Difficult to define, the 5th taste sensation umami is a term used by the Japanese for "deliciousness" in food; a separate taste from sweet, salt, bitter and sour and describes a "robustness," and at times "meaty" flavour to dishes. I would personally call this the satisfying deep-savoury-yum that keeps us returning for more. Umami is both a taste and a flavour enhancer, produced by ‘glutamate’, a naturally occurring compound that is found in some foods. Foods such as Parmesan, miso, prawns, crab and tomatoes; Heston Blumenthal experimented with tomatoes and concluded that the most flavoursome sauce is made when the seeds are retained. Glutamate is abundant in mushrooms so this makes them a rich source of umami, which together with their ‘meaty’ texture they are an important part of vegetarian dishes.

Whilst not a vegetarian, I often enjoy meat-free meals so armed with a couple of bags of leftover mushrooms from last weekend’s exhibition I prepared a fricassee, which is something between a sauté and braise. The dish was designed with autumn in mind and was also an opportunity to experiment with umami rich ingredients to produce a satisfying main course dish. Using a combination of champignon de Paris and shitake mushrooms, an obvious choice was to add toasted hazelnuts to help trigger the ‘savoury’ taste buds along with garlic, onion and crème fraiche. The result was a substantial supper, my fricassee accompanied by a crisp salad whilst the others enjoyed a smaller portion as an accompaniment to slabs of grilled gammon.

Mushroom & Toasted Hazelnut Fricassee

1tbsp. olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Mixed mushrooms, wiped and larger ones sliced
Handful hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tsp. fennel seeds
Glug white wine
1tbsp sherry or cognac
2 tbsp. crème fraiche
Sea salt & freshly milled black pepper
Chopped parsley, to garnish

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat, sweat the onion and garlic until they have softened but not coloured; add the mushrooms and cook for another few minutes. Add the chopped hazelnuts, fennel seeds, wine and sherry and continue to cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms are tender. Add the crème fraiche, check the seasoning and bring to a simmer, stirring. Serve piping hot.