The best books on Taste
recommended by Barry C. Smith
What creates flavour? Our sensory environment, our knowledge, or the existing qualities of what we eat? The philosopher explores the best five books on taste.
Barry C. Smith
Barry C. Smith is a professor of philosophy and director of the Institute of Philosophy as well as the founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London's School of Advanced Study.
Barry C. Smith
Barry C. Smith is a professor of philosophy and director of the Institute of Philosophy as well as the founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London's School of Advanced Study.
Let’s begin by getting clear what taste is.
Most people think taste is something they do with their tongue, but in fact we’ve found out that the tongue contributes very little: you get salt, sweet, sour, bitter, savoury (or umami), and now we know there’s metallic and maybe fatty acid. That’s all the tongue gives you. And yet, we can taste pineapple, melon, mint, strawberry, cinnamon, chicken, beef, lamb, raspberry and so on. We don’t have raspberry receptors on our tongue so we know that that’s actually coming from smell. Most of the things that we talk about as ‘fruity’ flavours or ‘meaty’ flavours — that’s all smell. When we’re talking about taste, we’re actually talking about a combination of taste and smell — and probably taste, smell, and touch. Think of the creaminess or oiliness or crunchy, sticky, chewy things — that all contributes to the flavour of the thing you’re eating. So, we tend to use this word ‘flavour’ as the technical term that covers what we really mean when we talk ordinarily about the taste of our food.
There’s also another sense of taste in which taste is a matter of aesthetic judgement.
Yes. Taste is about discriminating things of aesthetic interest and evaluating them for aesthetic worth, seeing them as being of ‘good taste’ we might say. And of course that’s come in for a lot of criticism, but it’s rooted in the same idea of taste as a sensory property, because from birth the child is exercising its discrimination of liking and disliking: by it’s spitting things out, or it’s consuming sweet things. The aesthetic sense of taste is an elaboration of that degree of discrimination, right from the earliest things like food or comfort up to fashion and then music and the fine arts.
“Eating is one of the few experiences that involves all the senses.”
You’re a philosopher, but it strikes me that this area almost because of its nature requires expertise in a range of disciplines.
You do have to bring in other disciplines if you’re going to understand what we’re calling ‘taste’. In fact, it was contact with psychology and neuroscience that led me to see that I had to revise my common-sense view of what it is to taste. I was happy to talk about the ‘taste’ of wine and how we could exercise our ‘taste’ in judging good and bad wines and then I thought what do we actually mean by ‘taste’? How does this sense work? When I started to investigate it, and look at how it worked, and talked to my colleagues in neuroscience and psychology, I realised it was very complicated, that it was always the multisensory interaction of taste, touch, and smell, and that it could be affected by how things look, and even how the sound when we’re chewing them, or when we’re listening to the sounds that pouring a wine into a glass makes. All of this can have a conditioning effect on our ultimate experience of food and drink.
Presumably, also, other aspects of our mental set, like knowledge of the origins of a wine, affect our perceptions too.
I think that’s right: a bit like knowledge of the origins of a painting. If you go to a gallery you might be struck by just the arrangement of colours on a canvas, but if you know the painter, you’re able to judge where this might be in their output and how well it contrasts with some of their earlier or later work. You’re setting some expectations by knowing something about the style and the technique of that painter. So, similarly, if you know the vineyard the wine comes from – maybe even the winemaker and what they’re aiming for — you’re assessing through your senses something as an achievement, and we celebrate it as that.
Now, I’m inclined to use ‘taste’ and ‘flavour’ interchangeable but in this area I think they have more precise uses.
Yes. So, we have to use this word ‘flavour’ because we’re always thinking of what we experience when we put food or drink in our mouths as a combination of taste, touch, and smell — especially a fusion of taste and smell. If people lose their sense of smell, either through accident and injury or old age when it can drop off a lot post-seventy, you have people reporting to the doctor that they can’t taste anything any more, or that their food doesn’t taste of anything. A good medic will give them some salt or lemon juice on their tongue and ask, ‘Can you taste that? ‘ The patient says ‘Yes, ‘ showing them that everything else that they can’t taste was really due to smell it. So, we have to use the term ‘flavour’ for something we’re talking about when we’re talking about what we perceive by taste and smell together. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, flavours are also properties of the food and drink themselves: their objective properties out there to discover.
