A nose for flavour

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

What is flavour? It is a word of­ten used care­lessly and im­pre­cisely. It might re­fer to dif­fer­ent sorts of ed­i­bles, such as ice cream (straw­berry, strac­ciatella, New York su­per fudge chunk), or it might be called on to de­scribe a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tic of a food or drink. But what ex­actly does it mean? My bat­tered old Collins de­fines it as, “taste per­ceived in food or liq­uid in the mouth”, or “sub­stance added to food, etc, to im­part a spe­cific taste”.

Spot the prob­lem here. Flavour isn’t per­ceived only by taste but also our sense of smell. You could eas­ily ar­gue that all three of our other senses make a large con­tri­bu­tion too, but as any­one who has lost it knows only too well, with­out a sense of smell you would be com­pletely un­able to dis­cern one flavour of a smooth ice cream from another. Part of the trick­i­ness is that there is no verb that de­notes the com­plex mix­ture of senses we use when we per­ceive flavour: we “taste” things or “smell” them, never both at once. I re­cently gave a talk on the dif­fer­ence be­tween taste and flavour, as well as a wine-tast­ing, for sup­port­ers of the char­ity Fifth Sense which cam­paigns for and pro­vides an in­for­ma­tion net­work for those with an im­paired sense of smell. A sur­pris­ing five per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is po­ten­tially anos­mic (un­able to smell), par­tially anos­mic, or suf­fers from another smell disorder, but judg­ing by those I met many are still quite keen to drink wine, and to get as much out of it as they pos­si­bly can.

We smell in two dif­fer­ent ways: or­thonasally – when you sniff some­thing that’s in the air or un­der your nose – and retronasally, when food or drink is al­ready in your mouth and the odour mol­e­cules make their way from inside your throat to the ol­fac­tory re­cep­tors, and it is pos­si­ble for one ca­pa­bil­ity to be dam­aged while the other still func­tions cor­rectly.

Re­search pub­lished this year shows we are ca­pa­ble of dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween one tril­lion dif­fer­ent smells. Our sense of taste, which de­tects sweet, sour, salt, bit­ter­ness, umami and fat, doesn’t of­fer quite such a rich land­scape. Each taste is de­tected sep­a­rately and fMRI stud­ies have shown that they ac­ti­vate dif­fer­ent ar­eas of a part of the brain called the in­su­lar cor­tex, though which part varies from per­son to per­son.

I picked the wines I showed at the Fifth Sense con­fer­ence with this in mind, first choos­ing a dry ries­ling from Aus­tralia. Ries­ling is a highly acidic grape; I was aim­ing to give those taste re­cep­tors some­thing to get freaked out about. It did not go down well. Stripped of its lime-an­dlilac scent, the anos­mics said the ries­ling just tasted thin and sour. Prob­a­bly I missed a trick in not opt­ing for a Ger­man ries­ling, in which a sweet-sour in­ter­play along with the vis­cos­ity added by the sugar would have been a lot more fun.

Much more suc­cess­ful was a red wine with tan­nins (a bit of as­trin­gency) and – I think this was key – lots of ruf­fled tex­ture and weight. Do­maine Les Yeuses “Les Epices” Syrah 2011/12 (Ma­jes­tic, £7.99) is a great wine whether you can smell well or not. It has a warm spici­ness, and is rem­i­nis­cent of black pep­per too. A re­ally fan­tas­tic casse­role wine.

Pro­cess­ing this feed­back, I re­alised that those who strug­gle to smell would prob­a­bly en­joy wine I rou­tinely dis­miss as be­ing “too bretty”. That is, wine in­fected with the yeast bret­tanomyces, which of­ten smells of leather or horse breath or cow pats (we used to call this “ter­roir” – now we know bet­ter) and has a dis­tinc­tive suede-like tex­ture. In sub-£10 wines a bit of brett can add com­plex­ity. In a more ex­pen­sive wine it ob­scures the rest of the wine to the point where you may as well drink some­thing cheaper. But it is good for any­one suf­fer­ing from a cold or other tem­po­rary or per­ma­nent smell loss.

The last drink we tasted was a beer – for the bit­ter­ness, but also the bub­bles. Bub­bles are a help­ful source of oral in­ter­est for any­one who can’t smell prop­erly. I used to think this was be­cause of the sen­sa­tion of the bub­bles burst­ing on your tongue. I’ve now learnt that the lit­tle prick­les you feel jab­bing at your tongue and throat when you drink ef­fer­ves­cent liq­uids are caused by a re­ac­tion sim­i­lar to the one that oc­curs when we eat chilli. In very sim­ple terms, the dis­solved car­bon diox­ide ac­ti­vates our pain re­cep­tors – no­ci­cep­tors – by stim­u­lat­ing an ion chan­nel called TRPV1 (pro­nounced trip-vee-one). TRPV1 is ac­ti­vated when we eat chilli or garlic, and it’s also de­ployed to de­tect po­ten­tially tis­sue-dam­ag­ing tem­per­a­tures, or those above 43.25C, which is why chilli makes us hot and sweaty. So you could say that fizzy drinks are a lit­tle bit like eat­ing spice. No won­der they’re so much fun.

Is this flavour? Well I think so. I think that flavour is a very broad term. And the more you un­der­stand about how it works, par­tic­u­larly if your sense of smell is less than per­fect, the more tricks you will want up your sleeve to make eat­ing and drink­ing more fun.

Another lovely party white, no bub­bles this time, just a creamy tex­ture, glim­mers of cit­rus and a peachy smooth­ness. I had to look the grapes up as couldn’t fig­ure out what it was: a chardonnay, sau­vi­gnon blanc and viognier blend, as it turns out. Dan­ger­ously drink­able.

vic­to­[email protected]­graph.co.uk


Scents and sen­si­bil­ity: en­joy­ing wine isn’t just about ap­pre­ci­at­ing its aroma

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