It’s hard to surpass the amazing taste of Belgian chocolate but why does it taste so good?
The secret is in the consistent milling to 18 microns which is below the sense of feeling of the tongue’s taste buds and hence there is no ‘grainy’ sensation when the chocolate melts on the tongue, just pure, velvety delight.
Just like all our senses, our ability to distinguish different stimuli relating to taste is astonishing.
When someone asks you how something tastes, your answer could be “good” or “delicious”, or “smooth” or “creamy”.
But in fact the number of variable taste responses when carefully sensorially analysed are enormous.
There are five universally accepted basic tastes that stimulate and are perceived by our taste buds: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami and four areas of the tongue: front, mid, sides and back which in combination with the five basic tastes enable us to perceive an infinite number of flavour combinations and their sensory differences.
But just like an orchestra, creating a pleasing harmony in new food and drink product flavours is about understanding how they interplay with each other – where should the bass flavour come from, which flavour should the guest soloist and so on.
A great British favourite is the egg and bacon sandwich but why? The creaminess and subtlety of the egg contrasts beautifully with the smoky, crispiness of the bacon and the flavours interplay with each other through their strong contrast – giving each an opportunity in turn to lead the flavour orchestra and supplemented by differences in texture too.
The Michelin star chef Atul Kochhar was described by Prue Leith as ‘the master of spice’ when she was one of the judges on ‘Cooking for the Queen’.
Anyone who has been delighted by his food will know how true this is. I was fortunate enough to work with him in taking a range of sauces and chutneys from the kitchen of The Tamarind Restaurant to the shelves of Sainsbury’s.
I’m sure we’ve all had incredible food and drink experiences which have become lasting memories, and at the top of my list is the first time I sampled his exquisite food at The Tamarind.
His mastery of spice is about a deep understanding of taste and the part the individual ingredients play in combining to create a symphony of individual and distinct flavours in each and every mouthful.
By milling spices to different sizes and adding them to dishes in carefully choreographed sequences and cooking timings, the role of the flavour soloist changes constantly, teasing the palate with an endless and changing combination of high, mid and low taste notes.
So how can the flavour of everyday foods and drinks be optimised in this way?
Exceptional flavour delivery and taste excitement is not only about the individual taste components, but the journey from the front to the back of the mouth and every part of the transition. And as mentioned previously, texture is a key component too.
So let’s look at each flavour sensation in turn.
Sweetness is often described as the pleasure taste, signalling the presence of sugar, which is a core source of energy and hence desirable to the human body. And when used in a combination, sweet beautifully complements the other senses of taste.
Adding sweetness such as a drizzle of sweet balsamic glaze to a traditionally salty vegetable dish like roasted brussel sprouts takes it to the next level.
The simplest taste receptor in the mouth is the sodium chloride receptor. Salt is a necessary component to the human diet and enhances the flavour of foods. However, the average UK consumer tends to consume way more than needed (about 2-3 times above recommended daily limit), and the more we consume the more our palates adapt to crave more salt still.
Interestingly though, when individuals reduce the amount of salt in their diets, their taste buds re-adjust and adapt to being satisfied with less.
As a flavour enhancer, adding salt to traditionally sweet dishes is necessary to amplify the sweet notes. A pinch of salt is core to most baked dessert recipes for example.
Even if it is not listed in the ingredients, sprinkling sea salt flakes over chocolate brownies for example enhances the sweetness, and of course, salted caramel is a much loved flavour in popcorn and ice cream.
Sourness is a taste that detects acidity. These taste buds detect hydrogen ions from organic acids found in foods. This mouth puckering sensation is common in citric fruits such as lemons and oranges, as well as tamarind and leafy greens.
The sour taste can also be obtained from foods soured through fermentation such as kombucha, kefir and yogurt, or through the addition of vinegar for example.
Many salad dressings feature vinegar as a key ingredient as it’s the perfect way to add sour notes. Lemon and orange zest work well too, adding a contrasting flavour which is so important in simple dishes.
Bitter is the most sensitive of the five tastes. A large number of bitter compounds are known to be toxic, which is why many perceive bitter flavours to be unpleasant.
Hundreds of substances, mostly found in plants, taste bitter. However, a little bitterness can make food more interesting and have become beloved.
Further, there are numerous instances where some bitterness is an indicator of healthy as is the cause with flavonoids and antioxidants, which aid numerous aspects of our metabolism and account for the bitter taste in dark chocolate, coffee, wines and beers.
Umami is an appetitive taste, sometimes described as savoury or meaty. It is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes. In the early part of the 20th century, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda attempted to identify this taste common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. But, not one of the four well-known tastes could describe it adequately. What he pinpointed was the presence of glutamic acid, which he renamed “umami”, Japanese for “good flavour”. Though one of the core flavors of Eastern cuisine imparted by soy sauce and MSG (monosodium glutamate), it wasn’t accepted as a basic taste in the West until 1985.
Today umami is recognised as the most important flavour aspect of savoury foods which make us want more because its inclusion creates both a complexity and depth of flavour which cannot be surpassed.
Without doubt, this has driven our increasing demand for flavours of the world and new taste experiences which can delight us beyond the norm.
And the great British bacon and egg sandwich has umami in bucket loads combined in a complex way with the other flavours so it’s no surprise that many meat eaters who become vegans say it’s the one food they really miss!