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How Important Is Our Sense of Taste?

Posted: 29/07/2013 23:16

Whisky

2013-07-29-auchentoshan.jpg


In front of me is a place mat laid out with scientific exactness. On it are three whiskies of varying hues and temperaments, three vials containing pastel coloured papers, the equation "aroma + taste = flavour" written in one corner, and a ballpoint pen. The whisky is Auchentoshan - Scottish, single malt, triple distilled and the host of the 'Taste Experiment' evening I'm at - the vials are filled with substances with which I will be able to judge my sensitivity to taste. The pen is for writing. Obviously.

Dunne Frankowski, a pair of coffee blenders leading the current part of the evening direct us to the three vials and tell us that it's time for a PTC test; a test which uses a substance called PTC (also known as phenylthiocarbamide) to determine just how sensitive each of our individual sense of taste is. A piece of paper comes out of the first vial and we're instructed to put it on our tongue and note down what happens.

I do this and absolutely nothing does - I taste nothing. I am instantly overtaken with anxiety. Does this mean that I have no sense of taste - that I'm no better, gastronomically that is, than the cretins guffawing at the Big Bang Theory, or feverishly reading Dan Brown novels? I look around, trying to gauge other people's reactions. What are they tasting? How could I have gone through life this deluded, writing about food when, really, I don't even have the ability to determine whether what I'm eating is foie gras or a damp sponge.

"That was just paper," says Frankowski - one half of the pair - I breathe a sigh of relief. For a second I thought I was what they call a 'non-taster'; someone who barely has a sense of taste. Someone who, you could argue, evolution should have weeded out by now.

The purpose of taste, as I find out through the course of the evening, is more than to just eating pleasurable (normally). It is also there to create a desire in us for the foods that we need, and to help us single out just what those foods are. The five tastes - sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami - all signify different things. Bitterness, to which 'super-tasters' (the name given to those with the most acute tastebuds), are particularly sensitive, is commonly a sign of poison. Sweet normally signifies energy, often found in carbohydrates (as a baby this is something we're initially draw to; this is why mother's milk is - apparently at least, I must confess I haven't tested this out personally - sweet). Umami is often found in protein, while salt is something we crave when our bodies are lacking necessary minerals. Sourness supposedly acts in much the same way as bitterness does in order to ward us away from dangerous substances.

Back in our hunter gathering days, when we were nothing but bewildered idiots wandering through barren deserts putting every scrap of dirt into our mouths to see if we could swallow it without being violently sick, a keen sense of taste was an invaluable tool in guiding us through what we could and couldn't eat. It's why you'd assume that those who could better pick out acridity and bitterness in berries and foods would survive longer than those huffing down rotten mammoth flesh without a care. Survival of the fittest; or survival of those with the best palate.

Of course, today we're far less dependant on our sense of taste (Skittles and Quality Street packets even have handy keys on their packaging, lest we by mistake chomp down on the coconut one), but there still undoubtedly a sense of pride that comes from having an expertly sensitive mouth. To be a super-taster - in my mind at least - is to be impossibly cultured; effortlessly worldy and just better than everyone else. Like having a high IQ, it's evidence of our presupposed equality being yet again shattered.

It's part of the reason why, when we move on to the actual PTC test, and I find out that I'm not a super-taster, that I feel instantly deflated and strangely emasculated. Again it involves putting a piece of paper on our tongues, but this time I get a mild bitterness that is no where near as off-putting as the woman who sits across from me, who has to spit it out in a wave of disgust, finds it. She is a super-taster and I am - entirely irrationally - jealous beyond belief.

My sense of taste is just average. I'm not a non-taster (who can still taste, but registers as the least sensitive on the scale), but I'm far off being exemplary, and it's something which is strangely, and crushingly, disheartening. Objectively it might be better to not be so sensitive to taste, as I can still stomach a friend's bad cooking without resorting to covertly spitting it into a bush, and I can just about eat plane food. Yet, there's a part of me which, at that moment, feels like giving up and resigning myself to a life of eating boiled eggs and old milk out of a trough that I keep under my bed.

Later in the evening I meet Rachel Barrie, master blender at the Auchentoshan distillery, a woman who is so much of a super-taster that she can pick out over one hundred aromas from a single whisky. I tell her of my plight at being just another numb taster (more accurately: irrational inadequacy complex), but she is positive. So much of what we perceive as flavour comes from the smell, she says - more so than the actual taste in fact. I decide not to tell her about my currently blocked nose, in case she thinks that my enthusiasm for the Three Wood Auchentoshan is based on the fact that I am surrounded by it. It's not, it's because I find it genuinely complex and warming and rich in the way that only a whisky - a good one - can be. At least I think it is, but being in possession of a limp, dead tongue, I can't be sure. I wouldn't take my word for it.

Auchentoshan are running another Taste Experiment event in Glasgow on October 8

 

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