Charles Spence is not afraid of stirring things up. “The pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not the mouth,” he writes, no doubt triggering much gnashing of teeth from cookbook writers the world over.
In fact, while Gastrophysics is about cracking the conundrum of the perfect meal, it has almost nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of cuisine. Instead, this is the science of the “everything else”, a blending of gastronomy and psychophysics to probe the myriad, seemingly peripheral, ingredients that influence our perception of flavour, steer our culinary choices and make all the difference between a memorable meal and one to be forgotten.
As head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford and a prolific author of gastrophysics research, Spence is ideally placed to unpick the burgeoning field, and does so with almost frenetic conviviality as he reveals how our senses combine, and even influence each other, to affect our perception of what we eat.
The result is a smörgåsbord of revelations, from the finding that colouring white wine red can trick experts into describing the aromas of vin rouge, to more recent discoveries – among them that heavier cutlery encourages diners to pay more, that ginger biscuits taste spicier when served from a rough plate, and that serving a strawberry mousse on a white dish increases its perceived sweetness by 10% compared with a black one.
Top chefs and food giants alike have been quick to grab a slice of the action. As Spence points out, restaurateurs have embraced multisensory trickery to boost the dining experience, spraying the scent of saffron over guests to enhance the flavour of lobster, or Googling their guests to tap into the powerful effect of personalisation. More nefariously, supermarkets have labelled products with the names of bogus British-sounding farms, presumably to tap into consumers’ apparent willingness to pay more for an aura of authenticity.
But there are hints of societal gains too. Tint a drink pink, and manufacturers can cut the sugar content, relying on our subconscious association between colour and sweetness to make up the difference – although Spence advises a “health by stealth” approach to prevent customers claiming they can tell the difference. Meanwhile, Spence believes that our future cuisine could be shaped by his own Ig Nobel prize-winning finding that making the crunch of a crisp louder increases its apparent freshness. “Playing on the sound of crunch might offer one way in to the popularisation of entomophagy,” he writes as he gamely considers how to make insects more appetising.
Technology, too, is being embraced. Spence is among those exploring its potential, from the use of tablet computers as evocative plates to the creation of gadgets that release the smell of food to help those with Alzheimer’s eat regularly.
But while gastrophysics seems a very modern field, its roots reach far back. In the 16th century, musicians were already composing music to complement feasts, while the 1930s saw a lively band of Italian futurists cooking up ingenious dinner parties. They sprayed perfume in diners’ faces, served frog’s legs to the sound of croaking, and even, Spence reveals, suggested parties where guests should be instructed “to stroke their neighbours’ pyjamas, made of different materials, while dining”.
Spence knows his patter, cheerily whisking the reader on a journey through the senses like a magician – an impression backed up by his penchant for conjuring up imaginative dining experiences with top chefs and hosting multisensory cinema events. He flits from the importance of matching expectations to the taste of a dish to boost its appeal, to the perils of food porn, to the revelation that people tend to link blob-like shapes to sweet foods – explaining the furious accusations that Cadbury had changed the recipe of its Dairy Milk bars in 2013 when it had, in fact, only rounded off its corners.
But like so many illusions, once revealed, the tricks of the trade can seem screamingly obvious: call a Patagonian toothfish a Chilean sea bass, and it’s no surprise that sales will soar. And Gastrophysics lacks discussion around whether its revelations differ between cultures. Occasionally, too, Spence strikes an unsavoury note. Romping through ever more theatrical concepts dreamed up in the world’s most exclusive modernist restaurants, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that gastrophysics is often about titillating the tastebuds of those wealthy enough to be bored of dining well. “[Heston] Blumenthal conferred with magicians while experimenting with a flaming sorbet that would ignite at the click of the waiter’s fingers,” notes Spence in one of his many flattering references to the chef’s experiments.
But what begins in top kitchens eventually trickles down to the home, and Spence offers suggestions for an unforgettable dinner, from popping candy in the mashed potato to changing the music and lighting of a room to tweak the taste of wine. Gastrophysics serves up a mind-bending menu of fascinating insights. But whether atomisers, scented cutlery and culinary soundtracks become ubiquitous might be a matter of taste.
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