‘And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?’
How indeed. Proust and his Madeleine: the most famous food moment in literature, when food, flavour and memory fuse together. We all know of it, refer to it, but how many of us have actually read it, and remarked how carefully Proust charts with precise minutiae the psychological and physiological processes that marked the mouthful of food Swann took?
It’s all there, the moment of taste, the thrill of flavour, the sequence of sensations triggered by a mere mouthful. The same things happen to us each time we eat. Ok, that may be something of an exaggeration. Most of the time we’re too busy or too preoccupied (or too self-conscious?) to give each mouthful that kind of exact attention. And yet we all have had those Proustian moments, when we can recall with nostalgic intensity the flavours of something we ate twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
And yet, what is ‘flavour’? Is it merely a philosophical concept? Or does it have physiological manifestations? Is flavour the same as taste? If not, how does flavour different from taste? How does flavour work? Do our brains register ‘flavours’ if so how? What are the mechanics of flavour” Or could flavour possibly be an amalgam of all the above? Now there’s a thought.
‘Food & Cooking -An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture’ by Harold McGee is one of the few imperative books on food ever published. In it he says ‘The overall flavour fruit and vegetable is a composite of several distinct sensations’. He lists those sensations in the mouth and one the tongue, and then explains how the process of chewing releases hundreds of thousands of volatile chemicals that rise up the nasal passages to the olfactory bulb which sorts them out into some kind of order as flavours. Flavour, says Harold McGee is ‘part taste, mostly smell’.
I once shared a long car trip with Harold McGee. He was the most enchanting and illuminating of companions. In the course of the journey, he outlined the theory and practice of taste and flavour, and went on to describe how the olfactory bulb passed on the information to neural pathways, which in turn communicated with different parts of the brain and that allowed to sort out flavours and express ourselves on them. He made it sound all so logical and sensible that I could understand it. Then he spoiled it all by saying ‘Of course, the latest research suggests that it might be the other way round.’ Flavour, you might say is an on-going project.
NB. This blog first appeared as one of a series in Flavour First – http://www.flavourfirst.org/