Oxford Psychology Professor and Neurogastronomist Dr Charles Spence has chosen the tastiest speciality of all, and in between G&Ts he gives us the skinny on his field
Dr Spence, what exactly is Neurogastronomy?
In layman’s terms, neurogastronomy is a newish facet of psychological research that tries to understand how the brain perceives flavour. It examines how colours, sounds, tastes, sights and aromas combine as part of the overall food and drink experience.
How did you get started in such a niche field?
At Oxford I started out looking at hearing and vision and how the senses combine. Over the years my study drew me into the world of taste and touch and then in 2002 I began consulting for Heston Blumenthal, and that’s just kind of steamrolled into more and more chefs and kitchens.
How important are the accessories to a meal – the non-edible elements?
Until two years ago there was zero research about how changing the cutlery could change the taste – the shape of the plate matters, the weight, size and shape of the cutlery matters. A chef might say, "the plate doesn’t change the taste of the food – don’t be silly,” and I can say, “yes it does – here is the evidence.”
Heavy is nearly always better, be it in the plate, cutlery or wine bottle. Although the exception is fine-bone china teacups, where light seems to be better. We have also found that white plates will make food taste sweeter; round white plates will make it taste sweeter still.
Why then do people love fast food?
I think eating with your hands is a big one factor. Eating with your hands will taste better than the finest cutlery and plate wear if you are say, eating fish and chips by the sea. It also has to do with expectations. Expensive crockery would feel wrong in a cheap burger place.
Why is a gin and tonic the pre-dinner drink of choice?
The effervescence or carbonic acid on the tongue helps to draw people’s attention to the tongue by getting you to concentrate on the right place. From there, the citrus in the drink is an excellent palate cleanser. When it comes to the receptors on the tongue you have sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami to play with. Umami flavours will linger in the mouth and that feeling won’t go away when the next course arrives. Citrus is an intense taste that dissipates quickly and leaves people wanting more. Finally, the botanicals in gin help cleanse the nose, which is where the subtle aromas come in.
Can you describe your last meal – neurogastronomically?
Heavy cutlery and the heavy platewear. I’d also think very much about the lighting and the music. It being my last meal I might want to linger over it. Playing a high number or beats wouldn’t be the thing to do, because that makes me eat and drink faster. A much slower number would be on the decks. I’m thinking classical because I’ve seen the research saying that classical music has associations with quality and class and that transfers to what we are eating. When you look at people’s memories of meals, what counts is the first bite and the last, and so you should have a music match for those moments, because it would be the very last.
Finally, help some of our readers out: how does one get kids to eat their veggies?
Changing the colour of the vegetables will help. We put colourful purées of something the kids might not normally like on their plates. Get a child to eat cauliflower by adding chocolate. They go very well because of the volatiles that are shared across the two foodstuffs.
What is exciting at the moment in the world of flavour is to start this kind of training even before the child is born. If the mother eats cereal in the morning with carrot-flavoured milk, the offspring when they are born will be more likely to like carrots. And the earlier and the more exposure you can give is crucial – everyone likes things more as they are exposed to them. Just getting people to try things once even though you know they won't like it is the first step. Then you get them to do it a few times and it gets easier – more familiar.
Dr Charles Spence will be co-hosting a Rockpool retrospective dinner at Rosetta in November.