By Nancy Pollard
Nancy Pollard has the brain of specialty retailer, which makes sense given her bio (below). But she has the heart of a cook—and that’s why she asked MyLittleBird to reprint a story she wrote about French flavor essences several years ago. She doesn’t want MLB readers to miss the chance to try these flavorings while the seller, Simply Gourmand, is having a sale, 20% off a selection of dessert ingredients including the essences from Grasse, through the end of this month. So, you’re all on notice: Get them now!
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food-related issues.
Better Than Frankincense and Myrrh
IN THE EARLY years of my Alexandria, Virginia, retail store, La Cuisine, I stumbled across a Swiss supplier who had the most remarkable flavorings. The samples were in tiny bottles, and when you sniffed, there would be a dark circle on your nose from the residue of the particular essence. I found out that these flavors were from Grasse, France, the noted perfume capital of the world. So we ordered a few flavors in liter bottles and broke them down into 2-ounce bottles. They were so powerful, both in flavor and aroma, that you generally used only 1/8 to 1/4 of what you would need from a domestic flavoring. Then that Swiss supplier was bought by a larger Swiss corporation and they dropped the Grasse French essences in favor of their own flavorings, many of which were artificially enhanced. The Swiss ones were less cloying than their American counterparts, but none of them had that pure flavor distillation of the French versions. The Cuisinettes despaired, and so did a growing number of clients.
The Essence Quest Continued
But we persevered and finally found a huge global supplier of every type of flavoring you could imagine—from roasted chicken to cotton candy—but in the fine print of their catalogue, they also listed some of the essences from Grasse. Eureka! We expanded the number of flavors to include new ones like pear, green apple, and hazelnut. Alas, that corporate entity streamlined and we lost our source again. But an independent French supplier established roots in the US, brought in the good stuff, and La Cuisine was saved again. As fate would have it, that supplier closed up shop and joined a large Italian-based restaurant supplier of top-notch ingredients.This time though, in a stroke of good fortune, he kept his essence connection and we were in business.
In the end, we offered more than 40 essences, and in certain cases sold them by the liter and half-liter to special-events caterers and a growing number of independent chocolatiers who had developed a discerning clientele. Pastry chefs loved these flavors for their signature desserts, as they gave even the simplest cake, sorbet, or ice cream a more intense flavor. And for home cooks, they were a revelation. Add blueberry essence to blueberries and they taste the way you always wished blueberries might taste; add wild strawberry essence for the most-strawberryish-ever strawberry pie. Coconut essence (probably one of the most famous ones in the shop) pumps out coconut flavor and not the sugar.
So when La Cuisine closed in 2018, the first anguished emails came from clients clamoring for these French essences. I needed to find a supplier who would be willing to do the work to break the wholesale-size containers into smaller quantities and who also had an e-commerce site. But it also had to be someone who understood the quality and was interested in exploring a superior French ingredient. It took us over a year, but we found the dream source: www.Simply Gourmand.com. Its founder, Marianne Prébet, is a French home cook who created an online French grocery store for ingredients that she could not get in the US. She has started with the following essences: apricot, bergamot, bitter almond, blueberry, coconut, Colombian coffee, lavender, lemon, mango, orange, passionfruit, pear, pistachio, raspberry, roasted hazelnut, vanilla bourbon, and wild strawberry.
Let’s start with blueberry and lemons with these two cakes. Unfortunately, unless you can get fresh wild blueberries, ours simply do not have much flavor. I even grew some blueberries on my deck, and while all seven of them tasted a bit better than usual, they could not compete with their wild cousins from Maine. So add a little essence to your blueberries when you make cakes and pies. In the Blueberry Lemon Cake recipe (cake shown left), I added ¼ teaspoon of the essence to the blueberries and ½ teaspoon of the lemon essence (it’s a big cake) to the batter, and boom! In Maida Heatter’s divine Lemon Buttermilk Cake (right), I add 1/8 teaspoon of lemon essence to the glaze and ¼ teaspoon to the batter. If the lemons that I can get are not so flavorful, I add a bit more.
One of the simplest uses for blueberries is to make a sauce like this Fresh Blueberry Sauce I have adapted from a Daniel Boulud cookbook. I tried using frozen wild blueberries, but they did not plump up in the sauce, so it is best to use fresh ones instead. Top ice cream, French crèpes, pancakes, or even a pound cake with a bit (okay, more than a bit) of whipped cream and this sauce.
Wild strawberries are more perfumed than their domesticated kin, and they have a more pronounced, somewhat floral strawberry flavor. Seymour Britchky (who is my all-time favorite restaurant reviewer) once described the large ones we get in the US as white strawberries, with the texture and flavor of cardboard. I certainly cannot argue with that, as the ones I buy here vary from large to huge, with white centers. Whether you make our Strawberry Pie or just mix a bit of the strawberry essence into cut strawberries for a breakfast treat, you will taste the difference. We had clients who used this when making jam with our local strawberries, too. First, taste your cooled jam or preserves, add a bit of the essence, stir and then taste again, and adjust.
There is a lot more to say about these French flavor essences . . . and we will!
Remember: Simply Gourmand is offering 20% off a selection of dessert ingredients, including the essences from Grasse, through the end of this month.