So, in that sense, judgements of taste aren’t merely subjective. There are properties that are objectively in the world, in the things that we taste, and these things then can be ranked in different ways.
Now, you’ve said two things together there, and I’m interested in pulling them apart a little bit. One is about perceiving flavour, and I think that’s about getting something objectively right about what’s out there. But there’s a sort of evaluative dimension where we wonder ‘Is this a good dish or a bad dish? Is this a great wine? Is this an average wine?’ The question is whether that reduces merely to our preferences or likings, or whether there is such a thing as assessing the objective quality. This is a standard discussion in aesthetics: can you get judgements of the quality or the aesthetic value of something independent of mere liking and disliking? I think we can, but I still want to separate that from the perceiving of flavours which have those qualities or not.
Briefly, could you explain how there might be objective rankings of one thing tasting better than another?
There are properties in a wine like balance, and balance is very easy to describe: it’s when all of the elements that make up a wine — the alcohol, the fruit, the acids, the tannins if it’s a red wine — are there in the right proportions, with no one dominating the other. Now, if you give people who don’t know that concept two wines, and one of them is balanced and one of them is not, they’ll usually prefer the balanced wine. They won’t be able to tell you why, but they’ll see that somehow this is more enjoyable, more approachable. I think that you have these properties of arrangement of all the qualities that we’re individually able to discern through our senses and then the question is: what does that arrangement consist in? In the case of balance, it’s something that you can’t quite analyse in chemical terms, but it’s also not just a matter of preference. It’s something winemakers aim for and it’s difficult to achieve.
Why can’t it be assessed in chemical terms because ultimately we’re talking about physical things having an impact on our bodies and our brains?
It is very interesting why not. I think that raises interesting philosophical issues. We can taste that a wine is sweet: take a German Riesling that hasn’t converted all the sugar into alcohol: there’s an enormous sweetness. You might think well it’s definitely going to be a very very sweet wine. But there also might be a very high streak of acidity; it’s grown in a cold climate, the grapes have still got some of that tartness and fruitiness and zinginess in them. And then, when you have the total amount of acidity in a sweet German Riesling it might be a greater level of acidity than in a dry and slightly sharp Sauvignon Blanc. But what we can’t do by chemistry alone is tell what the effect on the perceiver of having that sweet/sour balance will be. There could be just enough acidity for the sweetness so that somehow they come out giving you something acceptable and indeed of very high quality.
Let’s go to your first book. What have you chosen?
I’ve chosen The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin — a French philosopher, early physiologist, a gourmand who was fascinated by taste and eating and diet and ways of living all involving the consuming of food and drink. What I love is the particular attention to detail that allows him to focus exactly what is going on in us as tasters when we’re consuming food and drink. Most people of the day would have talked about how good or bad the food was, how well cooked it was, whether or not it came from the right place, was it of good provenance, whether you had a Bresse chicken; but in fact he’s interested in what happens to us, the experiences we have as a result as consuming food in the way we consume it. He might have been the first person — certainly in the French philosophical tradition — to notice something that has now been confirmed by science namely that what we call ‘taste’ is actually a combination of taste and smell. He has a lovely quote where he says ‘In fact, taste and smell might be part of the same apparatus. You can think of the mouth as the factory and the nose as the chimney but they’re all in the business of producing a certain range of experiences.’ Lovely metaphor! Part of the early industrial revolution, of course. Here he is writing in the early nineteenth century and he’s fascinated by how we might discover these properties of our own experience and he’s one of the first to describe something that’s now a standard view of taste in sensory science and in the food industry: e.g. if you hold your nose pinched tightly shut and you start chewing something in your mouth you get very little flavour. You’ll think it doesn’t taste of very much; you might get some saltiness or sweetness or sourness. But as soon as you let the nose go, in rush the flavours, and now you realise just how much smell is contributing. Early on in the book, he points out that this is something you can do to confirm the contribution of smell to flavour or tasting.
