Friday, 10 June 2011

Learning How To Taste

By Leo Owen.

At home and feeling miraculously compos mentis considering the alcohol content inside my body, I'm finally able to geekily look up the exact etymology and meaning of the word "taste". I quickly discover it comes from the Middle English "tasten" and that there are a myriad of subtly-related meanings:

1. To distinguish the flavour of something by taking it into the mouth.
2. A first-time experience, eating or drinking a small amount of something.
3. To partake, appreciate or enjoy (Archaic).
4. To have a distinct flavour: The stew tastes salty.
5. The sense that distinguishes the sweet, sour, salty, and bitter qualities of dissolved substances in contact with the taste buds on the tongue and triggers nerve impulses to special taste centers in the cortex and thalamus of the brain.
6. The unified sensation produced by any of the above qualities, plus a distinct smell and texture.
7. A distinctive perception as if by the sense of taste: an experience that left a bad taste in my mouth.
8. The faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent or appropriate: a room furnished with superb taste.

Tonight I'm preoccupied by the word "taste" because I'm reflecting on a thoroughly enjoyable evening called "Taste By Appointment" organised by Grey Goose Vodka. The aim of the evening was to "rediscover our sense of taste" and I can't imagine a better place to do so than inside the Royal Suite of the spectacularly refurbished St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, a place Ray Winstone is apparently due to occupy, and one clearly deserving of the 8th definition above.

A room with dauntingly large windows decorated in modern chic has been transformed into a Grey Goose marketing tool: burgundy coloured walls are set off by ornaments and furnishings in the company's signature blue; tea light candles dotted around the room; black and white prints of prominent figures in Grey Goose's history; mirrors and metallic/glass ornaments; a subtle curtain of hanging transparent birds.

Circuiting the room, glamorous ladies in blue cocktail dresses offer flutes of Le Fizz, a refreshing combination of Grey Goose vodka, lime juice, elderflower cordial and soda water that leaves guests salivating for more.

Luckily I'm not drooling for long before a top-up arrives and a video is played in segments headed by taste experts who explain the five tastes: bitter, sour, sweet, umami and salt. All this sounds familiar except for umami, a taste discovered in 1908 by a Tokyo professor, and a savoury, naturally occurring, compound found in glutamines.

I'm wondering just how much else I don't know as Reading University's Dr Jane Parker takes the floor. Reading is apparently the foremost taste centre in the UK and Jane certainly knows her stuff, managing to make it interesting and accessible without daunting us with too much science. I discover that my palate is more complex than the most high-tech super computer in the world. I'm amazed that I have approximately 9,000 taste buds on the surface of my tongue located in the papillae and that I might be a "super taster" with high sensitivity.

In order to highlight this information, we undertake the first exercise of the night, each briefly touching a bitter strip to our tongues. With 24 receptors in each taste bud, bitter is often the great divide and already some of Jane's audience are screwing up their faces while others seem indifferent.

Next we test how important aesthetic qualities like smell are to taste and I'm frankly surprised by the result. Eating a wine gum while holding my nose I'm amazed by the distinct lack of expected flavour and forced to agree with Jane that smells/aromas add to taste, arousing appetite and bringing back memories/emotions.

The final party trick of the night comes in the form of five neatly arranged rice spoons. Heading away from the beige and purple velvet and leather chesterfield seats over the vast wooden floor towards a twenty-seater dining table, I'm unconsciously beginning to analyse the process of taste. Looking at the five foodstuffs laid out on the spoons is deceptive. Something that appears to be a strand of glazed bacon, parma ham or tuna is actually cucumber soaked in soy sauce. We're all gasping with surprise as we taste this misleading array of foodstuffs.

As if to calm our nerves and assure us all is still right in the world, a cocktail trolley arrives and we're encouraged to experiment. Thankfully before I have time to get creative, I'm sampling canap├ęs and two more sumptuous ready-made cocktails: the tangy Sergeant Pepper and the much heavier, velvety Chocolate Orange.

To my relief, the DIY trolley is again sidelined by a lady in blue, indicating my turn to meet Grey Goose's Mixologist, Joe McCanta (below), who also finds time to act as the Corporate Sommelier/Mixologist for the rather excellent Saf restaurant in Shoreditch where he created the vegan wine list and the totally organic cocktail list. Seeking to destroy the misconception that vodka has no taste or that its taste should be drowned, Joe expertly throws together cocktails according to personal tastes, choosing from a daunting array of bottles in this private makeshift bar. Amid admiring gasps of "That's gorg!" I'm exposed to an array of unfamiliar cocktail ingredients (Yuzu juice, Velvet Falernum, St Elizabeth Allspice Dream...) before I sup on a delicious creamy tailor-made cocktail.

Like Roald Dahl's three course chewing gum meal, tonight has been a journey and an educational one. After seeing my companion's cocktail formulated from a vast array of home ingredients (tomato, lemon juice, chilli, salt, pepper, lemongrass, orange peel), I'm already wondering what's in the cupboard.

If you’re looking for more taste sensations in the form of cocktails, check out the Best Cocktail Bars in London.