Monday, 30 November 2009

Tsunami of umami/breast is best

Visitors book

Phoebe there anything more beautiful than a mother feeding her baby?

Phoebe's milk, Lorna's milk

Breast milk boobsicles

Stuffing mackerel


Yuzu marinated sea bass

Gold and silver leaf in the sake

Eleanor Seabird and Gaz Twist played


That liquorice foam looks a bit dodgy doesn't it?

Do we? Don't we? Oh what the hell...

What is umami? It's the fifth taste after salt, bitter, sweet and sour, discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who was trying to define the taste of 'dashi', a typically Japanese broth. Chemically, umami is a L-glutamate, which is why MSG (Monosodiumglutamate) makes food so moreish. Umami is a Japanese word (onomatopoeic in that it sounds like 'yummy' )and the nearest translation is probably 'savouriness'.
I realised earlier this year that almost all the food I like is umami: Marmite (naturellement), cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, seaweed, mushrooms, umeboshi plums, soy sauce, seafood, pickles, in fact anything fermented... meat is probably the only umami ingredient I don't like.
Umami also satiates and produces serotonin; in other words it makes us feel full and happy when we eat. In my research I found it particularly interesting that human breast milk is very high in umami, much higher than cow's milk or formula. I'm not a scientist but this leads me to believe that umami is somehow necessary for human development. Clearly breast milk had to go on the menu, but who would donate?
I registered for mumsnet and put up an ad. It was taken down within seconds. I asked around for months. One lady agreed but her boyfriend objected. Finally a saviour: Petra Chocstar's cousins, Lorna and Phoebe, had recently given birth and even better, were willing to donate!
It's a controversial ingredient. Most people's reactions both in real life and on Twitter, ranged from 'ew' to 'no to breast milk. It feels quite wrong to me... cannibalistic even..' to the extreme 'I'm going to open an underground restaurant and serve a cum sandwich.See how you like that' and even further 'I don't care if it cures cancer and promotes world peace! It's effing BREAST MILK!! That's disgusting!'. (Thank you Chris Pople).
While it's perfectly acceptable to exploit the milk meant for calves, in the process separating mother and child, apparently it sparks outrage when donated by an animal that can give consent, the human female. The aversion might be centred around that it reminds us that we are, in fact, animals. When I was breastfeeding, especially having to 'express' milk from a pumping machine, I did feel like a cow. It brought home to me that society's sexualisation of breasts meant that we'd forgotten the basic function of feed our young.
Vegans are very pro-breast milk: PETA, the animal rights activists suggested that Ben & Jerry's icecream use human milk rather than cow. Not so weird actually, for there is an icecream company that does precisely that. Breast milk recipes can be found at this link, the aptly named site Land of Milk and Honey.
On Twitter I discovered up and coming culinary star Signe Skaimsgard Johansen (@scandilicious). She too is an umami buff and agreed to help me devise and cook a menu for a special Underground Umami night. Signe was a stagière at The Fat Duck lab, has trained in Japan and at Leith's cookery school. An academic, specialising in fermented foods such as bread and cheese, Signe has contributed recipes to The Bumper book of Marmite, The Ultimate Student cookbook (soon to be reviewed) and will be teaching at the newly set up School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire.
Wakana of Akashi Tai came to help out with front of house plus provide free sake tastings for my guests. In the kitchen Wakana suggested a private tasting with some aged sake (2002) which matched impressively with the cheese board. Sake is not in itself umami but, paired with certain flavours you achieve 'umami convergence' a food boffin's term for bloody delicious.
Signe and I decided to add gold and silver flakes (courtesy of @spoon hq) from Laura Santini's Easy Tasty Magic clever food range to add sparkle to the sake. We also used her Taste No5 Umami paste (and funnily enough I was wearing Chanel No5) to up the umami quotient in the mackerel stuffing.

The menu:

Complimentary Kir royale

A shot of dashi, a shot of Akashi Tai sake flecked with gold and silver, a taster of yuzu, white miso, umeboshi plum, kaffir lime and ponzu marinated sea bass with pickled ginger

Parmesan custard with wild mushrooms on sourdough toast

Roasted mackerel stuffed with sun-blushed tomatoes, Laura Santini's Taste No5 umami paste, parsley and thyme served with a confit of fennel, celeriac, lemon and capers

Cheese plate from Neal's Yard: Colston Basset stilton, Stawley goat cheese and Gorwydd caerphilly, orange blossom honey, chilli jam from Italy, almonds and oat cakes.

Chocolate fizz pop icecream served in cinnamon and cardamom cones with Marmite butter caramel and liquorice air

Mother's milk


Marmarati goodie bags

One of the great things about collaborating with others is you pick up tips. As we prepped and cooked through the day on Saturday, Signe shared both old wives' tales from her Scandinavian background and professional knowledge. After removing the mackerel bones with tweezers, she suggested using cheap vinegar to remove the fish smell from our hands and chopping surfaces.
I prefer to use wooden chopping boards rather than nylon. Wood is a natural disinfectant and heals itself from cuts. Sig told me a trick: especially on wood used for meat, sprinkle a thick layer of salt on the boards, leave overnight and discard the salt in the morning. This thoroughly disinfects the wood and prevents it from buckling from moisture.

