Basic taste and flavour knowledge will help cooks and diners to improve their tasting awareness.
Flavour is the combination of olfactory sense, gustatory perception and chemisthesis (mouth-feel or tactile impression) or to put it more simply, it is the interaction of aroma, taste and touch.
When we consider olfaction, or sense of smell, it is important to realise that many of the sensations we describe as taste are actually aromas (olfaction). While the scent of freshly cut vanilla beans, just-zested lime, or freshly baked bread are easily identifiable aromas, multiple smells synergize to what is termed a bouquet. This expression is commonly used to describe olfaction in wines; hence we may have a wine in which the bouquet is described as fruity, floral or earthy as distinguished to, say, lemon rind, green apple, flint stone or so in a Riesling.
To experience aroma, it is necessary for the flavour packed molecules (volatile compounds), to travel, in the form of vapour, to the olfactory zone in the uppermost nasal passage. Here, a concentration of flavour sensitive nerve cells transmits the information to the brain. Higher temperature in a dish or physical movement (swirling) a wine (glass) increases the release of flavour molecules – this also explains why we experience a more intense aroma from hot (referring to temperature) food than we do from cold. And why it is important for a wine taster to swirl the wine in a glass before inhaling; movement creates heat, which helps to vaporize minuscule amounts of wine and releasing more flavour molecules.
Closely aligned to our sense of smell is taste. The average person is equipped with some 10,000 taste buds. Connoisseurs of fine food or skilled wine tasters don’t necessarily have more taste buds than people less experienced in food and wine matters - it is constant training that arguably enables increased taste ability. So, different thresholds of sensitivity to taste and aroma do exist amongst tasters.
There are six basic taste sensations; the more common ones are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The lesser known gustatory senses, albeit no less important, are umami and fat. The latter two tastes not only allows us to experience the savoury characteristics of food, it also plays an important role in wine and food matching.
While taste is often associated with a sense of pleasure, tastes are primarily the sensory signals that prepare the body for the arrival of nutrients. Physiological and biochemical reactions stimulate digestive and metabolic processes.
Some cultures classify astringency as one of the tastes, as it is a tactile perception. Astringency, pungency, spiciness and the bubbles in champagne provide impressions that are experienced physically, through mucous membranes as well as taste buds, and are commonly referred to as touch or mouth feel. This form of stimulation is also known as chemesthesis. Chewiness, viscosity and crispiness too are tactile sensations.
Our sense of smell and taste is subjective and in the case of olfaction closely linked to past experience.
The conditioning of the palate influences a tasters perception of flavour greatly, so does a tasters physical condition at the time of eating or drinking. The ambience of a dining venue, the context of the occasion, the music chosen, the style of menu writing, among many other quite intangible criteria, has an effect on the perceived quality of a dish, thus concluding that psychological aspects are playing a greater role in our awareness of flavour.
That is a subject I endeavour to explore. In the meantime, enjoy the discovery of new and exciting flavours, knowing they'll increase dining pleasure.
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