A guest post by Tiki Swain*
I think buying local food, and growing and making your own is important.
But not everything can be done locally. Maple syrup, for instance. We don’t have the climate for maple trees anywhere on the continent, except possibly the highlands of Tasmania and even that’s a bit touchy. To add further complexity, the process of gathering syrup is not ‘home-garden’. It’s quite labour intensive and needs lots of trees.
However, the flavour for imitation maple syrup comes from the seeds of the spice fenugreek, which is a warm-climate Mediterranean-type plant. We can grow that here. When I found this out, I said,
“Whee! I can make maple syrup!”
But, wait a second. Fenugreek. That’s the spice that gives samosas that distinctive curry flavour. How on earth do you get from there to maple? I’ve seen it used to flavour chocolate so I know it can be done, but…
Turns out it’s in the extraction profile. Fenugreek – like all spices – has a number of flavour compounds, and the way you treat it affects which compounds come out more strongly (hint: never add black pepper to soup more than seven minutes before it finishes cooking). The compounds that give the distinctive maple flavour – as opposed to curry – are less straightforward to extract. My reading suggested that water wouldn’t extract those compounds at all, and that industrial manufacturers used hexanes and similar organic (carbon-based) solvents in the process. OK, fair enough. But I don’t keep them in my kitchen. And I guessed I didn’t need to.
Fenugreek is an old, old spice. The name ‘fenugreek’ is a garbled-through-the-centuries form of the name the Romans gave it when they bought it for horse fodder. And I doubt someone in the 20th century just said,
“Hey, let’s stick this curry powder in petrol and see if it makes a nice topping for pancakes”.
There had to have been a reason someone tried it. Which means the flavours can be extracted some other low-tech normal-cooking way – most likely alcohol or oil.
After some careful reading, I devised a possible method for making imitation maple essence, as follows:
–> Warm the fenugreek seeds lightly and evenly without browning (to create the flavour compounds I wanted selectively extractable)
–> Grind the seeds (to increase surface area for extraction)
–> Place in alcohol (as the solvent to collect the wanted compounds)
–> Wait three weeks.
I’m afraid my first attempt was less than successful.
For alcohol I used a bottle of gin someone had left with us after a party. And I didn’t get the fenugreek seeds evenly warmed nor completely unbrowned, nor did I grind them sufficiently before they’d cooled too far. Despite that, it did smell wonderful while I was performing the steps, so I had no early reason to doubt it. And when I opened one of my test bottles after three weeks, a magical mapley aroma washed out of the bottle. Unfortunately, I think that’s where all the maple-like compounds went…up my nose.
When I tasted it, it was curry-flavoured gin. Yep.
So I gave the bottles to some of my foodie friends – who would think it was cool – and reconsidered my methods.
I plan to try again with a heavy, thick-based frying pan for warming, see if that gives me better heat control, and also with a form of alcohol that has a less strong flavour of its own than gin.
I’ll keep you posted.
*Tiki Swain is interested in everything and pays attention to as much as possible, especially if it’s food, plants or primitive skills. She is a former science communicator, now studying urban farming and writing about the interplay within agricultural systems at AgriTapestry. You can find her on twitter as @tikiwanderer