Fizz Wiz in the icecream
The standout dish for me was the ceviche style yuzu-marinated seabass, a classic Japanese dish to which I added both fresh Kaffir lime and ordinary lime. This is definitely going on the menu for future dates. I adore ceviche, ate it all the time at street stalls in Peru (where it was paired with sweet potato) and this Japanese take on it hit all the right taste receptors.
As for the breast milk, I decided to keep it simple as I only had enough for a mouthful for each of my guests. I froze it in little breast shaped chocolate moulds with a goji berry representing a nipple. The guests were remarkably open-minded, all but two ate theirs. How did it taste? Subtly sweet...


  1. Just wanted to say, I'm really impressed with the breast milk effort. I've been wanting to write something for ages on our aversion to drinking from our own species- philosophically I think it's very interesting. I've just blogged a piece on the bandaid to industrial agriculture that is milk pasteurisation. And now you've inspired me to start writing even more on this milk thing. Anyway, just wanted to introduce myself and say, next I'm in London (I'm living in Berlin at the moment) I'll be reserving a seat at your inventive place.

  2. I think you're right about the human reaction to breast milk - if you think about it logically, surely drinking milk from a cow is more unnatural than drinking that from a human. It's all about what society has instilled in us as 'the norm', which is why we are happy (in this country) to drink cows milk, or eat their meat, but find it disgusting to drink the milk of other animals, such as, say dogs, and eat their meat too...

  3. What a feast. And so funny to see that pic of Phoebe breast feeding! I'm glad it was a success and isn't it fascinating how reactionary some people are? Big up to the boobies!

  4. Thanks for the mention! For what it's worth, I probably would eat dog meat, and have eaten insects, fruit bat, snake blood and kudu (a kind of African antelope). Didn't like all of it, but none of it made me squeamish. I just draw the line at consuming someone else's bodily fluids.

  5. But it's considered perfectly acceptable for a woman to consume a man's body fluids...

  6. Is human breast milk set to become the next 'luxury ' food item? I can see it now, mass production, exploitation for profit.

  7. I totally agree with what you said about breast milk - in fact, I'm jealous that I didn't get to try it! The rest of the meal sounds delicious too.

  8. Ann: visions of The Handmaid's tale?
    Of course I'm not suggesting exploiting human females for milk, although there exist of course Adult Nursing Relationships (ANR's) in which an adult nurses from a lactating woman. The benefits are a closer relationship they say and both sides gain satisfaction. Sometimes these ANR's are not sexual merely about comfort.

  9. Brilliant menu! I'm so sorry to have missed it - not due to an aversion to breast milk I hasten to say. I see absolutely no objection to that. Interesting that it was sweet which may account for the fact that most of us have a sweet tooth. I haven't, maybe because I was bottle fed from day 1. It would be fascinating to do some research into the taste preferences of babies that were breast fed for different periods and ones that weren't at all. Sounds like a project for Sig!

  10. I was bottle fed as well.
    Funnily enough I remember my own breast milk as being quite savoury...I wonder if the fact that I don't eat meat contributed to that or the insult 'vinegar tits' would be apt in this case.


  12. So glad it went down well. As discussed previously I cannot understand why people are so squeamish about this. It seems we have become so far removed from what we are that we cannot bear to be reminded. And yet we drink other creatures milk with no problem whatsoever. Like the good soup, and many others, I too believe that we take particularly the 'simple' foods so for granted that we just don't want to think about where they come from and what is done to them to make them 'palatable' to us. In the case of milk, pasteurisation is done so that we don't have to husband the animals as carefully as we would if the milk were left raw. What does that say about us? We don't really care as long as we get what we want. Cheap. All food should be considered nourishment, not just fodder.

    green drawers

  13. Wow, it all looks delicious. I find it weird that people took offence at breast milk being on the menu, I mean it's our natural food and without it the human race wouldn't be here.

    Even so I'm a bit squeamish, but that's just a personal thing, not a statement of position! Maybe it's because I've never had human milk. A friend of mine really wants to make cheese out of it.

  14. It's hard to make cheese out of it, unless you add rennet...

  15. What a feast indeed. A very thought provoking and informative post. Food for thought.

  16. The seabass was indeed fantastic! This menu looks very exciting...not sure about the breast milk...I'm sure I'd have had a little taste out of curiosity...I hope! Wooden board tip is interesting too - and what you say about it being a natural disinfectant - why don't food hygiene people take that into account or tell you that when they are teaching?! xxx

  17. e brava brava brava! love the menu, *all* the items on it.

  18. Chris you already drink someoneelse body fluids when you were a baby. There is so many things society make us believe an do, but we havethe desicion. Now I know we should not be drinking cow milk, perhabs the majority of animals don't drink milk when they become mature, what make me think we should just drink milk to certain age. There is a reason why people make a 2% fat milk and just kids should be drinking whole milk. If you drink whole milk every day of your life you may become over fat. It may not be healthy for you. So it make sense to me that we should be drinking from our own species, not others. But I don't we are suppose to drink milk our whole life. There is calcium in other food.


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