Saturday, 20 December 2014


This is a really interesting take on taste from a friend that wishes to remain anonymous.

Hunger, thirst and sex are the main drivers of human behaviour, say the psychologists, although sometimes not everyone gets the order right. In this article we will deal with only the first 2 items. The immediate question is do we live to eat or eat to live. This depends on which era in time one lives/lived. Before the hunter gatherer period, humans lived on fruit, berries, insects, water and fish if available. After hundreds of years this diet became a bit boring and those who lived to eat caste around for different taste sensations, thus enter the hunter and farmer into the picture. Raw meat did not appeal to all, however, and so the next big happening was fire, or rather how to start a fire, stack it and control it. Imagine the excitement the world's first braaivleis must have created. The new taste of grilled and charred meat must have been a revelation. Thus started the concept of the gourmet, "I will have mine not so well done, a little pink in the middle". 

As people settled down to a less nomadic life, the idea of cultivating things caught on, and the growing of wheat and it's byproducts such as flour, semolina, burghal, couscous etc. opened a whole new avenue of taste sensations. Civilization was now a short step away from producing alcohol from malt and grapes and suddenly beer and wine appeared on the table, an inevitable and toxic step in the development of refined eating. Life just got better and tastier with the use of spices and herbs in the preparation of food. With the progression of trade came the appearance of new foods, such as rice, preserved and sweet meats and spicy meat stews. The growth of towns also had a profound impact on eating as Inns and Taverns began to provide sustenance and accommodation for travellers. Wars also contributed to the diversity of food products, with the new world giving us tomatoes, chillies, chocolate, potatoes and tobacco. 

But what exactly is taste and does it vary from person to person. To answer these questions one has to look closely at the marvel of humanity, our own body. More precisely, our head, which houses 2 eyes, a nose and a mouth, each of which serving a special purpose. Firstly the eyes enable us to see the thing we're eating allowing us to decide if it's a pleasing picture, or not. More important is our sense of smell. Within the head are number of olfactory glands, situated mainly at the top of the nasal passage. Our sense of smell is so acute that it enables our brains to register and store thousands of different odours. The ability to recognise odours differs from person to person, with experts in say wine or tea being able to recognise many different smells. A university in California designed an aroma wheel to help wine tasters categorize the variety of smells. So don't be surprised when wine experts talk about aromas of oreganum, thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, aniseed, fruit and red berries when assessing the bouquet of a Cabernet Franc. Moving on to the functions of the mouth, which not only grinds the food ingested, but also houses a series of tastebuds that are situated in and around the tongue, at the back of the throat and various other places which also send messages to the brain, telling it what the food tastes like. Unlike our sense of smell, the ability of describing taste sensations is limited to sweet, sour, bitter, salty and more recently umami (which is a bit like a meaty taste). 

We have come a long way in appreciating the subtleties of our senses but bear in mind that this ability is idiosyncratic and that the professional tea or wine taster has a much more developed sense of taste than most of us. This is something that can be developed by paying a little more attention to what your instincts are telling you. The French are known to be very pernickety about their food and drink which stems from an innate interest and curiosity about gastronomy. One of their best known gourmets was Curnonsky, which was a play on the words "why not", so go ahead and try it even though it's a snail. 

The moral of the story is we should all enjoy what we are eating and drinking and not feel guilty about it.

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