So what did we discover in thinking about the aesthetics of tomato sauce?
There is an aesthetic choice to be made when making a sauce. Are you going for freshness, preserving as much of the basic flavor of the raw ingredient as possible, or are you going for flavor development? The marinara sauce, because of the brief cooking time, preserves some of the bright, floral dimension of raw tomatoes, using just enough heat to get rid of the vegetal flavors in canned tomatoes. It adds only garlic and oil for depth and the pepper for length and intensity. It achieves a lot with very little. The marinara doesn’t build flavor layers but uses a few ingredients to create movement on the palate and oil to create a playground of textures. Most importantly, the marinara sauce displays the virtues of simplicity. It achieves a lot with very little.
The sugo di pomodoro aims for more layered flavor development boosting sweetness and the perception of thickness by using the soffritto and adding a layer of “buttered toast” by transforming the tomatoes through caramelization. Although the cooking time and additional ingredients introduce more flavor development, it gives a sense of freshness through the use of lots of basil added just before serving. Yet this sauce lacks the punch at the end that made the marinara sauce so interesting. The flavor intensity drops quickly.
Thus, these two sauces achieve intensity in different ways, one through vertical development; the other through a horizontal development (evolution on the palate) and by preserving freshness.
The third sauce, the Italian/American gravy, is a bit more complex than the others, concentrating the meaty umami flavor that interacts with acidity to give it depth and length.
The most interesting idea to come out of these experiments is that full appreciation of flavor demands that we focus on how it develops over time. We often think of flavor as an almost instantaneous perception that quickly dissipates as we prepare for the next mouthful. But both the marinara and Italian/American gravy have flavor dimensions that can be fully appreciated only if we slow down and pay attention to aftertastes—by eating mindfully.
This aspect of taste can be usefully compared to music. The enjoyment of music is in part about following tensions and releases. Music builds tension that increases anticipation and then releases that tension yielding feelings of satisfaction only to start the process over again as we get further into the piece. Taste begins with anticipation as the visual effects and aroma of the food heighten our interest. As we taste, the dominant flavors pop. With the marinara sauce and gravy (less so with the sugo) the pop of flavor notes is then followed by a less intense but satisfying mouthwatering sensation, a release if you will, followed by the sensation of your palate expanding, almost as if the geography of the mouth is swelling.
I think it is this feeling of expansion that really makes a dish sing. It may be the essence of good flavor.
We will have to see in future tastings if this holds true of other highly regarded dishes.
Additional Posts in the Tomato Sauce Project: