Errare sapidum est
Culinary mistakes aren’t always a disaster and may accidentally result in the creation of new recipes that prove to be a huge success.
Contrary to what we might think, clumsiness in the kitchen does not always end in disaster. ©Shutterstock/Everett Collection
Just like when a scientist makes an unexpected breakthrough, new recipes are sometimes invented by pure chance or discovered by accident. This is a perfect example of serendipity. Here are a few revelations about the origin of some culinary ‘finds’ that went on to become well-known specialities. Some of these stories are true; others are rumours that have served to nurture the legend of these products. Either way, the mistake always turned out to be... delicious!
“The first noted use of ‘serendipity’ in the English language was by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to his friend […], Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made about a (lost) painting […] by reference to an oriental fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip.”
Blonde chocolate is probably one of the most recent examples of genuine serendipity. This newcomer alongside traditional chocolate (dark, milk or white chocolate) was launched in 2012.
The story of its creation dates back eight years earlier, when Frédéric Bau, a chocolatier, accidentally left white chocolate simmering for several hours in a bain-marie. When he realised what he had done, he noticed that the colour had turned blonde. The chocolate tasted of “toasted Breton shortbread”, “caramelised milk” and “unrefined sugar”.2 It then took several years of research and development for engineers from the Valrhona chocolate company to be able to produce blonde chocolate in large quantities.
Dulce de leche
The story of the origin of dulce de leche varies from one country to another. In France, legend has it that, during a battle, one of Napoleon’s chefs left a bowl of sweetened milk over the heat and it turned into a smooth, caramelised paste. However, in Latin America, and particularly in Argentina where dulce de leche is very popular, it is said to have been created one evening in 1829, when one of General Rosas’ mixed-race servant girls left some sweetened milk over the heat when the general was about to sign a peace treaty. The real origin of dulce de leche is in fact unknown and probably dates back to the dawn of time, or thereabouts. However, there are two facts to bear in mind here: Firstly, the legends cited present the invention of dulce de leche as something deliciously sweet against a backdrop of war (gastronomy as a means of toning down bellicose morals); secondly, registers from 1620 show that dulce de leche was regularly imported into Argentina from Chile at that time.
Tarte Tatin is probably one of the most well-known examples of serendipity. However, the origin of this upside-down tart is the subject of much debate. According to legend, this dessert was named after the Tatin sisters, who ran a hotel-restaurant in Lamotte-Beuvron, in Sologne (France). The dessert was apparently the result of sheer clumsiness, when one of the two sisters accidentally tipped the dish over in the oven.
Historians have delved into the matter to try to clarify the origin of this mythical tart.4 Could the recipe have been invented by one of the Count of Chatauvillard’s chefs and passed on to Fanny Tatin? Was it pure clumsiness on the part of one of the sisters? Or regional cuisine? As real facts merge with fiction, confusion continues to reign.
During the summer of 1946, Pietro Ferrero, a pastry chef from Piedmont, decided to create a ganache for cakes. Cocoa beans were rare in Italy in the aftermath of the Second World War, so he replaced part of the cocoa with ground hazelnuts. The result was a sort of chocolate loaf to be sliced and served on bread. It was named Giandujot after a famous carnival character at the time.5
Then, in 1951, a Giandujot loaf melted in the sun and became soft. This was a stroke of luck for Pietro’s son Michele Ferrero, who adapted this spread and sold it in glass jars under the name Supercrema. It became an instant success.6 In 1964, the product was renamed Nutella, easier to pronounce in all languages.
Carambar toffees were created in 1954 in the Delespaul-Havez chocolate factory in Marcq-en-Baroeul on the outskirts of Lille. The story goes that one of the machines malfunctioned blending cocoa and caramel and producing much longer bars than usual. In reality, while mixing cocoa into a caramel recipe seems to have been a mistake, the length of the sweet was actually a deliberate ploy on the part of the company looking for a way to stand out.7 These bar-shaped toffees were given the brand name Caram’bar. In 1972, they became Super Caram’bar before finally dropping the apostrophe in 1984 to be known simply as Carambar.
Kellogg’s CORN FLAKES
It was quite by accident that, in 1898, Will Keith Kellogg and his brother Dr John Harvey Kellogg, the manager of a healthcare facility in Michigan, made wheat flakes while attempting to make granola. They were actually trying to find new cereal-based products to suppress the sexual desires of their patients so, one day, they left a bowl of wheat porridge to sit on the side. When they came back, the wheat had fermented and hardened. Not wanting to waste anything, they rolled the paste out, but the wheat grains exploded and turned into flakes, which they then cooked.8 They then applied the same process to grains of corn, thereby inventing corn flakes.
