Monday, April 06, 2009

Taste and smell

I have been thinking about questions involving taste and smell lately, as, recently, an offhand comment from a friend surprised me and got the cogwheels turning. I was talking about a dish I like – a foodstuff/aromatic pairing that was once (when Alain Senderens boldly used it a couple of decades ago) shocking and deliciously offbeat, but which has now become fairly standard: lobster with vanilla.

This friend recoiled. "I can't stand the taste of vanilla in savory foods. It reminds me too much of horrible overoaked Chardonnays."

Not only was my plan for a lobster bread pudding with vanilla sauce sent spiraling right down the drain, but the comment got me thinking. Does tasting and drinking wine transform our vision of food?

I know it transforms our way of smelling in the world. Sometimes when I walk out into the street, I am overwhelmed by one odor or another. I pick things apart. Leather from jackets hanging in front of a clothing store; roasting chickens with thyme and tarragon stuffed in them; and of course, the manifold unsavory scents we have to endure. There are places in the world, too, that smell corked. (I remember the unmistakable corkedness of a street off Leicester Square filling my nostrils in London last fall.) My nose is sharper than before I was interested in wine, obviously. Those muscles have been trained.

People are taught not to wear perfumes or use strong-smelling soap before tastings, but some wine geek friends eschew them always (well, maybe they're always drinking?).

But, getting back to tastes: I wonder if loving wine, and especially certain types of wine, has broadened my palate for food. Are there some foods I liked less, which I now enjoy because they evoke some flavor component in a wine I have come to love?

Fodder for thought.


Gavin said...

This topic is of great interest to me.

Yes, I believe that appreciation of wine greatly expands food appreciation and vice versa. For example, there are people who love Loire reds and people who detest them. Those who love them almost always love (or at least like) green vegetables or tomato-based sauces, which are marked by the same underlying chemical which gives the leafy green aroma to the wine. Likewise, those who detest Loire reds, cannot come at green vegetables.

Where it becomes interesting is when they develop an interest in Loire reds for their other qualities and then begin to start appreciating tomato, haricots verts, asparagus, spinach...

Another example is lovers of soft cheese who pass over the great hard cheeses -- particularly Beaufort and Comté. As they start to appreciate wines of great minerality, like Corton-Charlemagne, Chablis, Manzanilla, so they start to appreciate those cheeses, I have found.

the vlm said...

My nose is sharper than before I was interested in wine, obviously. Those muscles have been trained.

Well, this is not clearly true. Some research I did as a graduate student (unpublished, I'm lazy, but my masters thesis is bound at UNC) showed that there was no evidence of detection threshold differences between experts (recruited wine professionals) and amateurs there was a slight difference in initial levels of the variance about the "intensity" judgment. This showed a difference in the judgments of amount, but not necessarily kind. Interestingly, the gap between amateurs and pros closed over repeated sessions.

So, while there does seem to be some prima facie evidence for differential tuning at the olfactory epithelium, there is very little experimental evidence.

So, what you most certainly have is an expanded vocabulary and memory for olfactory sensations and better judgments about intensity but not, strictly speaking, better sensitivity.

I love it when Lit majors muse scientific.

Sharon said...

I love it when scientists try to read Lit musings! I was abounding in your sense, VLM. "Detection threshold differences" was not what I was referring to in the supposed "trained muscle" of my nose (a metaphor, see?), but rather, yeah, a better set of skills at identifying what scents are. When you were seven, did you know what bergamot smelled like?

Anonymous said...


"Detection threshold"

Dude, are you sure you left your keys over there?


the vlm said...

I grew up in a bergamot family.

What you were implying is that your sense of smell was more acute. As far as we can prove, that isn't true. It appears that you just have better labels.

I left my keys at Joe's.

Thomas @ the blog wine cellar said...

Does tasting and drinking wine transform our vision of food?

Answer: Absolutely

I totally agree that in the process of constantly anylizing wine and aromas profiles it changes your perspective on food and positively broadens a persons palate for food.

I often think about this and it helps me to persue new and exciting food and wine pairings.

pisto said...


I cannot stand grated carrots or eat any kind of industrial salad which includes them. They always taste corked, at least in Spain. Plain awful.

And I love Loire reds!