My favourite flavour is something I refer to as ‘Forest’. It is not really a flavour as such, more of an amalgam of smells, flavours, ingredients and even colours that for me evoke the flavour or ‘sense’ of the forest.
I spent over 3 years living and working in the French and Swiss Alps before I moved to Belgium and during that time I was surrounded by the most beautiful nature and this has been the biggest influence on the food I cook today. I was astounded by the intensity of each season and all the new flavours and colours it brought with its arrival. The most exciting season for me was always autumn with the arrival of ceps, nuts, stone fruits, apples, pears, truffles and wild game. The chef where I worked used to disappear up the mountain in his spare time with a rifle and return later that evening with a chamois (mountain goat) or a deer slung over his shoulder. Sometimes he’d also bring a hare. These animals would hang for a while in the walk-in fridge before appearing on the menu. We’d skin them, butcher them and cook them. We’d usually serve them simply with some cooked or pickled autumnal fruit and a sauce flavoured with juniper and thickened with a bit of blood.
Springtime was nearly as exciting with the appearance of wild garlic, morel mushrooms, fraise du bois and wood sorrel with its beautiful white flowers. I remember my colleagues foraging for morels and later in the summer having competitions over who’d collect more chanterelles. On my first day at the Albert 1ere in Chamonix we were all sent out to the forest with bin bags to collect pine shoots. They would use these pine shoots to make a honey-like syrup called ‘Miel de bourgeons de sapin’ which would last all year and be used to glaze duck, make sauces, cake mixes and infused into ice creams.
The other flavours that I feel to evoke a sense of ‘forest’ in my cooking are things like coffee, smoke, hay, wood, heather, truffle and grouse. During my 2 years at In de Wulf in Belgium I grew to know and love all the region’s wild herbs that we foraged daily in the Heuvelland woods. They had different mushrooms that grew in damp forests on dead trees such as the Judas ear mushroom. We’d glaze the mushrooms in celeriac juice and butter and serve them on pieces of wood and moss that we’d collect from the forest whilst picking the mushrooms, and the moss would be slightly warmed in the steam oven so that it released its ‘forest’ aromas whilst the mushrooms were being eaten.
All these memories contribute to the flavour of the dishes that I cook today and reflect experiences of the places where I lived rather than the restaurants where I worked. I hope that this creates an ‘original’ cooking style, if nothing else!
Merlin Labron – Johnson, Portland Restaurant (London, UK)