Is this a good read? Is it something you’d recommend as a book to read from cover to cover?
I think it’s a dipping-in-and-out-of book because it’s not written as a high-minded treatise, but is, rather, a lovely historical account with lots of anecdotes and good examples and lots of focus on particular details. You shouldn’t read it all at once but — tapas-like — you want to dip into it and just get these nuggets out of it.
Let’s look at the second book: The Taste of Wine by Émile Peynaud.
Peynaud is the grandfather of oenology — the science of winemaking and of wine assessment. Peynaud is revered in the world of wine as the grandmaster who really put thinking about winemaking and thinking of all of the factors that are involved in creating a better wine on a scientific standing. Émile Peynaud in this book, The Taste of Wine, is daring to do something which you think science would fight shy of: talking of the experience of taste. As a philosopher and as a philosopher of perception, it’s intriguing to get somebody who is — though he doesn’t see himself as a philosopher — addressing something very much like what we call the mind-body problem. He was a winemaker — he consulted for properties in Bordeaux and in Burgundy and he was working with some of the best winemaking houses — he knows about the of winemaking and he knows what factors go into improving a wine and making a wine better. But all of that science is producing a number of decisions and complex interventions to craft and create a perfect wine, and he knows it’s in the service of a particular subjective experience of the taster who then benefits from this and experiences it. He wants us to pay attention to what happens as we’re tasting wine, and he became one of the leading masters teaching people about how to taste wine — wine-tasting as a practice of discrimination and not just as something we do by simply sipping or glugging what’s in our glass. Peynaud believes that what we taste depends on how we taste and that you have to slow down and pay attention to the processes and you have to get the conditions right around you for tasting. But he also talks about whether that degree of attention and complexity of detail should go into every experience of wine-tasting, and his answer is no, not every experience: there are hectolitres of shapeless, formless wines of no interest at all, he said, which are not worth wasting your time thinking about. So, he’s interested in those cases where a wine has properties that we might discover and that we might explore. As a philosopher the important point that I get out of reading that book is the idea that what we get from tasting something like a complex and beautiful wine is not given all at once. We might think that as soon as wine makes contact with the mouth we’re just tasting it as it is, and here he’s saying no, there’s such a thing as a reflection, rather like a second look at a painting; there’s a way of paying attention and assessing what’s happening in your own experience to get more and more out of what’s happening in the wine.
You mentioned painting and it strikes me that writers and thinkers about wine are very didactic, whereas you wouldn’t get away with that with art. If you told people ‘This is the way that you have to look at a painting: you have to stand there for fifteen minutes and do this, then you have to do that.’ You’d get a reaction: people would say ‘Well, no, you can give me some guidelines but there isn’t just one right way to look at a painting.’
There probably isn’t just one right way to taste wine, but I think it’s sad if an enormous amount of effort, thought, and judgement has gone into creating a wine, and it’s taken a year’s worth of work to harvest the grapes from the fields, to decide exactly when you’re picking them, how you’re pressing them, how long they might stand in barrels, and when to bottle them, a huge amount of decision making that goes into creating this beautiful liquid which you pass over to someone for their appreciation, and if all they get is ‘I like/I don’t like this’ then you’ve missed the point of what’s going on in the wine. So, Peynaud and others sensitised me, and sensitised others, to finding out what’s going in a wine, what’s happening there. You spend less time just attending to your thumbs up/thumbs down approach, and more time thinking about the wine itself. That’s a way in which wine-tasting requires attention: attention to something and away from something — away from yourself and to the wine itself.
I wonder if that’s because wine is slightly more opaque than some other human creations that engage the senses.
