed with a firmly Gallic mindset. This is no bad thing.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sample the Greek night, Umami’s penultimate offering. Agora proved to be an excellent setting. An art space/café/co-working atelier/herb garden/general creative hub set on a cobbled Neukölln alley, the high ceilings, eclectic furniture and carefully curated art pieces added greatly to the ambience, as did the music, soulful sounds played by Victor. This, I suppose, is Noctua incarnate: Blending arts and influences across the spectrum to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
We started with a simple mezze. Quinoa tabbouleh, dolmas with sushi rice and a light and zingy tzatziki. The traditional vine leaves were replaced by French lettuce, and the sushi rice was a pleasant textural surprise.
The Greek salad, probably the dish I was least enthused by when reading the menu beforehand, turned out to be the star of the show. The elements blended perfectly: Rich, salty olive tapenade, a beetroot jelly, viscous and vivid, crunchy mâché leaves and an incredible goats cheese that the team had smoked in the Agora herb garden, ramping up the levels of Umami to a most delectable level.
Moussaka, that Greek peasant classic (and a personal favourite of mine) was the main. It was a kind of deconstructed offering; pools of foamy béchamel sauce artfully draped across a landscape of minced lamb slow-cooked in white wine (French, naturally), garlic and thyme. The aubergine was in two parts. The first, a baba ganoush mashed with lemon juice and olive oil, the other – light, wafer thin aubergine rings. Parmesan crisps concluded what was a very well thought out dish, adding a gratinate texture to the moussaka. Although the dish was delicious, and an interesting take on a familiar friend, I couldn’t help feeling that the amount of minced meat could have been reduced to balance the dish better, or perhaps even to replace the minced meat with another cut, say slow cooked shank, which would have been unorthodox, but for me, would have elevated the experience.
A French take on the juicy, nutty, honey-nectared delicacy found in every Turkish backshop in Berlin – was up next. Hello baklava. There are two kinds of people in this world: People who order dessert, and people who do not care to enjoy the finer things in life. I fall firmly into the former camp, so was salivating at the mouth at the prospect of this one. Literally salivating. It was quite disgusting and many of the other diners left after my dribble started dripping onto the floor. Sorry guys.
This dish for me was where the experimentation really took off. Nothing like a traditional baklava, Umami’s creation consisted of only four dainty filo slices, each one separating the unexpected – and delicious – elements. Fluffy almond Chantilly cream, mint leaves, raw Sanguinello orange, a passion fruit coulis and a melt-in-your-mouth little honeyed date on top. It was a fresher, cleaner baklava than the oily stodge that I know and love, but still retained the key elements of the dessert.
I was very impressed with the whole experience. The service, the Bring-Yer-Own-Booze policy (woo-hoo!), the music, the setting. The fact that the chefs had worked so hard every month to really study cuisines that they had not attempted before and were basically nailing it first time. A lot of fun, and highly recommended.
Umami are hosting their fifth and FINAL dinner on Sun night April 13.
It will be well worth your time. Also, vegetarian alternatives are available, but my companion and I are both highly carnivorous, so we did not sample them. I’m sure they’re delightful.
Get more information and reserve your table at:
All photos courtesy of Florian Gick www.flibustier.jimdo.com
Text: Louis Labron Johnson