By Katie Belmon
Can a mussel have buttery notes? How about an oyster with a hint of asparagus? University of Queensland sensory scientist and flavour chemist Heather Smyth says they can, and these descriptors are part of the world’s first seafood sensory lexicon.
“There are sensory lexicons for wine, coffee and for other premium products but there was no sensory lexicon, until this one, for seafood,” Heather Smyth says.
Plump, moist, with clean ocean notes and a hint of butter? That’s the Blue Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis).
Creamy, juicy with a hint of rocket and asparagus? A Pacific Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) no doubt.
The sensory lexicon has been developed to provide accurate and consistent terms to describe the appearance, texture, aroma, flavour and aftertaste of 12 prime seafood species from South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.
Backed by the FRDC, Heather Smyth gathered a panel of taste testers to develop the descriptors for 39 different seafood species, with Eyre Peninsula species represented in every category.
Native Oysters, Pacific Oysters, Spencer Gulf prawns, Southern Rocklobster, snapper, King George Whiting, kingfish, Southern Bluefin Tuna, calamari, mussels and abalone were on the menu.
Being a taste tester may sound simple but it takes a significant amount of training to be able to accurately communicate the type of flavours and their intensity, Heather Smyth says.
“When you taste them (two varieties of the same product) side by side, you start to say ‘OK, I know they’re different, now I need to develop my brain and I need to train myself to discern what it is that’s different and then come up with a word for it.’ It’s not something that happens naturally,” Heather Smyth says.
Heather Smyth’s taste testers – from backgrounds including Chinese, Indian and French – met to develop a shortlist of descriptors for each seafood product. They were presented with sensory reference standards, such as butter and asparagus, and asked whether they were relevant to the seafood tasted.
The next step was blind tasting in individual laboratory booths controlled for temperature and light. Testers tasted products from coded cups so they had no idea what the products were or where they were from, and then used computers to rate each variety.
“In the end, we came up with these lovely quantitative and qualitative data sets and from that I was able to extract descriptions,” Heather Smyth says.
The flavour wheel was officially launched in December 2012. Chefs, wholesalers, retailers and food critics attended an Eyre Peninsula seafood tasting master class as part of the launch activities.
Heather Smyth says it is important to clearly explain what characteristics make Eyre Peninsula seafood special because consumers understand that the environment in which seafood is farmed directly affects its quality and taste. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for food sourced from a prestigious region, believing it to be more nutritious and flavoursome, she says.
“We need tasting notes, we need to be able to understand what those characters are that are so desirable to our customers and we need to be able to describe that to potential new customers and anyone who visits our region.”
Port Lincoln seafood retailer Craig McCathie, owner of The Fresh Fish Place, says he will use the flavour wheel when training staff on how to describe product characteristics to customers.
He also intends to use it in marketing materials such as flyers and the company’s website, and in his new seafood cooking classes, which he hopes will draw visiting chefs from interstate.
The chefs will be provided with the tasting notes to offer their audience information beyond instructions on how to prepare and cook the seafood.
“The flavour wheel will enable us to describe to our customers the texture and flavour of our products in more detail. This is a good thing for seafood,” Craig McCathie says.
The Eyre Peninsula is courting gourmands from both Australia and abroad to capitalise on the demand for premium local food, bought direct from producers or enjoyed in a restaurant.The food development officer for the Whyalla and Eyre Peninsula Regional Development Board, Stacey Fallon, says consumers’ preference for locally produced food is evident from the popularity of farmers markets, where consumers can purchase product from the grower.
“We have certainly found that people would rather buy local or buy direct from the grower if they can,” she says.
“All the cooking shows on TV talk about the product and preparation of the product; it has just taken such a big step forward.”
She says there has been a strong focus on educating people about the quality of Eyre Peninsula seafood and sustainable fishing practices in the region. Over the next five years the goal is to cement the Eyre Peninsula as a leading gourmet tourism destination.
Enticing foodies involves local produce starring in the region’s restaurants and a range of hands-on experiences being offered, such as visiting an oyster farm and participating in cooking schools. “It’s about the water experience, the land experience, the restaurant experience; our local chefs proudly put the product on their menus,” Stacey Fallon says.
“The Eyre Peninsula really is looking to accelerate as a foodie destination in the next five years.” She says the flavour wheel developed by Heather Smyth was an important third-party endorsement of Eyre Peninsula seafood’s position as the best on offer.
During the taste-testing process, Port Lincoln mussels were compared with New Zealand green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus).
“The quality of our product from this region was found to be superior,” Stacey Fallon says. “We can say our product is great but now we have a third party which actually endorses that and can explain why.”
The seafood of the Eyre Peninsula: Retail and food service user guide, released in 2011, is another tool developed to educate industry and consumers about how to store, handle and prepare the region’s seafood. The booklet provides clear information about key seafood species in the area and has been distributed to chefs, wholesalers and retailers as a training tool for staff.
Stacey Fallon said the guide helps workers in the seafood industry understand the product and disseminate consistent and accurate information to consumers.
“There have been misunderstandings in reference to seafood from Eyre Peninsula. There are a few myths that we wanted to make sure we addressed as well.”
She says the guide could be used as a model to develop a similar information source for seafood across Australia.
FRDC Research Codes: 2010-228
Heather Smyth, 07 3276 6035