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Flavours come from a variety of sensations, and melding flavours satisfactorily is the crux of the skills of the good chef versus the merely functional cook. Flavour is not the same thing as taste - flavours are mainly a matter of smell, combined with the five categories of taste, the trigeminal qualities of heat (chilli) and coolness (menthol) plus other sensory and socio-cultural inputs like sight and ambience or setting. For example, mouthfeel is a sensory part of flavour that is often overlooked, but think of crunchy seeds in a salad, or the feel of pasta, oysters or a jelly - texture is key to the flavour and experience of food or drink; or think negatively of "rubber" chicken often served at functions.

Flavour Families

Flavours are generally compared and contrasted to other ingredients - "it tastes of blackcurrants" or my particular favourite "burnt rubber". There are no hard and fast rules, with ingredients seemingly in flavour families contrasting in taste, e.g. cocoa is bitter but we treat as sweet because of its cultural connotations. Here, flavor is an art form not a science, a romance not a dataset.

In contrast, there is a growing scientific knowledge on flavors[1], but, in being impartial and scientific about it, it is either way too complex or has no soul - which is perhaps why most flavours taste fake or artificial rather than real - and food without soulful flavors is merely nourishment. The worst of foods are those that emphasise particular tastes - saltiness, sweetness or umami - to the exclusion of subtle complexity, seeming to unskilfully blast the eater with one taste sensation to the exclusion of all others - the combination of colour and taste bombs of barbecue beef-flavoured potato chips (salt and umami, slight brown colour), e.g. McCoys flame grilled steak crisps, or the fluorescent orange of a cheese puffed maize snack, e.g. Wotsits.

Table of Flavours[2][3][4]

Family Class Ingredients
Vegetal Dried grass Cut hay, straw, summer afternoons, wicker (willow)
Fresh grass Cut grass (new mown grass), fern, green wood, stem, water cress
Herbaceous Basil, chervil, cilantro (coriander herb), dill herb, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
Vegetables Artichoke, celery, cooked vegetables, cucumber, fennel, green beans, raw vegetables, spinach, vegetable soup, zucchini (courgette)
Floral Fresh flowers Chrysanthemum, geranium, honeysuckle, hyacinth, jasmine, lavender, lilac, lily, orange blossom, osmanthus, wild flowers
Heady flowers Magnolia, orchid, peony, rose petals, violet
Fruity Fresh fruit Apple, apricot, cherry, grape, Muscat grape, fig, peach, pear, plum, wine
Berries Blackberries, blackcurrant, blueberries (bilberries), red berries, redcurrant, strawberry, wild berries
Citrus Bergamot, citrus rind, clementine, grapefruit, lemon, mandarin, orange, vinegar
Dried and candied fruit Almonds, candied ginger, cherry pit, chestnut, date, dried fig, dried tomato, hazelnut, jam, raisins, stewed fruit, walnut
Exotic fruit Banana, coconut, lychee, mango, pineapple, papaya
Woody Undergrowth Autumn, damp earth, humus, moss, mushrooms, truffles, wet leaves
Woody Camphor, dead leaves, dry wood, eucalyptus, exotic wood, fir, oak, pine leaves, sandalwood, tree sap, wood chips
Earthy Beetroot, caves, cellar, damp, earth, humidity, mold (mould), peat, potato, wet rock
Smoky Ash, bacon, barbecue, burnt, burnt rubber, fires, grilled, popcorn, roast, smoke, tar, toast, toasted almonds or nuts, tobacco, wood fire
Animal Beaten leather, blood, bouillon (stock), cooked meat, dung, fur, gamey, horse, leather, musk, raw meat, stable, sweat, umami, wet wool
Mineral - salty Anchovy, bacon, chalk, chemical, fizzy, flint, metal, olive, powder, prosciutto, rocky, salt, soapy, stone
Marine Caviar, clams, white and oily fish, iodide, kelp, oysters, seafood, seawater, seaweed, shellfish
Sweet and Rich Almond paste, brioche, caramelized sugar, chocolate, cocoa, cocoa butter, honey, parsnip, muscovado sugar, sweet bread, sugar, treacle, vanilla
Spicy Anise, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, curry powder, ginger, licorice, nutmeg, pepper
Milky Almond milk, fresh butter, melted butter, condensed milk, cream, milk


  1. Wikipedia (undated) Flavor, Wikipedia, accessed 3 June 2016 [1]
  2. Arina (2010) Tea tasting language - aroma, Green Leaves Red Berries, 20 August 2010, accessed 3 June 2016 [2]
  3. En (2013) 14 different aroma families in wine, My Vitibox, 8 October 2013, accessed 3 June 2016 [3]
  4. McGee, H. (2004) McGee on Food & Cooking, pp. 270-273 & 387-389, Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 9780340831496.

Further Reading

  • Davidson, A. (1999) The Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192115790.
  • Gascoyne, K. Marchand, F., Desharnais, J., Américi, H. (2014) Tea: History Terroirs Varieties, pp.271, Ontario, Canada, Firefly Books. ISBN 9781770853195.
  • McGee, H. (2004) McGee on Food & Cooking, pp.884, London, Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 9780340831496.