Tasting requires the use of all the senses; therefore, it's an organoleptic activity. While it’s no surprise that people who are serious participants in the food industry tend to have heightened sensuality, I feel that organoleptic acuity is requisite with regards to chefs and cooks.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview a man who is known world-wide to be an impetus of the senses, a person who has devoted his energies to molecular-gastronomy and cutting-edge cuisine, Spain's Albert Adria. You might have seen him on a recent episode of Chef’s Table. Or perhaps you’ve read about his eccentric culinary endeavor in Barcelona, El Barri (not to be confused with his past success at El Bulli), a neighborhood collection of restaurants of various concepts, all devoted to titillating the palate in their respective head-tilting ways. You could say it's an organoleptic mecca. A culinarian of caliber, Adria advises to learn how to taste before venturing into a kitchen. He says, “To cook, you need to first know how to eat.” When I asked him for advice on palate development, and made mention of organoleptics, his interest was piqued. He is an advocate, as he alluded to stressing its importance to others. He said that you must “eat a lot.” You need to know how something tastes in every season, in every possible facet. You simply keep tasting.
There is an appreciable difference between the acts of eating and tasting. Due to his background, one can assume that the two are synchronous for Adria. For the rest of us, though, we may need a reminder of the difference. Eating is an animalistic act. It is a means of providing our bodies with sustenance. It requires little to no usage of our senses. Tasting, however, entails mindfulness and presence. We utilize our senses in order to glean the most flavors, aromas, and textures possible. Perhaps, it is a form of meditation. As tasting becomes easier, we will notice more nuances from the food in question. It truly is a matter of practice.
The olfactory sense is our most primitive sense. In our ancestral, more basic human form, we needed our sense of smell as a means of survival. We utilized it to identify approaching predators, to locate food, and to detect that which was rancid, as well as to discern bitterness in a plant, which is a common sign that it’s poisonous. And what about pheromones? As humans have evolved, so have our other senses. Our olfactory system has lost its exigency. Some people lack a sense of smell altogether and live perfectly livable existences. Even so, the olfactory system makes up, debatably, 75-95% of what we taste. If our nose is plugged up, we might as well not try to taste anything. If you’re a chef or a cook, and your olfactory system isn’t acute, well, it's a disadvantage to us all. This clearly is not a problem for Albert Adria. He acknowledged that people commonly whiff their wine and sniff their cheese, but few people make the point of smelling their food. When I said, “You’re right. Why is that?” He exclaimed, perplexed, “I don’t know!” Imagine how much more could be sensed if we took the time to smell our dinner.
“Act like a blind person," said Adria, "be guided by your taste.” Don’t rely solely on your sense of sight. This is when the other senses bestir. The sense of smell should instantly become keener. How is the food in question’s aroma? Is it inviting? Does it smell off? Delve a little deeper. Do you sense earthy notes, and if so, which ones? Is it floral, herbaceous, fungal, minerally? If yes, can you pinpoint what kind of flowers: violets or honeysuckle? Is it minerally like clean granite, or is it metallic, like iron? What about savory notes? Does it smell like vegetable broth or gamey, like venison? Is it sulfuric, like hard boiled eggs or cruciferous vegetables?
When tasting food in such a way, one will find all sorts of nuances she or he might not have otherwise detected. We must be open to whatever we discover. Sometimes things that once tasted (and smelled) good, are not appealing anymore since we're gleaning more qualities. For instance, some cheeses that I used to gladly devour have become too farmy for me now. I don't like the taste and aroma of barn floor (or gland), and maybe I didn't taste it in the past because I was not mindfully utilizing my senses. Little by little, I’m learning to tap into that hidden, primal resource.
One relies on texture much more when one can’t see (or when one is tasting like a blind person). What does it feel like rolled between two fingers? What if I squeeze it? Does it smell the same when squished? Is it pliable? Spongey? Viscous?
I offered Adria a disc of Tieton Creamery’s Sonnet, which is a young, lactic goat and ewe’s milk cheese with a slight film of a geotrichum (the brainy-rind) bloom. Tieton is a sustainable, farmstead creamery, meaning everything happens in their locale, including animal husbandry, milking, artisan cheesemaking, and aging. It’s a solid representation of what Washington creameries strive to be. They make a variety of mixed milk cheeses, and I chose Sonnet because, though it has a broad flavor profile, it tastes clean and is congenial.
When I handed him the cheese, he instantly smelled it. Next, he squeezed it and excitedly said, “It feels like Coulommiers!”. Coulommiers is a French brie-style cheese that Adria works with specifically in his new cheesecake shop in London, Cakes and Bubbles. He’s clearly a fan, which makes me happy that he likened it to Sonnet. Though they are two entirely different cheeses, they have the same squeezy squidge. I delighted in seeing him huff and squish, and note that Sonnet would need to come to room temperature before eating, as it seemed a little cold.
Even though he says that he's "not a connoisseur" of cheese, and that he prefers approachable table cheeses, like Manchego or Grazalema Payoyo, watching how he examined Sonnet made me wish that I lived in Barcelona, so that I could be his cheesemonger and really get my hooks in him. He has the moxie to be among the most quixotic of cheese enthusiasts.
While Adria's advice on eating a lot is the most fundamental means of palatal development, I think it's important to address lifestyle activities that affect it as well. Smoking is one of the worst things we can do for our bodies. It also singes our taste buds. There are serious wine professionals who believe that a person who smoked for even a year of her life has already ruined her opportunity to be the best in their field. Not to mention the respiratory and sinus issues that go along with it to impede our palates further.
Refined sugar is also known to coat the tongue, numb the taste buds, as well as have many other detrimental effects. I have noticed that one bowl of ice cream (gosh, I love ice cream) or a frenzied buttermint bender will blast my palate for days. This won't do. For those of us with a sweet tooth, perhaps it’s better to have a glass of wine, a beer, or a scotch(!) for dessert. It serves as a sugar fix, and it’s a vessel for tasting practice.
Other factors that contribute to our tasting capabilities are things like alcohol consumption. One night of heavy drinking can blossom furry sweaters on the tongue. These little guys are not trying to investigate any kind of flavor profile. They want water. And so hydration, too, is key in having a nimble palate. Avoiding excessively fatty or acidic food and drink before a tasting is a good idea, as well. Lastly, and what one would hope is obvious, we should practice good oral hygiene. Full stop.
The work that Albert Adria is doing is revolutionizing the way we taste. Chefs and foodies are following his example by tuning into our senses to make eating more experiential. As he focuses his energies on challenging, and galvanizing our palates, he aggrandizes his own palate. It's brilliant. For someone in the food industry, heeding Adria’s advice about organoleptics is essential. For those of us who wish to sensually absorb as much from life as we can, well, I think he gives us the go-ahead. Now smell your food.
Rachael Lucas is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional. You can find her most often at The Cheesemonger's Table in Edmonds, WA. When she's not selling cheese, she's tasting it, melting it, pairing it, reading about it, writing about it, or dreaming about it.