Fish, Flowers, and the Taste of Youth

Photo by Lara Kastner

WILD TURBOT shellfish, water chestnuts, floral vapor

More often than not the creative impulses that lead us to unusual flavor combinations are the result of experience, an association game of like ingredients and study. But sometimes we draw on intuition and a more cerebral aspect of life experiences and memory.

When people think of the function of flowers in food they commonly write them off as purely aesthetic, a way to add color and natural beauty to a plate. To me flowers are herbs. In fact, many of the flowers used in the culinary world are exactly that, the blooms from herb plants. But in this case we go deeper and focus first on the smell the flowers emanate and how that can influence taste. We then look to what they represent to the season and the memories surrounding the aromas they produce.

I grew up in St. Clair, Michigan, a small, agricultural-based town. What the tiny town lacked in culture (the first fast food restaurant was built when I was a junior in high school, and it only had one major intersection) it made up for in outdoor activities. Hunting, fishing, and dirt bike-racing were the hobbies of choice for my group of friends.

Fish and flowers made sense to me not for any culinary reason, but for sentimental ones.

My father would frequently take me on the boat out into the St. Clair River to drift fish for walleye, or I would go casting with my friends to various ponds and small lakes near our home. The extremely humid and sultry climate that the Midwest summer is known for produced a very distinctive fish/sea smell as the air met the water. And inevitably the banks of all the bodies of water were lined with many types of plants in bloom. So for me the two smells--seafood and the perfume of flowers--were permanently fused in my mind.

While working on the opening menu for Alinea we were trying to use various hydrocolloids to create a custard-like texture for a shellfish cream that would set very quickly but remain warm. This would allow us to suspend a piece of fish--in this case, turbot--in the custard without having to bake it in a traditional egg-based custard.

The absence of egg helped maintain the pure flavor of the shellfish, but also made it possible to have perfectly cooked fish by avoiding the need to bake the custard at a high temperature to set the eggs, thereby overcooking the fish. We found the right synergies in the gelling agents, and everyone was excited with the idea of a modern way to make a custard. But now we had to figure out the supporting ingredients to compliment the shellfish and turbot flavors.

We started with fennel, Pernod, and sunchoke. The anise profile of the fennel and Pernod, along with the potato-like quality of the sunchoke puree were obvious compliments to the shellfish and turbot, but what came next was less predictable.

I reached into my wallet, pulled out $20, and told one of the cooks to run to the florist and pick up the most perfumed flowers he could find. Everyone else looked at me quizzically and thought I was having a meltdown as a result from the frustration caused by the dish's lack of direction.

The cook returned with a few bunches of hyacinth flowers. I leaned over and breathed in deeply, and the fragrance of spring filled my head. As soon as I smelled the briny sweetness of the shellfish along with the musky perfume of the flowers, I was transported back to my childhood. Until that moment I had no idea why I wanted to pair this dish with the smell of flowers. But once it was all together, I instantly remembered a day when I was 12 years old, fishing for walleye with my dad in the late spring. We would tuck in along the shore and eat lunch among the wildflowers. Fish and flowers made sense to me not for any culinary reason, but for sentimental ones.

Once again Joe drew on his taste memory to help guide him to the eventual pairing:


As far as picking the Hildegard, Joe felt it was always a great fit for the dish as far as bridging the gap between white Burgundy and Alsace Pinot Auxerrois, both of which worked pretty well--Burgundy is a natural choice for the fish/shellfish/custard components, while the sunchoke starts veering more toward Alsace. The Hildegard brought together elements of fatter texture and a richer range of fruit--plus it's an American wine with a good story that he personally happened to like.

Joe first got to know Jim Clendenen about 12 years ago while he was running the wine program at Le Francais in Wheeling, Illinois. At that point he had been selling and serving Clendenen's wines for at least a decade, but when he came in to dinner at Le Fran├žais he was impressed by his knowledge and passion, in particular regarding the wines of Burgundy. Joe started to pay more attention when he encountered Jim's wines at tasting events, and came to better appreciate the talent and integrity of his winemaking.

While at Trio in 2002 Joe paired the 1999 Hildegard with a dish we were running at the time. At a tasting later that year he ran into Jim and let him know how much we'd enjoyed pouring the Hildegard, quizzed him for more information about the wine, and commented that the vintage we used seemed to be showing well for the few years of extra bottle age it had. Jim agreed that the aging potential for the wine seemed excellent and let me know that he was setting some aside for that reason. He invited Joe to contact him in case we'd like a supply of an older vintage.

That time came three years later when we were searching for a pairing for the turbot dish. Joe thought the 1999 Hildegard might be showing just right for the new dish and called Clendenen to see if there was any available. Jim sent a sample to the restaurant, and sure enough the aged wine's nose of toasted hazelnuts, soft brown spice, and baked orchard fruits blended perfectly with the dairy-custard elements of the shellfish cream and the sunchoke puree. Meanwhile the baked peach and candied citrus elements synergized with the anise flavors of the fennel, vermouth, Pernod and tarragon ingredients used to steam the shellfish and eventually make the custard. The pairing has proved to be one of our most popular. We think the Hildegard is a terrific wine, and a wonderful project that we are happy to be able to showcase in this manner and hopefully draw additional attention to.

Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings will run on Mondays and Wednesdays for the next two weeks. Check back for his recommendations for what to serve with caviar, chocolate, and more.