Taste Versus Flavour
I have been working my way through all the Christmas treats still left in the cupboard this week. Generous & thoughtful as it was of Madame le Squirrel to buy this for me, I have to say that Marmite flavour milk chocolate was rather near the back of the cupboard. Aptly named “Very Peculiar”, it is described as milk chocolate with “a hint of Marmite indulgence, a perplexing treat that bewilders the taste buds”.
As an adventurous squirrel, my curiosity got the better of me & I gave it a try. The results were surprising – it seemed so wrong, yet at the same time, it was so right! The sweet creaminess of the milk chocolate was followed by a savoury meatiness with a lingering sensation of both together in the mouth. It was indeed very peculiar, not for everyone perhaps, but strangely enjoyable to me.
I could not begin to think of a beer that would complement these tastes, but it made me think about the nature of taste & flavour & what happens when we process these sensations in our brains.
After some investigations, I have learned that taste & flavour are very different.
Taste is a chemical sense picked up by specialised receptor cells that make up taste buds. Flavour is a combination of all the senses creating an overall impression.
Taste Taste buds are tiny taste detectors on your tongue & other areas of the mouth that send messages to your brain. You have about 10,000 of these & their various components work together to pass on electrical impulses to the brain, which then interprets them as taste.
It was previously thought that there were only 4 different basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter & salty, each picked up by a different zone – remember the diagram of areas of the tongue & experiments we all did at school? Well these ideas are out of date!
A Japanese scientist identified another taste, which he named umami, with its very own separate receptor. It can be described as savoury or meaty. Perhaps that was what I could taste in the Marmite chocolate?
There are other theories as to the sixth or even seventh taste categories. Fat is a possible candidate being considered – perhaps this could explain the buttery taste of a Chardonnay or the oiliness of some beers? Asian cultures consider piquancy as a basic taste, though Western scientists largely disagree, considering spice to be more of a touch related sensation. Other scientists have shown that basic tastes are not just restricted to specific zones of the tongue. Oh mon dieu, this is getting confusing!
Flavour These primary tastes are some of the building blocks of flavour but by no means all. They gave our ancestors clues as to which foods were good & which were not. Flavour is even more complicated. It involves all of the senses, particularly the sense of smell. In our brains, the perceptual systems are closely linked to systems for learning, memory, emotion and language & therefore to food preference and food cravings. In other words, food, drink & feelings are a pretty messed up business!
Our modern day guru of science & food, Heston Blumenthal acknowledges this complexity: “Of course I want to create food that is delicious, but this depends on so much more than simply what’s going on in the mouth – context, history, nostalgia, emotion, memory & the interplay of sight, smell, sound & taste all play an important part in our appreciation & enjoyment of food”
We’ve all experienced what it’s like when you have a bad cold & you’re trying to enjoy your dinner. That’s a clear illustration of the importance of smell in appreciating flavour. Smell makes up a large part of what we usually perceive of as taste, so don’t forget to give your beer a good sniff as you drink it. That’s also why it’s a good idea to try it in a large wine glass so you get the full multi-sensory experience.
Touch is an important contributor too. Textures like fizz, creaminess, crumbliness, crunchiness & bite can enhance or detract from your enjoyment of food & drink. Temperature is critical to our enjoyment, as Goldilocks discovered, it has to be just right!
Sound (believe it or not) can also play a part in our perceptions as Heston’s experiments with crisp eating & crunch noise recordings show.
Sight can affect our enjoyment of food & drink very much. Colour, presentation, shine & the size of your portion all have an influence. Food technologists, whose job it is to make food & drink look appealing in photos are all too aware of the importance of appearance. If you are in the mood for experimenting, try looking at your glass of beer or plate of food through different colours of transparent plastic (eg. the coloured wrappers from Cadbury’s Roses chocolates, a good excuse to eat some). Some colours enhance & some make food or drink look indigestible!