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Tasting something is, basically, a little like studying it: it takes a lot of concentration to recognize the flavors, decompose the recipe and its principal ingredients; to pick out that hint of nutmeg while savoring some croquet potatoes, or to recognize from the aroma spreading through the house what it is that’s being cooked in the oven. And just as in the academic world, one learns by studying hard (and making a lot of mistakes).
Scientists also agree that most palates, when well-trained, are able to rise closer to the levels of those of the top chefs. Chefs themselves confirm this: «A good palate can be trained by the mind. Some people have a natural gift, but others can learn. It’s a kind of training of the mind.» The words of Atul Kocchar, an Indian master chef who comes highly praised by the Michelin Guide – today he’s gone from cooking in the three-star kitchens of Delhi to those of London. Imagination, experience and sensitivity might be somewhat lacking, but with a little schooling, any diner can learn how to truly appreciate an elaborate dish.
Studies in experimental psychology carried out at Oxford University have found that a person’s genes are only involved up to a certain point. Here, researchers compared so-called ‘super-tasters’ (people with very sensitive palates, able to detect the slightest hint of a dish’s secret ingredient) with people who, on the other hand, find it hard to even recognize the principal ingredient of a dish.
Their results give a picture of the world’s palates and abilities: 25% of people can be labeled as ‘super-tasters’, while an equal amount can’t even recognize what went in to the dish they’re eating. The majority of the population however (50%) is made up of those who have the ability to break down the barricades and discover what’s really hiding within that Greek moussaka, a lasagna, or a Kerala crab curry from India. For them, all it takes is a little thought and education.
There are some limits, of course, because obviously our sensitivity to taste is reduced as we get older. If, when young, every human being has around 10,000 different taste receptors, when we get older, we are only left with around half of the taste buds we originally had. It’s for this reason that as we get older we have to use much more sugar and salt before we get the desired effect.
There are also medical conditions which can hinder our sense of taste. People with conditions such as sinusitis, flu, allergies or nasopharyngeal inflammations will find that the degeneration of their taste buds is accelerated, as is also the case with hardened drinkers or smokers.
For people in this last category, for example, stopping smoking will mean amplifying once again their sensorial experience of a glass of wine or a meal. Of course, this tasty bonus won’t save you from those other symptoms typical of those kicking the habit: excessive weight gain, anxiety, and irritability.
During a course of tasting lessons in Germany organized by the German Neurological Society, however, students are taught how to recognize flavors: for those who smoke, all you have to do is wait an extra minute, and the sensations picked up by the tongue and nose are same as those who don’t touch tobacco.
The tongue and the nose, not to mention the eyes and ears: these are the four ‘doors of perception’ – in fact, research produced by America’s Food Marketing Institute claims that the weighting of taste sensations in taste tests should be calculated using inverse proportions, with taste itself being reduced to just 20%, with 80% given over to the involvement of the olfactory sense.
Others, such as chef Heston Blumenthal (who can boast three Michelin stars), have also demonstrated how the taste of food improves when an auditory experience is also thrown in. Blumenthal serves his Sounds of the Sea fresh fish dish along with an iPod for diners to listen to as they eat (the speakers are cleverly hidden in seashells): the soundtrack to this particular meal is the sound of waves washing up on the beach.
Other market researchers have revealed that, besides considerations such as brand preference and method of preparation, the French fries that make the loudest crunching sound when bitten in to are those that are most enjoyed by the consumer.
It should also be remembered that our body’s need for food and calories can condition and distort our sense of taste, and influence our palates: according to academics at North Carolina’s Duke University, the human body is naturally more attracted to foods which are the most fattening, regardless of how well cooked they are.
Another pharmacologist from the University of California has even demonstrated how eating fatty and fried foods can create a level of dependence on a par with marijuana. This all goes to legitimize, then, our innate, unexplainable need to enjoy, every now and again, a nice plate of French fries.
The real queen of the dining table, though, both in terms of its calorific content and simplicity of preparation, both of which are understood the world over, is pasta. And it’s not just the Italians who say this.
In line with data collected by the charity Oxfam, which carries out its work all over the world, dealing with nutrition in poor countries, pasta is one food appreciated by palates everywhere: it beats rice, pizza and meat even in unexpected nations such as the Philippines, Guatemala, South Africa and Brazil, where it can claim to be best loved and most consumed food. And, surprisingly, Venezuela can claim to be the world’s second largest consumer of pasta (after Italy, obviously).