I searched for Australia’s favourite yeast extract on the Cadbury website and this was the response:
You are searching for: Vegemite
There are no pages that contain the search term “Vegemite”
I was surprised. It was only four months since Cadbury had launched its milk chocolate block filled with Vegemite-flavoured caramel, and there was no mention of it. (However, there is still plenty of evidence on the Cadbury Facebook page to confirm the product did exist.)
During the period when the Vegemite chocolate block was still around, I was never able to find it in my local supermarket. I admit that I didn’t venture further afield but, knowing the popularity of salty-plus-sweet, I imagined this new confectionary line would be highly successful.
After all, the salted caramel flavour is everywhere. Back in December 2008, writer Kim Severson labelled it “the flavour of the year” and traced its history in a New York Times article, “How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt”.
She quotes trend analyst Kara Nielsen, who links the flavour to traditional salted butter caramels from Brittany in France. Those caramels inspired Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé’s salted caramel macarons in the late 1990s. Then a few top-level American chefs noticed, and finally the flavour became mainstream.
Another manifestation of the sweet-salty fad is the way bacon has insinuated itself into a variety of sweet situations: candied bacon, bacon in brownies, even bacon jam.
My own first encounter with a salty/sweet combination took place long ago. My father came up with a sandwich—considered eccentric by everyone except me—involving peanut butter, jam and cheese. He also drank a salted sweet cordial drink after mowing the lawn in the debilitating Far North Queensland humidity.
At boarding school (which probably permanently distorted my relationship with food), I learned to intensify the sweetness of apple slices by sprinkling salt onto them.
But nothing prepared me for my American experience of sweet-and-salty combinations. At the supermarket, there were Goober Grape’s lurid stripes of bright purple jelly and peanut butter. There was also the fluffernutter sandwich which layers a sickly, sticky product called Marshmallow Creme over peanut butter.
There was also maple syrup poured over sausages and bacon at brunch. If you consider a Big Mac a quintessential American food product, the combination is there, too: the meat patty (salty) cuddled by a soft, sweet white bun. Apparently dipping French fries into a thickshake is also delicious. Just this week, the Sydney Morning Herald printed an article about something that defies “all rules of culinary decency”:
a hot dog drowned in cotton candy-infused mustard and cotton candy [fairy floss].
Much more to my taste were the Turtles at Abbott’s frozen custard stand at Lake Canandaigua:
Vanilla or chocolate frozen custard layered with chocolate fudge and Spanish [i.e., salty red-skinned] peanuts, and hand-dipped in dark chocolate.
When I first came across these, the sweet/salty combination seemed incredibly American, embodying the bigness of the US: big servings, big contrasts, big flavours.
But Ashton Yoon, in a February 2015 post to the blog site Science and Food, explains why the combination of salty and sweet is so enticing. And as she explains it, it has nothing to do with American cultural imperialism.
No matter where we were born—or what kind of flavours we grew up with—our tongues have receptors for a range of basic tastes:
… it turns out that these five tastes can influence each other […] In the case of sweet and salty foods, let’s use an example of chocolate-covered pretzels. Pretzels are characterised by a slightly bitter taste that comes from the lye or baking soda solution the dough is soaked in before baking. […] When dusted with a bit of salt and covered in a layer of chocolate—presto! The pretzel transforms into a delightfully salty-yet-sweet treat without a hint of bitterness. Why does this happen? Sodium has been shown to orally suppress bitterness […] Instead of directly enhancing sweetness, salt suppresses bitterness and therefore allows the more “favourable flavours”, such as sweet, to shine through.
(By the way, Cadbury currently has a “limited edition” chocolate bar with pretzels embedded in it.)
Yoon reveals another surprising fact about the particularly compelling nature of the sweet-salty combination:
And even after you taste sweet and salty molecules on your tongue, your stomach continues to sample the molecules and send signals to your brain. This “post-oral signal” can also contribute to the favorable sweet-and-salty response by forming a reward circuit that increases our desire for similar tasting foods.
