Hunting out the flavour of wood, from wine to gherkins

Italian barrel makers working with Croatian and French foresters seek out the best trees to shape into barrels to hold ageing, fermenting foods and drinks from wine and beer to vinegar and gherkins. Choosing the right tree that will give up its secrets and transform the tastes, flavours and value of the liquids is no easy task and needs a good eye and a sensitivity for alchemy. This is secret of wood and its unique flavour-offering properties and these have been revealed in a newly published book, “The Flavor of Wood: In search of the wild taste of trees from smoke and sap to root and bark’, by Artur Cisar-Erlach.

In a swoop across the intricate, delicate world of wood and its contribution to food and drink food communications expert, woodland ecologist and cabinet maker Artur has teased out his fascination with the raw material as through scouring the world for the elusive taste of wood. His journey, questions and crazy cooking experiments (pressure cooked and freeze-dried willow wood) and search for like-minded creative people have been distilled in this entertaining read. Its pages are full of informative and quirky thoughts and ideas and will make you look at many of the ingredients in your kitchen cupboards in new ways.

‘The Flavor of Wood’ is a fascinating account of a food lover and experimental chef’s adventures as he seeks to understand the secret ways wood affects what we eat and how we eat. Now regarded as an ingredient, wood transforms freshly pressed grapes into exquisite wines, cognacs and balsamic vinegars in Europe while in east Asia wooden barrels get intimate with soy sauce – a chemical romance.

Barrels used to age soy sauce, with lids weighed down by rocks to create pressure

There are thousands of different tree species around the world, many of which offer the flavour and taste hunter new opportunities of culinary diversification and tastes. My own personal interest in wood came through visits to Italian wineries stacked with barrels hand crafted from French and Slavonian oak trees and on study trips made with my University of Gastronomic Sciences ( in Pollenzo, Piedmont in northern Italy) classmates to Emilia-Romagna where we visited hot attics full of batteries of barrels patiently waiting as artisanal balsamic vinegar was being created. Another trip to Japan saw us step back in time into silent, dark breweries where artisanal sake and soy sauce makers talk fondly of the importance of aging their produce in huge wooden vats.

He interest was piqued as a boy growing up surrounded by the forests of both Austria and Canada and then as a student in northern Italy where he first discovered truffles and proper balsamic vinegar, often aged for decades family farmhouse attics.

And it’s about now, that I must declare an interest … for in common with me, Artur is an alumni of UNISG. We both studied for a Masters in Food Culture and Communication with Artur graduating in 2014 and me in 2019. And we both have Austrian heritage, with both his parents born in the country and my mother in Vienna. We met in the back room of a cafe in the town of Bra, birthplace of the Slow Food movement, where Artur presented his book to a gathering of students and professors intrigued about his search for the flavours and products given up by maple trees in Canada, truffles in Piedmont and long-aged balsamic vinegar

The Flavour of Wood is both a personal, gastronomic journey trying to understand what wood actually is and does to food and drink, and a travelogue where he tells of adventures meeting people whose passion for wood allows us as consumers to benefit from amazing and unique tastes. Distilling years of research into a pithy phase, that ‘wood is the tree as a whole which includes roots, trunk, leaves, the environment it grows in, the ecosystems it sustains, and its relation to the people working and living with it’, Artur’s book is a well researched, nicely paced read that will see you seeking out wood-affected flavours in the most unexpected places.

The book careers across Europe and further afield taking in gherkins from eastern Germany to Neapolitan pizzas whose flavours are raised to new levels by using beech wood chips to heat the ovens and give it that famed crispy/ doughy crust such depth of taste.

Artur’s writing style is part detective, chef and food hunter and his words seeded with personal anecdotes about train, car and canoe journeys;portraits of the woodsman, maple syrup tappers, balsamic vinegar producers in Modena and so many more artisans and craftsman that make their lives around the chemistry, biology and physics of trees and wood. It’s a fun read, full of interesting facts and described in awe.

The Flavor of Wood’ by Artur Cisar-Erlach is available in hardback and paperback editions published by Abrams Press available to order at all good bookshops or online from Amazon.

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.