Friday, December 24, 2004

Australian food ingredients from Cherikoff Rare Spices

I often concentrate on the penetration of Cherikoff ingredients into restaurants to showcase how they are being used domestically and in our overseas' promotions. However, manufacturers like Moores Bakery, Dick Smith Foods and McCormicks, amongst many others who use my products in their offerings, are making it easy for everyone to try authentic Australian flavours.

I would like to give you a little insight into the science and product development behind one of my trading names; Cherikoff Rare Spices.

The first step in the ladder is the analysis of the herb, spice, fruit or extracts from them. Just to give you one obstacle I encountered some years ago. I had collected this amazing wild pepperleaf from the mountain ranges behind Canberra. It was draped in snow at the time so the name 'snow pepper' wasn't too inspired but I thought very appropriate. And the flavour was this incredible peppery heat with a taste/smell coming through quite late of over-ripe banana and a hint of tropical fruit. Mangosteen maybe. Or black sapote.

So I thought; here's a new commercial variety. It's going to be worth millions! Well it still might be but not in the food industry and I hope I don't encourage too many entrepreneurs with my next comments.

I collected a bag full of leaves and laid them out to dry in the back of my truck to be analysed when I got back to The Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Sydney where I was working at the time. As it turned out, the leaves contained a compound which could have prejudiced the whole fledgling native food industry - safrole.

Safrole is a naturally occurring substance and has been used as a flavoring agent in drugs, beverages and foods. Safrole is an important raw material for the chemical industry because of two derivatives: heliotropin, which is widely used as a fragrance and flavoring agent, and piperonyl butoxide (PBO), a vital ingredient of pyrethroid insecticides. Natural pyrethrum in particular would not be an economical insecticide without the addiction of PBO as a synergist and the future of the natural pyrethrum industry is linked to the continued availability of PBO. Safrole has many fragrance applications in household products such as floor waxes, polishes, soaps, detergents, and cleaning agents. Oil of sassafras, which contains safrole, was formerly used to flavor some soft drinks, such as root beer. However, as of 1960, this use was no longer permitted in the U.S.A It has been shown to be a cancer causing agent in animals even though it has had no testing in humans.

The cruncher is that safrole is also an ingredient used to manufacture Ecstasy, a psychoactive drug that affects the brain's use of the naturally-produced chemical serotonin, which regulates mood and aggression. Safrole can also be chemically converted to morphine and then heroin. Hence the problem.

Diary notes follow: Great product. Huge potential. Evaluate night club market (only kidding).

There is still some safrole in our diets from spices such as mace and nutmeg but our mountain pepper and pepperberries contain extremely tiny amounts. In fact, the extract from the leaves which is a highly concentrated, green-black goo contains only parts per trillion of safrole, making it totally safe to use in food. The spice we use today, comes from wild harvests and pepper plants growing in valleys and up hillsides have been screened for their safrole content and only those plants passing our tests were documented and are now routinely harvested.

The same sort of approach has been applied to lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle, Australian mint and peppermint, wattleseed and all the other foods now entering international markets as authentic Australian ingredients. Probably more testing than most conventional foods and hence safer than them as well.

So on to step two: I then took the ingredients and considered just how their actual flavours are best delivered. Many chefs find lemon myrtle a challenge and I can totally understand. It smells more than it tastes and being very volatile, the flavour can improve the kitchen but not the dish. The first step is to realise when to add lemon myrtle (as in after the cooking) but the next step was back in the food development lab.

The smell-taste of lemon myrtle is unbalanced. It lacks flavour on the palate (the tongue and the lips). We expect some acid taste from lemon, lime and lemongrass notes but they aren't there in lemon mytle. And so I developed Oz lemon which is a complete lemon myrtle mix and not only more intense in flavour because of the encapsulated lemon myrtle essential oils I add (that's another story but have a look here for more information if you're interested) but because of the aniseed myrtle, lemon aspen and lemon peel I combine with the best quality lemon myrtle available. Taste it for yourself and compare the colour of Oz lemon to any lemon myrtle on the market today. I am proud of only stocking the best.

I could go on to my discovery and development of wattleseed and many other stories but I'll leave that for another day and to what I have already written in the past. There's a lot covered in the Dining Downunder cookbook too adding to it's value as a reference book on the development of Australian cuisine and a must have for anyone reading this blog. Get your copy here.