Scene/Eating: Paris—Tonka Beans?
Notes from a Diner in Paris
By Cynthia Nims
I had to ask the server to repeat himself a couple of times, but indeed, I’d heard him right the first time: “fèves de tonka.” Tonka beans. I’d ordered a chocolate soup for dessert at the wonderful, casual Albion restaurant in Paris and fine shavings of the new-to-me bean finished off the soup along with a sprinkling of piment d’espelette. Exquisitely delicious. One of many delightful things about the world of food is just how much diversity that world supports. I’ve been cooking/reading/writing about food for a few decades now, and it’s still such a thrill to learn about new ingredients, particularly when it’s an unexpected discovery. My interest in tonka beans was further piqued a few days later when perusing the menu at one of Paris’ hip watering holes, the Prescription Cocktail Club. It’s got the whole mod cocktail vibe going on, a bit speakeasy-esque, long silvery spoons stirring upscale spirits in those cut-glass mixing glasses. I opted for the Out Cider (and didn’t catch the word-play until I said it out loud when ordering): Calvados infused with tonka beans, with addition of honey, lemon and a small splash of Champagne. And the lightest shaving of tonka bean across the top. Sounded like it could go all wrong, a number of bold flavors, but it was perfectly crafted, balanced, the elements of apple and lemon and spices working beautifully together. The aromatic and complex tonka probably actually helped meld the whole.
I soon forgave myself for not knowing about this distinctive spice, the dried seed of a tree native to Central America and parts of South America. It contains relatively high levels of the chemical coumarin which apparently, in quite large doses, can have blood-thinning effects. So while perfectly legal in France, in the United States the Food and Drug Administration has deemed the spice illegal. This article from The Atlantic a couple years ago explains more, in interesting detail, including Grant Achatz getting busted for using the spice, unaware that it was contraband.
The aroma and flavor of this unassuming wrinkled spice is pretty magical, intoxicating, unlike anything else though seemingly an amalgamation of many enticing things: vanilla, nutmeg, almond, pepper, cocoa. It’s definitely an ingredient worth sampling (in appropriately small doses, certainly) when the opportunity presents itself.
Cynthia Nims, IACP Past-President, is a cookbook author and culinary consultant. Cynthia's latest book is Salty Snacks, from Ten Speed Press. She blogs at Monappetit.com, where you can read more about her recent sojourn in Paris. Don't miss the close-up of the award-winning baguette.