"Taste and flavour are not just about what we put in our mouth"by Philip Ball / March 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, by Charles Spence (Viking, £16.99)
For once the cliché is apt: this book really could change the way you eat. Gastrophysics (a misleading term—there’s scarcely any physics involved) is the science of eating and drinking as a multi-sensory experience, from the textures, sounds and colours of food to the heft of the cutlery, the shape of the plate, and the environment and company in which we consume. At one end of the spectrum is the high-concept gastronomic experimentation of chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, with whom Spence has collaborated extensively. (Surely no other research discipline includes extravagant meals at Blumenthal’s Fat Duck as a perk.) At the other end we discover why takeaway coffee is compromised by the plastic lid and why the furniture in McDonald’s is so unwelcoming.
There are revelations on every page. Supermarket shoppers bought three times more French than German wine when piped French accordion music, but the sales figures were reversed with Bierkeller music. We’ll pay twice as much for the same food when it is artfully arranged. Avant-garde dishes may come with purely aromatic “sides” (damp oak moss, anyone?). South Korean food porn (mukbang) is simply that: live streaming of people at home, fully clothed, tucking into noodles.
Some will see the extra-culinary tricks as gimmickry that good food doesn’t need. But Spence convincingly shows that taste and flavour are not just about what we put in our mouth. For evolutionary and cultural reasons, our brains integrate all our sensory input into the experience. We’re not being fooled by false signals, any more than music fools us into emotion. Bon appetit!