Amy Trubek, my guest on the latest Eat This Podcast, studies cheese and maple syrup, separately. This post suggests she bring them together.
When we spoke, Professor Trubek threw away a remark that first stopped me in my tracks and then sent me scurrying to the internet. Artificial maple flavour, she said, is made from fenugreek. Huh? I know fenugreek only as a somewhat pungent spice that I sometimes put in Indian food. To me, it smells of curries, not maple syrup.
Of course, she was right. A quick search confirmed that pretty comprehensively. “Fenugreek extract is the perfect raw material for formulating maple flavors with and it could also be useful in coffee, caramel, toffee, butterscotch, beef and nut flavors,” one flavour scientist wrote. The primary culprit is 4,5-Dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone (C6H8O3), which fortunately goes also by the name sotolon (or sotolone). It is powerful stuff, detectable in concentrations as low as one part per billion, equivalent to a drop of water in 50 cubic metres, or about 250 chemical drums. There’s another component of maple flavour, 5-Ethyl-3-hydroxy-4-methyl-2(5H)-furanone (C7H10O3), that is even more powerful, being detectable at one part per 100 trillion. This stuff, called maple furanone, is “one of the most powerful flavor chemicals known to man”.
So far, so interesting. Then a few other facts emerged. Fenugreek seeds are a traditional remedy to increase milk production in nursing mothers. And eating fenugreek can make you reek “of waffles”. There’s an unfortunate genetic disease called maple syrup urine disease that, untreated, results in severe neurological defects. It could also be called maple syrup ear wax disease, but that’s another story. The babies of nursing mothers who have eaten fenugreek to increase their milk flow sometimes have urine that smells of maple syrup, although they don’t have MSUD. And whoever first sniffed the urine of babies who do have MSUD and said “hey, this smells like maple syrup,” nailed it. The odour of MSUD is our old friend sotolon.
All of which proves only that I know my way around a search engine. I am, however, getting to the point. Along the way, I learned that there is a wine called Vin Jaune, which is “marked by the formation of sotolon from alpha-ketobutyric acid”. That’s roughly the same chemical process that creates the sotolon in MSUD, and Vin Jaune does indeed have a note of maple syrup. Furthermore, it is also typically served with Comté cheese.
If you’ve come all this way, thank you. Here’s the point: Amy Trubek studies both Vermont cheese and Vermont maple syrup. In our talk, I mentioned that in Italy, cheeses are often served with honey, and I asked whether anyone served maple syrup with cheese. She didn’t think so, and she thought it might be a good idea. Well, if the terroir-laden French traditionally serve Vin Jaune with Comté cheese, why shouldn’t mould-breaking Vermonters do the same with their alpine-inspired Comté lookalikes?