Of course, salty-sweet combinations feature in many different cuisines. The traditional British ploughman’s lunch puts somewhat salty cheese with sweetish pickles, and there is another British tradition combining apple pie and cheddar, either in the crust or as an accompaniment. In South-east Asian dishes, salty fish sauce or soy sauce complements the sweetness of fruit, sweet chilli sauce, or sweetened syrup (as in dipping sauces). Ketchup manis already has the salty and sweet mixed together.
But these examples are sophisticated flavour experiences, weaving together different taste sensations, counterpointing sweet and salty with chilli heat and/or sourness.
By contrast, the American sweet/salty combinations are often strident, exaggerated, seemingly for sensation-seeking palates already accustomed to high levels of sweetness and saltiness. They can be excessive and gross.
But that is probably part of the attraction—the fun of breaking the rules, or a delight in excess. Lorraine Elliott, in her blog Not Quite Nigella, reflects this in the name of her recipe for The Inappropriate Bacon and Maple Ice Cream.
And maybe that’s why high-profile chefs have embraced the sweet-salty challenge. It allows them to play with “junk” food concepts but raise them to new levels; diners love it because they can simultaneously experience guilty pleasures and sophisticated flavours.
Heston Blumenthal’s notorious Bacon and Egg Ice Cream infuses bacon in cream for 20 hours. Melbourne chef Philippa Sibley makes Bread-and-Butter Pudding with Pumpkin and Confit Bacon.
Dan Hong in Sydney included candied bacon in his outrageous dessert, Stoner’s Delight, along with potato chip praline, doughnut ice cream, raspberry sauce and peanut butter dulce de leche. In a 2013 article, he told Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael Harry:
The bacon adds a salty, smoky element that actually cuts the sweetness of all the other components of the dish. To be honest, I don’t think it’s strange at all. The saltiness of bacon really counteracts the richness of a lot of desserts and I think it works brilliantly.
And patissier Adriano Zumbo (the man behind Arnotts’ salted caramel TimTams) explained to Harry that he has made two different bacon macarons:
The first involved cooking the bacon and blitzing it into the filling with maple syrup. The second added raw smoked bacon into the filling for a far more savoury hit.
I haven’t tried bacon Zumbarons, but I did taste-test two other salty-sweet macarons: Zumbo’s Caramel au Beurre Salé, and Salted Caramel on Toast (pictured here). Both were sublime, with the Salted Caramel on Toast bringing in an interesting bitter dimension.
The Queen Victoria Building stall where I bought these also had a Salted Butter Popcorn version, but his 2012 book Zumbarons goes much further in combining sweet and salty. There is, for example, Salt and Vinegar, and even a Vegemite macaron!
And then I discovered this Aussie Cara-Mite ice cream … I bought some, of course, intrigued by the “secret hint of Aussie flavour”.
After all, you just don’t know how long these products will be around! (And while it’s not premium-quality, it does taste pretty good.)
• Kim Severson’s article about salted caramel is recommended reading, simply for its explanation of how food fads happen.
• Barb Stuckey’s wonderful book Taste: What You’re Missing explores “why good food tastes good”. Her website offers this exercise which demonstrates “the superheroism of salt”, that is, how it suppresses bitterness and boosts sweetness.
• Lorraine Elliott’s blog Not Quite Nigella has a great-sounding recipe for bacon jam.
• Via the SBS food website, here’s a simplified recipe for Heston Blumenthal’s Bacon and Egg Ice Cream.
• If you are prepared for many different steps, you can do this at home: Dan Hong’s Stoner’s Delight.
• Christina Tosi, of Momofuku Milk Bar (New York City and Toronto), created Compost Cookies with salty ingredients such as pretzels and potato chips, alongside sweet ones like chocolate and caramel chips, white and brown sugar, and glucose.
Michael Harry, 2013, “Why We love Bacon” Sydney Morning Herald, September 10, http://www.goodfood.com.au/good-food/cook/why-we-love-bacon-20130907-2tbdh.html
Kim Seversen, 2008, “How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt”, New York Times, December 30, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/31/dining/31cara.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Ashton Yoon, 2015, “Savoring the Science of Salty and Sweet”, Science and Food, February 3, https://scienceandfooducla.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/savoring-the-science-of-salty-and-sweet/
Adriano Zumbo, 2012, Zumbarons, Millers Point, NSW: Murdoch Books.