I think it’s opaque for some philosophically interesting reasons. We talk of ‘red’ wine and ‘white’ wine and of course they’re neither white nor red. The colours you get in the wines that we’re talking about are not exhausted by these two colour labels that don’t accurately describe what we see. Also, when you taste the wine and say ‘Oh there’s some cherry or there’s some raspberry here or I get notes of fig or a little bit of leather,’ notice how difficult it is to come up with those judgements given that the thing in front of you doesn’t look like the fruit, or doesn’t have the colour of leather, or doesn’t actually have the texture and the feel of it. So, in a way, you’re getting sensory cues that are counter to the identifications of the aromas that we’re trying to latch on to. That’s why I think identifying aromas and flavours is a quite complicated activity, because you’ve got to discard some of the sensory cues: you’re putting away some of the things that don’t fit to find out what this is most like.
Do you think Peynaud’s insights are transferable beyond wine?
The might be, certainly to food. But what’s great about Peynaud is that he understands that we should approach this topic of tasting in its own right. It’s got its own logic, and it’s got its own methods, and to study it you’ve got to understand a lot of the chemistry that’s interacting with you, and also a lot of your own physiology, and then there’s the experiential level, and then there;s some of the artistry and craft that you’re trying to assess on the basis of knowing these factors. So, he’s giving it its own due instead of saying, as a lot of philosophers do: ‘Well, let’s take art or music as a primary case and then we can cast a little bit of beneficent light on those other lower art forms which engage the senses.’
What is the ultimate aim of tasting in this context? Is it pleasure?
Peynaud’s ultimate aim, in my view, is to encourage you to assess the quality and merit of what you’re tasting. You will get pleasure from this. If we weren’t getting pleasure then we probably wouldn’t do this. Why would we? Pleasure is a good guide, but it’s not the only thing. We’re really also trying to see if we’re getting an extraordinary degree of pleasure. If something happens that’s a little out of the ordinary, what is it that’s going on in the glass and in the wine that merits that response in us? Peynaud helps us understand how it was put together and how we might get clues about how it was made from our own experience of it, and also from understanding the wine-maker, what they’re aiming for in trying to deliver something of exceptional note and pleasure and interest.
Your next book is by Frank Sibley. It’s a collection of essays, Approach to Aesthetics. Why did you choose Sibley’s work? He was a writer who was most active in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Sibley was a wonderful aesthetician. He wrote interestingly and carefully about the subject. He was very keen to dismiss quick reactions, very keen to give Aesthetics a firm foundation. As he says, to do Aesthetics properly you need to understand a lot of the rest of philosophy. It’s not for amateurs to go in there and simply express their preferences. He’s very good on that front. But there he is, a very impressive high performing writer of philosophical aesthetics who urned to taste and smell. There’s an extended essay in the book I’ve chosen called ‘Taste, Smell and Aesthetics’ and he starts to say look, I’m going to ask whether we can talk about aesthetic experience and the aesthetic values of taste and smell. He points out that usually they’re ignored or relegated as unimportant. He tells us that he’s focusing on taste and smell for two reasons. First — because, he says, that it’ll test what we regard as the boundaries of the aesthetic, how far can we go, and if people think it’s just what I get through vision or audition, especially thinking of painting and music and our engagement through the arts with the eyes and eyes — if people tell you that’s all you can have and everything else won’t count, he says well you’re going to have to tell me why and that will be very interesting. Secondly, he thinks when you look at taste and smell, even if we concede that we could have something aesthetic going on there, many people think it’s trifling or unimportant. His reaction is well, let’s not worry about that. Let’s see what the range of aesthetic experience is. I’m with Sibley, and I take my lead from Hume and others who started the taste aesthetic, that you should see aesthetics as part of everyday life. Questions of aesthetics touch everything from the arrangement of plates in front of you, and how you arrange your clothes or your home, to fashion and food, right up to the finer more rarefied pleasures. Aesthetics is ubiquitous: it’s around us, we’re always expressing aesthetic preferences and choices. He concentrates on taste and smell. For me, he’s one of very few philosophers to have really thought about the interests in and complexity of taste and smell instead of designating them ‘lower senses’ and reducing them to merely bodily experiences. He doesn’t believe that, and, as he says — and for me this is a clarion call — if you’re going to study taste and smell and the aesthetics of tastes and smells, you’d better learn a bit more about those senses. We still know relatively little. So, he’s urging us to pay more attention to the perceptual side of taste and smell.
