One of the pleasures of editing the Food Channel is discovering terrific young writers like Scarlett Lindeman, who come up with things I sure would never think of. Why she reeked of a strangely sweet smell that even started to cloy for her boyfriend, for instance. I loved reading it, as I do our contributors every day (see Derek Brown on mineral water in cocktails, which can add flavor—something I noticed when spending two years researching bottled water and learning the importance of minerals for flavor—my favorite is magnesium.) Maple syrup smell emanating from your pores—who would have thought it, and who could have traced it? Read her column.
Then after you do, read the rest of this—spoiler alert. It turns out that I'd heard of this phenomenon recently, in fact tasted it at Toscanini's, where Gus Rancatore holds court and encourages his ice-cream makers, including a former savory chef, Kevin Rafferty, who came upon me, excitement in his eyes, as I was working at the high table. "You've got to taste this!" he said, thrusting a cup of ice cream. Given that the tastes often involve saffron or mochi or unexpected liqueurs, I look at them with a certain wary regard. You never know where ice-cream makers are looking for their flavors or who they're stealing them from, as Gus wrote. But this one sounded relatively innocent. "It's blueberry pancake!"
And indeed, the golden, light-toffee ice cream he handed me had an agreeable taste of vanilla strongly dominated by maple syrup, with a few frozen blueberries for color, texture, and acidity. "How'd you get such a strong maple flavor?" I asked him, knowing that real maple syrup is not only very, very expensive—even grade B "amber," the only kind you should ever get, for its superior flavor (grade A is just sweet, fancy water by comparison)—but dilutes any batter or cream it's in to unmanageable thinness by the time you get as much flavor as you're after.
"There's no maple syrup in it," he said proudly, obviously daring me to ask a followup. As it happens, I hate artificial maple flavor, the general agent, second only to imitation butter extract (whereas I like vanillin, the first widely synthesized and commercially successful surrogate, but that's because I've spent too much time in Italy, where its use is universal). And I didn't taste any in it. "So what's the secret?"
He paused, wanted to draw it out. "You'll never guess!" He was right, I never would. So eventually he told me: "Fenugreek." I of course looked blank, knowing it only from its use in Indian curries, to which it gives a golden color and a flavor—well, I guess I never knew just what sort of flavor, though I've tried to train myself to recognize various curry components over the years. But I sure didn't know it could taste of maple syrup. "I make an infusion in milk, then put in vanilla and some blueberries and vanilla. Wouldn't you swear it was maple syrup?" I would and still do—I just tried some the other day. And so would Scarlett Lindeman. And her gymmates and her boyfriend.