Legend has it that, on 24 August 1853, George Crum, the chef at Moon’s Lake House Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York State, accidentally discovered crisps. A customer (the railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) thought the hotel’s fried potatoes were too thick and kept sending them back to the kitchen. Somewhat annoyed, the chef decided to cut the potatoes so thinly that it was no longer possible to stab them with a fork. To Crum’s surprise, the pernickety diner was very impressed! These potatoes were such a hit with customers that ‘Saratoga Chips’ became a permanent fixture on the menu.
Nonetheless, this story doesn’t quite ring true. The quarrelsome customer could not have been Cornelius Vanderbilt, as he was travelling in Europe at that time.9 Moreover, the New York Herald had written years earlier, in 1849, about a certain Eliza, a chef at the Lake House, who was known far and wide for her skill at frying potatoes. Finally, some cookery books from that time, such as The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchiner published in 1822, contain recipes for thinly sliced or flaked fried potatoes.10 Once again, fiction has merged with real facts and the true origin of crisps will probably never be known.
Real inventions of fantasies?
After examining these seven recipes in detail, it is interesting to note that, even though the discoveries are relatively recent, the true origin of many of them remains uncertain. Danièle Bourcier and Pek van Andel suggest that dishes claiming to be the result of pure serendipity are often the pretext for mythical stories. They reflect times gone by when culinary expertise was passed down by word of mouth. At the end of the day, the accuracy of the circumstances that led to the invention is of less importance than the lesson to be learned: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”11
Sometimes, legends are nurtured deliberately: When food companies relate the history of a product, they often emphasise the ‘legend’ surrounding its creation. These stories paint a rosy picture of the company and of the clever creator who managed to capitalise on an unpromising situation, thereby bestowing a positive image on a product invented by pure chance.12
There are several categories to describe different types of serendipity. However, there is always a distinction between pseudo-serendipity (discovering by chance something you were seeking) and true serendipity (discovering by chance something you were not seeking). Authors often also take into account the difference between a discovery made by a combination of circumstances (chance) or by sheer accident. Whatever the case, a practical approach focusing on the cause (or the circumstances) provides a better understanding of the phenomenon.13 Serendipity can happen by accident, by concurring circumstances, by mistake, by pure chance, by inadvertence, by clumsiness or by professional negligence.
In our examples, blonde chocolate, dulce de leche and Nutella were discovered because of forgetfulness (inadvertence) while the product was being cooked or stored. This is serendipity by necessity or by restriction. Kellogg’s CORN FLAKES are also the result of inadvertence, but they are an example of another sort of discovery, as the Kellogg brothers were actively looking for a new product to replace bread. Tarte Tatin and Carambars, however, are the result of clumsiness or a mistake (while handling the product or by adding cocoa to a caramel recipe).
A final flourish of recipes...
Let’s end this review of culinary serendipity with a short compendium of fortunate accidents and lucky finds:
Bêtises de Cambrai – According to official legend, these mint sweets with digestive properties, originated in the 19th century as the result of a mistake by Émile Afchain, an apprentice confectioner (although two confectioners, Despinoy and Afchain, both claim paternity). Émile is said to have measured out the sugar and mint incorrectly and then inadvertently injected air into the paste.14 However, this story is perhaps what we now call a marketing concept, as historians have pointed out that boiled sweets have been made in Cambrai since the 13th century….15
– The specific origin of Pineau des Charentes is rather uncertain, but it is said that, in 1589, a winegrower accidentally poured grape must into a barrel of cognac.16
– Fortified Madeira wine was discovered by chance in the 16th century. During long sea voyages, Madeira wine was fortified with grape spirits bringing its alcohol content up to 20%. This prevented the wine from spoiling. The pitching of the ship and the warm climate around the equator heated the wine and accelerated the ageing process, giving it remarkable flavour. Science only managed to imitate this process many years later, in 1794.17
– Even though Carolingian sources mention Roquefort as early as 1070, its real origin remains unknown. According to legend, a shepherd set out in pursuit of a beautiful girl he had fallen in love with. He left his snack of bread and ewe’s milk cheese in a Combalou cave (in the Aveyron region in France). When he returned some time later, he found the cheese covered in mould (Penicillium roqueforti) but even more delicious. Roquefort was born!18
Before we close, let’s not forget that the ingredients in many of our recipes were also discovered through serendipity. Agar, for example, is said to be the result of a fortunate accident during the Edo period in Japan. In 1658, Minora Tarazaemon, an innkeeper, decided to boil leftover seaweed that he had preserved in the snow. The result was a very firm jelly-like substance.19 Several sweeteners such as saccharin, sodium cyclamate or aspartame were also found quite by chance.20
As we have just seen, culinary history reveals a wide variety of recipes discovered by chance. Remember that the next time you think you have messed up your sauce or pastry cream! Cultivating serendipity in everyday life requires a certain mindset. It is important to remain open to the different opportunities life unexpectedly throws our way.