But he’s not a phenomenologist, he’s not somebody giving a detailed description of his own subjective experience of smells and tastes or flavours, and stopping with that.
He’s not. But he is alive to what we now call flavours and the distinction between tastes and flavours. He’s one of very few philosophers analysing this, and doing so early on. Look at the basic tastes in his day, I think umami wasn’t really on the map — but you think of salt, sweet, sour, bitter: he said it’s not true that they exhaust what we can taste. He has a lovely list of cantaloupe, and lemon, and mango, and mint, and raspberries, and so on, and says you can’t get those from combinations of the basic tastes. He knows that. Try thinking of the flavour of an onion: what is that? Is the flavour of an onion salt plus something else. If so what? There is no arithmetic to give you the flavour, and yet he wants to say we recognise these, as he said, not simple but single flavours — onion or mint or cinnamon or raspberry. We’re quite good at seeing those as separate and distinct. These are single flavours but he knows they’re massively influenced by the contribution that smell makes to our identifying them. He knows that taste and smell go together because he has realised that you can’t do the arithmetic of making up all the things that we can taste as single flavours composed from the portfolio of basic tastes.
“The boundary between the scientist and the chef is disappearing.”
It’s odd that, given that he was so perceptive and interesting on this subject, that he didn’t stimulate a whole bunch of philosophers of art in his wake discussing this issue.
Yes. He starts off the essay by saying I’m going to talk about the aesthetics of tastes and smells and I’m not going to wonder whether there is such a thing as works of art that are just made of odours, or whether there are works of art that are just tastes. He wants to put that issue to the side. But he is tackling people like Kant and Roger Scruton who say you can’t have an aesthetics of taste and smell. He says that’s usually asserted rather confidently and from a position of authority with a certain amount of ‘don’t you just agree,’ but when you look for the arguments, they’re not really there. One of his challenges to Scruton is to say, you Roger Scruton say that you couldn’t see aesthetically interesting objects in tastes and smells because we consume these things and they disappear. Whereas, when we’re looking at a beautiful painting or listening to polyphonic music sung by a choir, it’s still there and we can hear it again and again. Sibley simply points out that the whole point of chefs with their classic dishes is their reproducibility. The same is true of perfumes — Chanel No. 5 remains Chanel No. 5. People go to great lengths in the drinks industry to make sure that Johnnie Walker Black Label still tastes the same way that it should do. So, reproducibility is some part of identifying the tastes of that whiskey, or the smell of that perfume, or the classic dish. So, the argument about consuming it and therefore it doesn’t remain as an aesthetic object just doesn’t work.
Let’s go on to your fourth book. What have you chosen?
I’ve chosen a book by Charles Spence and his co-author Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal. I was hugely influenced by Charles Spence’s work in the understanding of taste and flavour. Charles is one of those people who, in a very early stage of my thinking about this topic, made me understand just how multisensory our experiences of flavours are. Charles wrote some classic articles about the identification of the multisensory elements that enter into and fuse together to give us a unified perception of flavour. He taught us how taste and smell combine; he tells us how touch makes an impact. The trigeminal nerve, that’s the facial nerve that fires if we have too much mustard — we get a pain in the bridge in our nose rather than in our mouth — that’s what makes things taste peppery; it makes peppermint seem cool in the mouth, and mustard hot in the mouth. So, all of these neurological systems combine, but they combine to create a unified experience of flavour. When we taste the flavour of something — say watermelon, or anchovies — we don’t realise that it’s actually a complex interaction effect. Our experience doesn’t tell us that, so we need science to do that. We need to get below the level of our own introspection and find out how things are working to produce these effects in us. Charles’ work ranges across all the senses. He’s got some very interesting work on sound, and the fact that what we hear can affect what we taste, or the flavours we enjoy. He won the Ig Nobel prize for his work on potato chips: on Pringles. Pringles — are an experimenter’s dream as they’re all exactly the same size; you don’t have to control for difference there. If you leave them out of the box for a couple of days, they taste stale. But if you put headphones on and amplify the high frequency sound of your own crunching, they taste fresh. So is tasting fresh an auditory experience? Is there such a thing as auditory flavour? These are the challenges that he puts to philosophers and to people thinking about what the boundaries of flavour and flavour-experience might be.
