Updated: Apr 21, 2022
This blog and the next couple will be about taste and flavour.
‘Why taste and flavour…? I hear you say.
Two reasons really.
Firstly because I feel it’s worth the time investment as a knowledge of flavour and taste can only help us appreciate some of the finer things in life. Time is our most expensive commodity and during my medical career, I quickly developed an awareness that I had to spend my time efficiently. (Have you noticed that people are good at spending two things - they’re good at spending other people’s money and spending other people’s time!) That means I’ve become a time snob, only reading about things that are either important or interesting (or occasionally, but only occasionally - both).
In truth, this is why the blog has pretty much fallen into abeyance recently - finding something fun to write about that translates into something that doesn’t waste your time or my time! The last thing I want to do is to write a regular blog just because it’s just being written to fill pages (and from a business point increase SEO because of regular website contribution etc). However the subject is increasingly fascinating to me, the more I read. So it seemed to be time worth spending.
Secondly, because despite 30+ years of medical practice it soon became obvious to me that I know little about taste and flavour. Running a distillery and making new flavours is one thing but to be able to describe / feel / appreciate / anticipate taste is another. The more I read, the more the subject blows me away! Indeed prior to my recent reading, I was completely oblivious to most of the information that I am putting on paper today.
The vocabulary of music and the vocabulary of taste
Put simply, our taste and flavour vocabulary is pretty basic
So here goes…..(stick with me on this one!)
Imagine you are asked to describe the great music you’ve just experienced with a concert / band / festival / vinyl etc etc….
Most people will make different comments but they will likely make in depth observations about the vocals, the awe-inspiring guitar solo, the rhythmic baseline and the brilliant drums…
Then, imagine a situation when you are asking somebody to describe a fabulous meal they have just enjoyed. People will come out with compliments, but they will be most likely far less developed. For instance, “I really liked the steak”. “The sweet was lovely”. “The fish was great” etc etc. Essentially verbal descriptions that are complimentary but less complex and detailed than we would use for auditory and visual experiences.
The point I’m trying to get across is that our vocabulary of taste and flavour is not usually as well developed as our vocabulary of visual or auditory matters. We’re not used to talking about taste and flavour. Our words express our appreciation but on a very superficial level compared to the descriptions of other situations.
It doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the tremendous dish of food we’ve just polished off, it’s just that it’s far more difficult to describe it in accurate detail.
There’s a great book written about Flavour (by Bob Holmes) and in the early stages he
describes flavour as being relegated to “…elevator music for the palate…”. Seems a strange comment but how often do we push eating and drinking into the background whilst we’re doing something else.
For example, consider the situation of going out for a meal with friends. We’re going out ‘for a meal’ but the food (ie the meal) is simply fitted into the background.
Don't believe me....? Just take time to watch others in the restaurant. Most people are talking whilst eating and the food is not the main focus. There’ll even be some (rude) people at tables who will fail to recognise that food is being placed in front of them by the waiting staff. Even the polite majority who show appreciation for being served will soon become reimmersed in conversation. Taste and flavour is appreciated but it is fighting an uphill battle to be centre stage against a social situation.
Compare this to that same group of people who choose to go to the cinema. Not a word spoken for the duration - usually the same length of time as the meal. All attention on an experience that will be IMAX / 3D you name it - projected to give you the impression that you are in the scene. Then, when it finishes, animated and detailed discussion ensues about the film en route to the pub for a further social chat, where discussion continues, yet the taste and flavour of the drinks that accompany the talking are - again - likely demoted to the equivalent of elevator music...!
Sabre toothed tigers
Let’s change tack and look at an evolutionary approach to taste.
Our prehistoric brain had some important decisions to make, back in the day.
We would need to look at objects / animals / fellow humans and interpret carefully the actions being observed, in order to determine safety. ie is that rustling in the bushes that I see and hear due to a sabre toothed tiger about to jump out and eat me. Close attention. The brain had to have detailed and accurate input to make a life/death decision.
Alternatively, the prehistoric taste mechanism was there to make a basic decision about eating something. Not so much detail.
Either it’s safe or it’s not.
Yes / No.
Right / wrong.
Black / white.
If there was a problem, one of two basic reflexes became manifest with either the individual spitting the food out - or even more unpleasantly - vomiting.
Let’s face it - who hasn’t experienced this. Taking a mouthful of food that looks good to eat but the taste is rancid / sour / burning..... What do we do - we spit it out. It’s a reflex that saves us. Do we think about it - NO.
