The Secrets of Taste

“Cooking is the art of preparing food and making it palatable,” wrote Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin in La Physiologie du Goût (“The Physiology of Taste”), a landmark work in the field of gastronomy.

But what is “taste”*?

The truth is that appearance, shape, colour, odour, flavour, texture and temperature all play a role in our appreciation of food. An appreciation further conditioned by our background, our habits and our mood. Because taste, which slowly develops during childhood and continues to evolve throughout our lives, is as much a matter of physiology as sociology. Beyond our universal (innate) appetite for certain tastes such as sweetness, it is the (acquired) social context that largely conditions whether we seek out the bland or the spicy, whether we want to get stuck into the gooey, or whether we will ever relish insects or snails.

Our five senses and our imagination are all embroiled in the phenomenon of “taste”. In fact the true organ of taste is none other than...the brain!

 

* If the word “taste” scientifically designates the perception and identification of chemical substances detected by the taste buds on the tongue, common parlance includes under the same term the perception of different stimuli (flavour, smell, pungency), which together form the “taste” (of strawberries, radish, vanilla, toast and so on). We will stick here to common ground by talking about “taste” for overall perception and “tasting” (or “sapiction”) for the detection of flavours,guided by the fact that “taste” is based on a set of even larger perceptions: not only olfactory, gustatory and trigeminal, but also visual, tactile and auditory.

 

Olfaction

Let’s bring a morsel of food up to our mouth. Volatile molecules escape and enter our nostrils to caress our olfactory receptors (the “ortho-nasal” route) – hence the talk of “odours” so dear to perfumers.

Once the food is in the mouth, we chew – and other volatile compounds escape inside the oral cavity, only to end up joining the self-same olfactory receptors (this time via the retro-nasal route). Now we speak of “aromas”, much prized by gourmets, who strive to chew food as long as possible in order to fully extract its aromatic properties. (It may well be that the “long finish” attributed to certain wines is partly due to the interaction of its aromatic components with salivary proteins, which retain some aromas longer than others.)

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Gustation

Let’s now consider the sensation of “taste” (or “the palate”). Certain soluble molecules of food pass through saliva and bind to receptors in the oral cavity, mainly found in the hundreds of taste buds that coat our tongue *.

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Trigeminal sensations

Sparkling carbon dioxide, spicy mustard that prickles the nose (allyl isothiocyanate), the heat of chilli * (capsaicin), the scratch of olive oil at the back of the throat (oleocanthal), the cool of mint (menthol), the astringency of tea (tannins), and also the temperature of food – all these sensations derive from the trigeminal nerve, independently of the gustatory and olfactory pathways.

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Seeing, hearing…and using your head!

Where does the taste of wine come from? From the soil, where vines obtain their nutrients? From the air, which anoints the grapes with the precious yeast that will officiate during the fermentation process? From the wooden barrel in which the wine slowly matures?

All of these factors are important, but the taste of wine comes first and foremost from our brains, which have the vital job of integrating the many stimuli delivered by our senses. Apart from our nose (odours from ortho-nasal delivery and aromas via the retro-nasal path) and mouth (flavours and trigeminal sensations), taste is influenced by the other senses, such as sight and hearing. Tinted glasses? A noisy room? All of these can affect our appreciation of wine.

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