For a long time, you had to hunt down Spence’s work all over. But now, very handily, he has brought much of this together in a book called The Perfect Meal. He starts with the rather familiar story of how we might be sitting at dinner on holiday in some wonderful restaurant, the sun is on our face as we sit outside and we’re sitting with our loved one and we’re eating what we think is one of the best meals we’ve ever tasted, and the wine is exceptional, and we might even buy a case of it and bring it home. And then we try that same wine on a cold February in London and think ‘Oh, that’s not so good.’ Spence is interested in the various factors that contribute to making something the perfect meal: perhaps this isn’t just what’s on the plate, or in the glass, it’s not just about what you put in your mouth. He knows perfectly well that many food and drink manufacturers work very hard to get the product right, but they don’t always then think of the right name for the product. Will that have an impact on people? What should the packaging look like? What about the feel of the packing in your hand? What sensory expectations do they give the brain about what they’re about to taste? He’s done a range of fascinating work on the science of tasting and eating all in the service of improving and enhancing our experience. That’s why The Perfect Meal has now become the Bible for food and sensory scientists.
Charles Spence is a scientist He’s giving us a scientific analysis of flavour and the complex interactions that go on with taste and other sensory modes when we eat or drink something. But at a certain level, aren’t our own categories, what you might call the folk categories of taste both in eating and drinking, aren’t these sufficient for a human being?
Do we really need to know the engineering behind these?
We value experiences, but I think we’re now very choosy and fussy people. We’re very lucky and live in a developed western economy and we don’t just eat what’s given to us: we can choose and select and every day we can make those choices. From looking at the food on our counter saying oh that looks good, notice that you’re making a visual judgement about how something will taste, and that will probably have an influence on how you experience that. Similarly, the cues that we get from the sound of a liquid being poured into a glass matter: people can — although they don’t think they can — tell the difference between the sound of soda water, Prosecco, or Champagne being poured into the same size of glass at the same rate. Our brains pay attention to these things. Yes, our experience is very nuanced and subtle, and we can rely on our existing ‘folk’ categories, but it’s also fascinating to find out how they’re affected, influenced, tweaked, and even sometimes manipulated by clever food and drink industry professionals and marketers. If you’re interested in your experience and you’re fascinated by how it comes to be the way it is and how you could enhance it, then you need to know a little bit about the science, and of course the place where it really matters is for chefs because today chefs actually need to know the science if they’re going to give us better experiences.
There’s been a scientific turn in cooking. Fifty years ago chefs wouldn’t have been expected to understand anything in terms in science, but now many of them are actually conducting scientific experiments in kitchens that look more like laboratories.
They are. The boundary between the scientist and the chef is disappearing. Some of these fancy experimental chef kitchens have laboratories. Then there are the sorts of experiments being run by Charles Spence and his colleagues, and also by some of my colleagues and myself here at The Centre for the Study of the Senses in the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London. We’re all interested in exploring the effects of food and drink in very controlled environments in a laboratory, and putting people through some very strange and unusual testing. But even if we find some nice effects of how sound can modulate flavour and how high-pitched sounds can make something taste sweeter or more acidic and low-pitched sounds can make something taste more bitter, we want to know how that will scale up when you’re in a noisy restaurant. Will it scale up when you’re having a meal with many other things going on around you? So, that’s where chefs want the insights from science, but they’re actually better placed to know how these experiences are actually experienced by diners, and they can feed that back to us. There’s a very healthy interaction: we want to know about immersed environments, and the chefs want to know whether there any insights that they can actually develop and use when creating new dishes.
