With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, many of us will be looking to celebrate this festival of love by chinking glasses and sharing a romantic meal with our loved one. Whilst the dining experience itself may be the arena where love is forged and cemented, the relationship between food and the stirring of romantic passions also occurs on a much more anatomical level. Many of us know all too well the aphrodisiac properties of oysters or chocolate, but there is also a plethora of less well recognised ingredients to rev your engines. Avocado, basil and pine nuts all help release testosterone contributing to sexual function, mood and libido. Watermelon is said to have a Viagra like effect on men (although I can’t say I’ve ever noticed it myself), and as well as a fairly suggestive shape, bananas contain high levels of bromelain to help ignite the flames of passion. It is thus a commonly understood fact that food has the power to alter how we feel, however, a number of innovative approaches to food are increasingly exploring how changes to other senses can affect the taste of food itself and the way we perceive flavour.
Through a number of pioneering studies into food, we are increasingly coming to understand that taste is not a solitary sense. Flavour is a fusion of a foods taste, smell, touch; even sight and sound are thought to alter flavour. The concept of ‘Dining in the dark’, first established in restaurant form by Blindekuh of Geneva in 1999, served to heighten the taste stimulation of the four other remaining senses by effectively making diners blind to what they were eating. The concept has spread in subsequent years, as diners can now savour the guided eating experience across the world, as well as at London’s Dans le Noir. Subtle sensual variations are increasingly being studied, and the findings are often highly fascinating. Nestle’s innovation labs have found that the shape of chocolate can affect its flavour, with curved rather than angular pieces melting quicker and releasing delicate flavour variations. They have also found that by adding the aromas of salty foods to the air when eating cheese, they can reduce sodium levels as it inherently tastes saltier. The AromaFork by molecule-R uses aroma diffusers attached to its cutlery to transform flavours, for example, allowing users to eat vegetables whilst tasting bubble gum. Other research suggests that citrus foods have the innate effect of increasing appetite thanks to their palette cleansing properties. High pitched music has been found to signal sweetness, low-pitched works well with bitter and umami, and loud music detracts from flavour entirely.
This field of multi-sensory food science has been dubbed ‘Neurogastronomy’, and has most stringently been put to test by its leading light, Charles Spence of Oxford University. In his book the ‘The Perfect Meal’, Spence puts forward the notions that everything from the shape of the glass, the names used to describe the dishes, and the background music are key variants in proving that the dining experience is only partially made up of food itself. A whole host of other understated sensory factors are said to contribute. For example, working with Ferran Adria, they found a pink strawberry dessert to be 10% sweeter on a white plate than on a black one, and even sweeter on a round plate rather than a square one. Others are getting in on ‘Neurogastronomy’, as Michelin starred Treeswijkhoeve presented a five course sensory menu that purely focused on altering flavours through the power of touch. Using tactile tableware such as cups with nipples, ball shaped spoons, and spiky tasting surfaces they altered perceptions of sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
For those who believe that cooking is an art form at the highest level, they may look on with scorn as science takes precedence over creative flair. However, much of these developments are finding themselves at the intersection between science and artistry, and one need only look at the latest project by the Roca Brothers to see that. Il Somni, a 12-act, 12-course banquet opera based in culinary history, memory, landscape and poetry has been touring the globe wowing foodies by projecting images on their dishes, and using the sounds of nature to stir emotional responses. As Heston Blumenthal see’s it, ‘the whole purpose of art is to elicit an emotional response and food has the ability to do that as it involves all the senses, of which memory is at the core’. Taking into account that the parts of the brain dedicated to memory and taste or smell are closely linked, Blumenthal has always developed dishes that specifically combine multiple senses with complex flavours. It’s through these multi-sensory approaches that inquisitive chefs are putting together dishes with the capacity of powerful storytelling, and giving guests a wholly immersive dining experience that provokes meaning on far more levels. So turn down the music and dim the lights this Valentine’s Day, because its clear to see that food isn’t just all in the cooking, there is all a whole host of other sensory factors that can contribute to making this most romantic of meals memorable.
Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD Assistant.