Gastrophysics is changing the way we understand food

falso-huevo-de-erizo-photo-jose-luis-lopez-de-zubiria-mugaritzA staple ingredient of many science fiction movies is the ‘food pill’; a small tablet containing all of humanity’s daily nutritional needs. Whilst not light years from reality, this glimpse of the future fails to acknowledge the important social benefits humans derive from food and communal dining. But food alone is thought to be only a small, if central, part of what makes up a fabulous meal. Chefs and scientists (not a mutually exclusive bunch) are increasingly blending science, technology and gastronomy to stimulate all the senses in an effort to produce the greatest dining experience humanity has ever known.

The Provençal Rosé paradox, according to Charles Spence of Oxford University, describes the unwelcome magic trick whereby that delightful bottle of wine sampled on holiday, has seemingly turned to vinegar when opened at home. The wine may be the same, but the relaxed mind and sparkling company may not have survived the transit. It depends on how the brain absorbs and interprets information from all five senses. Multi-sensory perception, as it is known, is becoming better understood and exploited. Particularly the relationship between taste and smell. These two senses, compared to the others, are filtered to a lesser degree on the way to the limbic system; the part of the brain processing memory and emotion. Foodies are excited. No more so than Chef Andoni Aduriz, holder of two Michelin stars at Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain: “in every corner of the world food is becoming a priority for research, innovation and creativity”, he says.

Diners’ emotions are being manipulated in artful ways. At The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin starred restaurant in Britain, reminder cards delivered a month prior to a reservation are scented with the same oil contained in the wooden door frame through which a diner passes on the big day. Likewise, bags of sweets to take home repeat flavours experienced at the table for weeks after (or days, depending on the diner’s sweet tooth). They are both subtle ways of elongating and elevating the meal in the diner’s memory. Heavy cutlery is also perceived to herald more sophisticated food. (Concorde eschewed the fuel-saving properties of light cutlery for this reason.) And when food was laid out like Wassily Kandinsky’s Painting No. 201 in a recent study, diners preferred the meal (and were prepared to pay more for it) to a plate of identical but ordinarily-presented ingredients.In it’s hunger for information, the brain can be seduced by the senses to alter flavours, experiences and memories. As Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy and Centre for the Study of the Senses at London University advises, “if you don’t like the wine, change the music”.

The implications go wider than the dinner table. Ultimately our five senses are received in the brain as electrical signals. So Professor Adrian Cheok of City University in London has been producing his own. Delivering an electrical current between 50 Hz and 1 KHz to a sceptical volunteer’s tongue, Mr Cheok can electrically produce a taste sensation of lemon. The possibility exists then that in the future humans may transmit taste over the internet. Or, through, say, implanted devices, electrically alter or invent flavours. Children could be encouraged to eat unpleasant tasting but healthy foods. Diabetics could enjoy sweet foods without a trace of sugar. Or dementia sufferers could be repeatedly drawn back to the present through a memory of their favourite flavour. Food for thought.

The photo accompanying this post of sunripened berry fruits, drops of extra virgin olive oil, lime and cold beetroot bubbles is courtesy of Mugaritz restaurant and taken by Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria.

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