And one of the leading chefs in this area is Heston Blumenthal.
Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook is my fifth book choice, the first of a number of cookbooks that have come out from Heston and have been following the development of some of his own recipes. I’ve picked Heston Blumenthal because he is exactly the sort of figure who is the chef-scientist: he blurs the boundary between chef and scientist. In fact, he may have been the first to lead the science and lead us to the multisensory understanding of tasting. He was the chef who realised very early on that it’s not just knowing about the ingredients and the process of preparing that matter. If you’re really going to understand what you’re doing as a chef, you have to have to understand the diner. You have to understand the diner’s senses.
In The Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston says eating is one of the few experiences that involves all of the senses and then he walks us through just how that works. His fascination with this area came from his own experience: he was a self-taught chef, he didn’t go and work as a pupil with some of the great masters; instead he read books, rather more like an academic. He worked his way through all the classic cookbooks; he tried things out; he experimented and found out. Why was he motivated to do that? He tells of us his experience as a young boy being taken by his parents to a Michelin three star restaurant in the south of France. He remembers arriving, the sound of the cicadas and the noise of the gravel underfoot, and seeing this wonderland in which large shiny wine glasses were on the table and the shining silver, and waiters gliding around producing all sorts of unusual concoctions. The whole thing, on a sensory level, was quite spellbinding for him. Heston Blumenthal describes himself as having fallen down the rabbit hole: he was in this strange otherworld where the smells, the sights, the sounds, the feels — everything was contributing to the experience. In a sense, he never lost that because he understood that as a chef providing exquisite extraordinary experiences to diners was about stimulating their senses. So, he knew, and will say, that the most important thing that a chef has to think about when thinking about the diner is not the tongue or the nose or the mouth or the eyes or the ears: it’s the brain, it’s the way the brain is putting together all of this information and coming up with a result and a judgement and an experience of the flavour, the whole sensory experience of eating and drinking. He got on to that issue very early on, and actually provided some of the materials that stimulated the sensory scientists to say ‘He’s done these funny things of confusing us with swapping the colour of dishes and we’re puzzled and we’re surprised.’ An example of this is this famous dish: the beetroot and orange jellies — this was on the menu very early on at The Fat Duck. You get a purple and an orange jelly on the plate, and your waiter will say to you ‘We suggest you start by eating the orange one’. And of course diners dig into it, and it tastes of beetroot, and then they try the purple one, and it tastes of orange. This is because the purple one is made from blood orange, and the other is made using orange beet. So, this sort of playfulness is interesting. He made bacon and egg ice-cream and people said well that’s a bit strange and maybe a bit off-putting but he was interested in why using the word ‘ice-cream’ would actually deter people. He had a crab ice-cream, but if you called it a ‘crab frozen savoury bisque’, people thought it tasted delicious. If you called it ice-cream, they found it rather strange. He’s interested in how our expectations are led by words. He made bacon-and-egg flavoured ice-cream to, served with a little piece of fried bread, and you’re told to eat the two together. The interesting thing is that the bacon flavour seems to migrate and stick to the fried bread when you eat them together, whereas the egginess sticks with the ice-cream. So, you’re getting into the realm of sensory ventriloquism.
The sorts of experiments that Heston Blumenthal conducted early on actually stimulated some of the sensory scientists to think about cross-modal effects of one sense on another — the ways in which the eyes are influencing the ears, and the ears are influencing the mouth, and the way in which taste and smell influence each other, and feel affects taste. This led to collaborations between Heston and scientists. I think that form of collaboration between the sciences and the arts and the industrial practices or the gastronomy of high cuisine, that’s all part of a very exciting experimental process that is all about understanding how our senses work and how they can surprise and delight us. It’s a wonderful time for interaction and interdisciplinary collaboration in the service of understanding what’s going on in us when we do the things that we do every day and that we care about, when we choose and select and enjoy what we eat and drink.
Interview by Nigel Warburton
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