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The ancient technique of food smoking is evolving constantly, partly because creativity by definition knows no bounds, but also thanks to technology, which never fails to amaze or to blaze new trails.
The trend? An ever expanding one
Smoking food techniques are one of the biggest food trends of 2016 (with rosy forecasts for 2017 as well) to such an extent that they have also embraced the variegated scenario of sweet and savoury snacks.
Wherever the beating heart of a culinary masterpiece is perceived, therein lies a new “haute cuisine” approach to an ancient technique. One that is no longer content to smoke spare ribs, oysters or salmon, but has started to flirt with cheese, vegetables and herbs, not to mention fresh and dried fruit, eggs, yogurt, chocolate, salt, desserts and even cocktails, with the aid of the most refined “combustions.”
Resinous or fruity wood species, tea, herbs
Who uses what and why? Executive chef Jim Löfdahl of the acclaimed Frantzén restaurant declares for instance that, prior to choosing one smoking method rather than another (water vapour, hot or cold fumes, wood species, herbs, aromas, spices...) there are many aspects to bear in mind, first and foremost the desired result.
Just imagine: an oozing drizzle of salted caramel fondant melting a glossy sphere of fine chocolate, to reveal an amazing smoked ice-cream against a background of toasted walnuts, Finnish pine syrup (already endowed with a pronounced smoky flavour of its own) and cloves.
Elizna Botha of the 1762 Smoked and Reif Othman of the Play Restaurant & Lounge, both operating in Dubai, like Matt Lambert of The Musket Room in New York or Dwayne Edwards of the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Tahoe (to mention but a few), give vent to their creativity using fine wood species such as maple for its sweetly delicate notes, cherry and apple for their fruity accents, walnut and mesquite – a leguminous shrub from America – which is strong and highly pronounced.
Others turn to the world of grasses and herbs, such as Pascal Aussignac of the London-based Club Gascon who smokes pork kidney with hay, or Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes, who chooses rosemary for his enoki mushrooms and Marcus Wareing (back in London), who entrusts his smoked red beetroot to the nuances of Lapsang Souchong tea (pictured above).
Food smoking as a comfort zone
But what makes food smoking such a soaring food trend? Chefs of all latitudes agree: when we encounter a dish in which it is possible to perceive the smoky hints emanated by wood (or herbs) with which it has been cooked, we enter an authentic comfort zone, because an ancestral “substratum” of our subconscious is brought forth...
Such is the conviction of Charles Spence, professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, who also collaborates with some of today’s most acclaimed chefs, and declares that "since our mind associates the noise of a crackling fire and the smell of smoke with the meat roasted by our ancestors, we may have been ‘programmed’ to appreciate whatever is being cooked.
This opinion is also shared by multi-award wining chef Heston Blumenthal along with US rising star Teddy Diggs of Il Palio in Chapel Hill (North Carolina), for whom the smell of fire smoke reawakens a primordial dimension and many more besides.
The "goût de fumée" becomes an appetising business
Food smoking, however, is no longer the exclusive prerogative of a restricted few. The current trend tells us, in fact, that do-it-yourself versions are also catching on fast, with technological supports ranging from hot smoker sets to cold infusers, with sales volumes according to Amazon and Sous-chef of between 200 and 300% higher than last year.
As a further confirmation that this trend is of great market appeal, there are “gourmet short-cuts” created for those who demand refined aromas without actually intending to smoke their food. Hence the appearance of previously smoked olive oil, butter, paprika, salt and even water: just use them during cooking or as a final seasoning and voilà: the smoke is served!
Even mixology discovered the art of smoking
On one hand, bartenders add smoked ice to their concoctions or reinterpret tried and tested recipes (like those who put their faith in the wood from aged casks at the end of their course), while others have gone even further with innovative sensorial experiences to combine the crackle of a wood fire with a cocktail, in which a “wood sommelier,” no less, decides when and how to burn walnut, oak, apple or pecan wood.
This is precisely what happens at the Royalton Hotel in New York courtesy of the duo Joshua Brandenburg and Albie Pero, to whom we owe such masterpieces as the Hickory Old Fashioned, in which smoked walnut is first infused in bourbon, before being burned, capturing the smoke in a glass for just the right length of time to line the inner sides with a fine oily layer.
And the result? A well calibrated mix of bourbon, cider spirit, maple whisky, apple and ice encounters the lingering roasted and textural aroma of a wood species that is as old as mankind itself.