We need food to grow, to live and learn. We will eat tonnes of it in our lifetimes. For most people it will result in pleasure and satiety but for others it will be the source of pain and grief as they fight the battle of the bulge. But how much do we actually know about how our body process food? The Taste 101 Masterclass was an informative and interactive session that debunked some myths and offered lots of interesting insights.
The class was held at the William Angliss Institute, a specialist centre for food and hospitality and was presented by Crave Sydney International Food Festival. Our hosts/lecturers/fellow connoisseurs were food writer and TV producer, Richard Cornish and food and wine writer, Max Allen. The pair proved an excellent foil for one another as they kept the mood light yet full of informative discussion about the relatively new field of neurogastronomy (the science that explores the mechanics and the neural pathways of how we taste food). It was an experience that was fun, tactile and made full use of our senses.
We would learn that the tongue or taste map that we’ve all learned about in school (that claims we taste bitter, sour, salt and sweet on different areas of the tongue) is incorrect. Instead, humans have a large area of their brains devoted to receiving messages from their lips and mouths. We also come pre-programmed at birth to have a preference for sweet things and an aversion to bitterness (traits that we have evolved to have) because these would’ve been useful in determining whether things were poisonous or safe to consume.
When we eat the brain also receives lots of messages through the sense of smell. These scents include orthonasal smells or ones we breathe in from the environment around us and retronasal ones that come from the food or drink as we consume them. In the latter case, the smell passes up through the nasal passage at the back of the throat and travels to the brain stem. These messages eventually form smell maps or things that are as distinguishable and emotive to us as spotting the face of a loved one in a crowd.
Over the three-hour course we would all consume large quantities of fine olives, oysters, camembert cheese, cured meats, wine, sherry, cider and Spanish beer (all in the name of science). We’d drink dashi, a flavoursome, Japanese cooking stock and some tasty sake that was almost like a good drop of white wine. Floral bouquets of hyacinths and lavender were also passed around to illustrate the importance of smells in conjuring up memories.
The evening was an immense joy. It was a bit decadent to eat and drink such tasty foods and beverages but it also helped to illustrate some important points. Namely, that what we perceive as flavour is actually a combination of what we taste and feel in our mouths through touch, plus the smells we receive from internal and external sources. We also learned about the importance of ambience i.e. how the environment and sorts of noise and music will affect your mood and subsequently how enjoyable the meal is.
Food is a fascinating and fun topic to study. In history, the search for spices drove international explorers abroad. People like Christopher Columbus were driven to search for new flavours plus ways to prepare foods and make new drinks. The Taste 101 Masterclass was a consolidation and celebration of all this and more. It was ultimately a delectable dance for the tastebuds and senses, and a rich evening that fed our stomachs and brains. Yum!