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Pink Bananas, Purple Potatoes and Green Oranges: 24 Hours with Charles Spence

16 March, 2021
Charles Spence

Being on the road so much, I enjoy relaxing by cooking at home in Oxford. My favourite dishes are all incredibly spicy, like pasta arrabiata, which me and my wife probably have at least once a week. Thai green curry is another semi-regular. On a day-to-day basis, when it’s just us (we don’t have any kids), gastrophysics takes a back seat. We use her flowery cutlery and named plates (Chez Barbara) and I don’t have a say.

A few years ago, we had the young Franco-Colombian chef Charles Michel in the lab as its first chef-in-residence. Periodically, we’d have some of the chefs over from The Fat Duck and we’d have lab dinner parties. They were really our chance to try out fun things, like furry cutlery and lightbulbs that change colour during a dish.

People do get worried if they ask me to dinner. They think that I must have a discriminating palate. Ironically, I’m not a very discriminating taster, which is perhaps why I’m so interested in plates, cutlery, music and everything else that can influence the taste of food and drink. Perhaps that’s where most of the pleasure comes for me.

In lockdown, I’ve become interested in how peoples’ food behaviours may have changed. I suddenly started making a lot more lasagnes, which is something I had never done before. There was a lot of home-baking going on, and increased sales of flour (according to my brother the baker). That might be something about comfort and the familiar smells, and using food and cooking to manage, enhance or control your indoor environment.

It’s almost like we are getting more emotional support from food and from cooking. I can’t help but wonder whether the gastronomic tide may be turning.

As such, I worry that some of our latest gastrophysics research may no longer be so relevant. For example, will diners still find the idea of 'eating magic' appealing after lockdown, or having an extraordinary food experience (e.g. what would it be like to give people ASMR neck shivers when they eat and drink, or make them cry?), as perhaps they might before the crisis struck. The world is a different place now, and my guess is that many people will regress towards the sweeter-tasting, the more familiar, the rounder, and the more comforting in cuisine.

The best meals are maybe a sign of how time disappears. What always strikes me most a meal at The Fat Duck is how five hours can disappear without you even realising, which hasn’t really happened anywhere else. And it has happened repeatedly in Bray. It’s a magical thing, I think, to be able to make time literally fly.

A lot of the ideas I get for experiments come from the places I go, places I eat, or people I speak to. People sometimes ask if you can still enjoy food while studying it all the time and I want to say 'yes', because I’m always looking for the next experiment, asking why do they do things that way? Does it influence the dining experience? And, if so, how?


Photo: Cubios

Yesterday we had Charles Michel round to dinner with some interesting national produce, fruits and vegetables to try out. A black pot of very thick liquid like marmite, made from Amazonian ants and yucca, an amazing product, and a jar of sliced potatoes that look like worms called ‘cubios’ which are purplish-blue. Purple or blue potatoes are fascinating and much more common here. I’m very interested in their growing popularity. Sir Walter Raleigh came back to Europe with white potatoes after his trip to Colombia, but just imagine if he had returned to England with blue/purple potatoes instead?

Gastrophysics is not only in the lab, it’s also there in nature. In the garden, we have what I call ‘confused fruits and vegetables.’ The lemons are green, but they’re not limes, we have a cross between mandarins and lemons, green oranges and pinkish-red-skinned bananas. Having just finished reading Ai Hisano’s (2019) Visualizing Taste book, I now know that it was actually the Californian fruit lobby who sold us the idea that oranges had to look orange (not green, like the ones from Florida). Hisano also highlights how in the early 1900s, pink bananas were actually pretty much as common as yellow ones. I’m trying to re-connect to things that are natural but strike one as unnatural.

We don’t really watch television. I probably work too late which is why I don’t get to sleep. A gin and tonic helps. But I normally go to bed pretty early (9.30 pm). I might think about the garden and my next phase of trying to tame nature. When I remember them, my dreams (nightmares?) often involve me being chased by baddies or murdered, you know those dreams when they’re all out to get you, those stressful ones (this is probably a result of my being addicted to horror books as a child).

Pink Bananas

Pink Bananas are just some of the fruits Charles Spence grows in his garden. Picture: iStock


Describe your job in three words.

Fun, fascinating and tasty.

'If I wasn’t an experimental psychologist working with food and drink, I would have been...'

As a child, I wanted to be a vet or an astronaut. As an adult, I like to think that I would have been a management consultant, at least I would if I hadn’t had all those typos in my CV.

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