To be honest, although this fascinating evening was hosted by the Academy of Chocolate and chocolate was what we tasted, it was much more about how we tasted than what we tasted. Led by Professor Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford, we did taste chocolate but we also held our noses, rubbed sandpaper and velvet in our fingers and tuned in to the teeming traffic of Soho.
I did takes notes but since I only had my phone on which to do so, you must forgive me if what I gleaned is a little disjointed – but here we go.
You may think that you taste food with your tongue and your taste buds and, of course, you do. But they are a relatively small part of the tasting picture and, without your other senses they do pretty poor job. And just to show you how clever our brains really are, messages from all five of our senses actually go to different parts of the brain, which then mixes and matches them to create the ‘taste’ that we get in our mouths.
So, let’s start with the eyes.
Seeing it and therefore expecting it
I think we all know that if something looks really delicious and exciting we are pre-disposed to believe that it will taste delicious and our brains take a lot of convincing that it does not. (A lesson we learnt early in our catering career and which stood us in good stead!)
Similarly, we have pre-programmed expectations of what a food will taste like from what it looks like – and if those are not met, we are disappointed. The Heston Blumenthal smoked salmon ice cream is the perfect example. It was pink and when he served it without telling guests what it was they assumed it was strawberry and thought it tasted digusting. Other guests, told that they would-be served smoked salmon ice cream, thought it was delicious.
And if you think that was merely because they were not experts or had not really thought about what they were tasting – wrong. In another experiment a small group of wine experts were matched with a similar group of non expert wine consumers and were asked to taste and judge three glasses of wine: a white wine, a rosé and a white wine turned pink with colouring. The experts were far more likely to judge pink coloured white wine as rosé than the non experts who often got it right. Because the more that you know about what you are about to taste the more you read into the colour and the appearance and are therefore programmed to taste – even when you know, as in this case, that you may be being manipulated.
Another wine experiment also shows the powers of pre-programming. A similar group of experts and non experts were given identical red wines but half in bottles with corks and half in bottles with screw tops. Every time the bottles with corks were judged to be high quality than the screw tops.
And be warned. The longer and more detailed a menu description, the better you will expect it to be – even though menu prolixity is no guarantee of quality!
In the context of seeing, shape is also important. Angular shapes (kiki) predispose our brains to think bitter, sour; rounded shapes (buba) – think sweet and cuddly. Indeed given two identical chocolates, one round and one square, the round one will be judged to have more sugar and be sweeter.
Sweet tastes, by the way, come on slowly and linger while bitter tastes come on very quickly but also disappear as fast.
Mood and ambience
Not strictly speaking just what you see but very much to do with expectations – and a bit of a no brainer. I think we all know that an indifferent prosecco and a run of the mill plate of pasta will taste like the food of the gods on a romantic evening with the one you love under the twinkling stars of a Roman June – but back in Balham on a rainy November evening they will taste like an indifferent prosecco and a run of the mill plate of pasta!
All five senses are important in the matter of taste but without smell, the tastebuds would be nowhere. To illustrate the point, Professor Spence made us taste a piece of the delicious chocolate before us while pinching our noses tightly closed. No matter how you swirled it around in your mouth it tasted of very little. Then release your nose and the taste comes flooding through. Try it. And note that although you now know that the taste has been enabled by your nose, you still do the actually tasting in your mouth.
You have, by the way, two ways of smelling. The conscious sniffing – when you put your nose into the rose and sniff (orthonasal) and the retro nasal pulses which are much lower key subconscious sniffs which largely inform what you taste.
What we hear also predisposes us to what we are going to taste.
Back to the wine. Tasters who heard wine being poured were more likely to rate it highly than those who didn’t.
Chocolate tasters are predisposed to rate the chocolate highly if it ‘snaps’ crisply when broken.
On the basis that fish tastes more ‘fishy’ if you can hear the sea in the background, fish restaurants are piping in sounds of the sea and have established that oysters taste actively better when eaten to the sound of the sea than the eaten to the sound of a farmyard – or even to music.
To return to the sweet and bitter – soft and tinkly makes us think sweet; low pitch make us think sour or bitter; ‘spicy’ music programmes us for spicy food; smooth and languorous for creamy food. While loud noises can suppress our ability to taste at all.
Texture and touch
The texture of food in the mouth will also affect how you taste it – but so will the texture of the food in your hand or what you eat or drink it from. So coffee will taste different drunk from a rough stoneware mug and from and fine porcelain cup. Try rubbing a piece of sandpaper with you fingers while you eat a piece of chocolate and then eat another identical piece while fingering a piece of silk or satin. Although no one really seems to understand how these connections work.
And finally – pregnant mothers, be warned. Taste preferences will filter through to your baby who will like the tastes in which you indulged while pregnant. So if you do not want your kid to have a sweet tooth, cut down on those round, sweet, cuddly chocolates!!
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