When I first received a copy of Artur Cisar-Erlach‘s The Flavor of Wood in the mail I wasn’t really sure what to expect — I mean, I was familiar with the idea that some alcohols are aged in wooden barrels and that, the (in my mind) quintessentially Canadian delight (maple syrup) comes from trees, but I was unsure what could or would come next? Was there even enough subject matter to warrant an entire book? What I would come to discover that through this book I would feel inspired to look at this “ingredient” differently.
But, what did I know about the subject? Thinking back to my earliest memories about trees I remembered a poem my mother used to read to my sister and I called Trees by Joyce Kilmer. And, then there was that time on the school yard during recess when I was around 6 or 7 years old. Like most schools around Edmonton, Alberta our school yard was almost barren of natural elements, such as trees. There was a playground in the middle of a large sandbox, a couple of soccer fields, and a tarmac area where we bounced rubber balls or jumped rope. A few pine trees skirted the edge of the soccer fields and it was these few trees that marked the boundary which we were not to pass. No matter, on the day in question my friends and I had embarked on a mission to try some of the pine sap that we had seen dripping from a cut in the trunk of the tree. Thinking about this now, I can’t believe we did this but, hey (!) kids can be a little gross. A boy from my class said it would be like chewing gum, which didn’t sound too bad. I remember feeling the stick and pull as I pressed my index finger full of sap to my thumb and pulled away again. Thankfully, the most reasonable one in our group reminded us that in eating the sap we may actually make ourselves sick and, since there was no internet or google, we erred on the side of caution. At first, it seemed like I knew very little about trees, so I focused on how Cisar-Erlach became inspired to study this subject.
It was walking through the woods one day that Cisar-Erlach noticed that beavers only choose certain woods to construct their dams out of and it was then he realized that this must have something to do with the flavors of different trees. He jokingly points out: “They basically chew trees for a living — and, judging from some pictures, can even get quite fat off them.”(18) And, it was with this epiphany that Cisar-Erlach continues his gastronomic quest to discover and define what wood actually tastes like and what foods are influenced by wood.
The Flavor of Wood is an enthralling journey — part travelogue, part scientific quest — Cisar-Erlach ventures to different parts of the world — Africa, Canada, Europe, India (to name a few) to research the culinary ways in which wood is used (for example: in brewing, distilling, fermenting, smoking, etc.). His enthusiasm really shows: whether he’s hunting down artwork or devising ways in which the flavor of wood can influence craft beer making. As I began reading, I realized I knew more about how wood can flavor food than I thought! Take Neapolitan pizza for example, I know that the pizzas I enjoy at Piatto Pizzeria are different than any other pizza that I can buy in Atlantic Canada simple due to the fact that this pizzeria has a VPN-certification (meaning that the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana has deemed that the ingredients and techniques used are authentic to the way true Neapolitan pizza is made — this includes how the pizza is cooked. In a 900F wood-fired oven, which is where the flavor of wood comes in). Cisar-Erlach dedicates an entire chapter to his research of Neapolitan Pizza. Thinking along these lines, I began to think about Montreal-style bagels that are also baked in a wood-fired oven (they taste incredible — like no other bagel!).
Throughout The Flavor of Wood, Cisar-Erlach really shows how vast this topic stretches — one of my favourite chapters examines the use of wood ash in the preservation of milk. The people living in West Pokot (in the western part of Kenya) developed a way to preserve milk past the dry season through the addition of ash from a tree in that region. The milk/ash mixture is a blueish colour and looks almost like a kind of kefir in the picture. Completely fascinating! Speaking of drinking wood, did you know that tea is actually grown on a tree? I had no idea until I read about it in the book! Although his research takes him all over the globe, parts of his journey bring him to Canada — specifically Nova Scotia where he studies maple syrup production at one the province’s popular maple syrup farms — Sugar Moon Farm.
What I realized by the end of The Flavor of Wood is that Cisar-Erlach is the kind of person who will taste just about anything (for example: tree samples in order to get into the beaver mindset or gherkins pickled with cherry or walnut leaves in order to understand the leaf’s effect on the texture/flavour of the pickle) in his quest in trying to pin down precisely what the flavor of wood is. I admire his drive to create a hypothesis and then experiment to find the answer to that mysterious question: what the flavor of wood is. Finally, to share his findings with his friends Cisar-Erlach hosts a party where he serves food and drink related to his book. In all honesty, I would have loved a recipe or two included but maybe they’re being saved for a future book. The Flavor of Wood gave me a great opportunity to turn my focus away from home cooking for a bit. I really appreciated how passionately Cisar-Erlach presents his research and findings. The Flavor of Wood is a book I highly recommend.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Manda Books and Abrams Books for providing me with a free advanced of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions are my own.