The pleasures of food reside in the mind - with help from heavy cutlery, gastrophysicist Charles Spence explains
A top-notch meal usually involves local, seasonal ingredients, meticulous preparation and superb cooking. But a gastrophysicist tells Alex Meehan that the pleasures of food reside in the mind - with help from heavy cutlery
It's the dish that brought Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant to the attention of the world, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it's all a load of nonsense. Entitled Sound of the Sea, this seafood course is served on edible sand with an iPod on the side, the idea being that the diner listens to seashore sounds while eating. It sounds like a gimmick, but 15 years after it first hit the headlines it's still on the menu at Blumenthal's three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
And the reason it works? Hard science, according to the man who helped Blumenthal design it. I'm meeting Professor Charles Spence in Dublin, where he's helping the food supplies firm BWG promote its stand at Catex, an exhibition of all things food at the RDS.
Spence styles himself as a gastrophysicist, a newly coined term for someone who studies those factors that influence our multisensory experience of tasting food and drink. And he says the world of taste and flavour is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional one.
"Taste and flavour mean different things to different people, and it's often not very straightforward. For example, most people think that taste resides entirely in the tongue, but actually a large degree of what we think of as flavour happens elsewhere," he says.
"The pleasures of the table reside in the mind and not in the mouth. A huge amount of it happens through the nose and in our psychology. When we see something that looks appetising, our brains start anticipating the flavour long before we put it in our mouths."
This isn't all that surprising - anyone who has ever had a blocked nose will know that not being able to smell food has a big impact on how it tastes. And everyone has a favourite comfort food that cheers them up when they are down. But Spence takes things further. Through his work as head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford he's confirmed that if dinner guests are given heavier cutlery, they're more likely to experience the meal as being of higher quality than if they are given plastic or lighter cutlery - and they'll pay more as a result.
Likewise, if you serve a sweet food like strawberry mousse on a dark plate, it'll be experienced as being around 10 per cent less sweet than when it's presented on a white plate. Ginger biscuits taste spicier when served on a rough plate, meanwhile, and how foods are coloured has a huge effect on how we expect them to taste.
Some of Spence's findings are surprisingly obvious, such as the fact that unappetising foods can be made more palatable simply by being renamed - sales of the abundant Patagonian toothfish were poor in Britain until someone came up with the idea of renaming it Chilean sea bass.
And it turns out that there's a strong emotional component to how food tastes. Dining alone in a cafeteria is a very different experience to being at a candlelit table with good friends, and a Sunday roast served on a Tuesday night just isn't the same. "There is a growing body of research on comfort food, and it's a term that seems to mean something to most people out there. Of course the actual food differs wildly - for some people it's chicken soup, for others its macaroni and cheese, and if Hollywood movies are to be believed, for many women after a break-up it's chocolate and ice-cream," Spence says.
"It's usually foods we've been given in childhood or when we were ill and being looked after that we crave in times of emotional threat. It can be different for boys and girls in childhood, and that's something that chefs are starting to pick up on. They're often now not just trying to create nice flavours but also trigger feelings of nostalgia by drawing your attention to your childhood."
As an example, he cites the chef Jozef Youssef of the restaurant Kitchen Theory in north London, with whom he has been collaborating on candy floss recipes. This is an ideal food to study for sensory reasons - people have strong associations with it as a fairground food, and it elicits feelings of relaxation and fun for most people.
"By using it, you can trigger feelings of comfort and wellbeing along with notions of nostalgia for diners," Spence says. "And it can be a carrier of lots of different flavours and colours, not just sweet ones."
While it might seem like an absolutely new area of study, Spence says that as far back as the 16th century, musicians composed pieces specifically to complement certain courses at feasts. And in the 1930s, the Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was fond of throwing dinner parties that involved spraying perfume in diners' faces while they ate, as well as serving frogs' legs to a soundtrack of croaking frogs.
A further interesting element of gastrophysics is the study of the differences between how various cultures around the world relate to their favourite foods. For example, in Ireland we have no tradition of eating foods like insects or textures like those found in jellyfish. However, in other parts of the world these are entirely normal foods.
And as issues surrounding food provenance and sustainability come increasingly to the fore of international conversations around food, one solution would be to get people to diversify and eat more foods that are easily farmed and harvested. But how do you get Irish people to eat crickets, or tuck into a bowl of jellyfish for dinner?
"Most of our preferences for food come through exposure. The only flavour we're all universally born knowing is sweetness and umami, which all babies experience in breast milk - after that, it's all learned. So we don't eat insects and jellyfish in this part of the world, at least not just yet, but I can see it coming," says Spence.
"People's tastes have changed in the past and they can change again. Two hundred years ago you couldn't give lobster or other crustaceans away and yet today they're highly prized and highly priced foods. Likewise, Dublin Bay prawns are essentially insects of the sea, and yet we just don't think of them that way."
Spence points out that we do eat insect products already anyway, we just don't think of them that way. Honey comes from bees, as does royal jelly. He also suggests the following thought experiment.
"If a maggot dropped into your food, would you be happy to pick it out and continue eating? Probably not. What about a butterfly in a pint of beer in the summer? Most people would be fine fishing it out and finishing the pint. What's the difference? One is ugly and one is pretty, but there isn't a difference really," he says.
Some high-end chefs dismiss the whole area of gastrophysics as nothing more than sensory trickery. In his book Gastrophysics, The New Science of Eating, Spence relates an encounter with the Michelin-starred Michael Caines of Gidleigh Park in Devon who told him that "good food should speak for itself".
"To many people who share this opinion, a meal is all about the local sourcing, the seasonality of ingredients, the detail and technique in the preparation, and beautiful cooking. That was certainly the line I heard from Caines when I met him in 2015. He'd have you believe that none of this other stuff matters, and that the world would perhaps be a better place without gastrophysics," he writes. "The honest chef lets their dishes do the talking. They don't need to worry about the weight of the cutlery to make their food taste great. And yet I don't need to go to Gidleigh Park to know that the cutlery will be heavy. There is just no way that any self-respecting chef would ever serve their food with a plastic or aluminium knife and fork."
He goes on to point out the Gidleigh Park is a beautiful manor house set in the heart of the English countryside, and that you don't need a gastrophysicist to tell you that the chef's dishes are going to taste better in this setting than if they were served in a hospital canteen or on an airplane.
"In other words," Spence says, "you cannot avoid the 'everything else' however much you might wish to. Wherever food and drink is served, sold or consumed there is always a multisensory atmosphere."