Similarly - vomiting. Do we choose to do this. NO. If the food is ‘off’ / contaminated / toxic in some way, and it still manages to get past a swallow mechanism, what do we do.....? We vomit. It’s another reflex over which we have no control.
In other words, taste and flavour were hardwired to produce a safe/unsafe response. Flavour wasn’t there to allow us to enjoy and appreciate the nuanced difference between raw meat from the mammoth compared to the sabre-toothed tiger. It was there to save our lives from something poisonous. We simply ate to survive.
Then we started to cook. Cooking let us access calories from all sorts of new foodstuffs that gave us energy, from sources that were previously unavailable as raw options. (It also gave us time to do other things except laboriously eat boring and low yield calorie foods, and in doing so we got the time to exert world dominance!)
A by product of this cooking thing - as well as allowing us to access different sorts of foodstuffs (let’s face it - eating raw potato isn’t much fun!) - was to create different flavours.
We are the only species that adds flavour to food in the form of spices / herbs / seasoning. Originally this was done in order to preserve food.
In cooler climes, salt is the obvious one, with sugar more recently. However, consider the heavier spices used in hot areas eg Mexico (chilli) and Asia (eg turmeric) that allow for food to be stored for longer and this then also helps us to appreciate different regional taste preferences developing too. (Explaining the tendency for hotter climes (chilli / curry-like spices) to have hotter spicier food compared to the blandness of colder climates (salted fish and meat).
Taste and Nostalgia
Taste gives us both good and bad ‘associated nostalgia’.
First of all there’s the aforementioned safety aspect of flavour and taste, short circuit neural pathways that interpret the taste and in doing so sends directly, reflex impulses to our “old brain” - avoiding our consciousness. This then allows us also to associate the bad taste and location of the food with danger and so we avoid that situation again.
Not aware of this....? Consider those alcoholic drinks that some of us choose to avoid.....
Significant overindulgence of alcohol causes humans to vomit. Why..? It’s not ‘the taste of the drink’ per se, it’s the fact that our body realises that we already have dangerous levels of alcohol in our body that might damage, even kill us.
Overly high alcohol levels in our blood are difficult to deal with - unless we.... vomit..... it’s a very clever physiological reflex that is pretty horrible to experience both first and third hand - but its not an inconvenience thing, it’s a life-saving / damage-limitation reflex!
You don’t need to talk to too many people before finding somebody that will say that (s)he avoids a certain alcoholic beverage because it tastes horrible / “makes me feel sick” etc - usually brought on after an episode of overindulgence with said beverage that has created a strong (bad) association. Accordingly, that drink type is then avoided - usually for life - due to the life saving taste reflex, that tells us that we had a bad experience with it and so we must avoid it in the future to be safe.
That’s the cleverness of the human body...!
But - this can be tipped over the other way to give associated enjoyable aspects to taste, again by creating associations of taste that can cause an overwhelming nostalgia of good feeling.
When people have been tasting our products for the first time in the distillery we’ve had comments that the flavour reminds people of ‘fun Christmases as a child’, ‘trips to the sweetie shop after school’, the ‘best ever holiday in the Greek Islands’.
For me - gluhwein conjures a warm feeling of relaxing holiday times at Xmas markets. Strangely, minty ‘Tic Tacs’ remind me of a family holiday to Germany when I tasted them for the first time as a kid and they were a real treat. Passion fruit takes me to my first ever taste of passion fruit on a sweltering day in Melbourne, Australia when I tasted it as a flavour in yoghurt ice cream for the first time. Pizza ..... as a kid, in the 70’s, we went to Rome and I tasted this thing called a pizza for the first time - it blew my mind! (Olden times folks!)
Multiple senses together
At the same time we appreciate “flavour” via a combination of many sensory aspects that are difficult to disentangle. Taste / smell / sight / texture and sound.
Don’t believe me…. Pah….! Just watch the judges on Masterchef or TGBBO or an advert on TV (e.g. crisps in a long tube (you know the ones I mean) that evidently can’t be stopped once you’ve “popped”).
There’s a heavy weighting in food competitions not just to judge flavour alone, but to include things like……
Presentation - we all like our food to look good.
Feel and sound - e.g. the crispness and the 'snap' of the biscuits we have with our cup of tea,
Don’t forget the classic “soggy bottom” comment on GBBO - it looks good - but it doesn’t ‘feel good’.
I must stop though. There’s lots more to share about taste and flavour but I've taken up enough of your time!
More next week. Until then - happy tasting!