Consider that meal you had last night. That curry, those vegetables, that burger. Perhaps, if you‘re well-heeled enough, that caviar. Chances are, whatever you ate, you weren‘t getting the most of out of it. It could, nay should, have tasted better. The problem is you, like most of the nation, aren‘t in tune with what you place on your tongue. It may seem odd, but a little light music may help. In fact, Professor Charles Spence is adamant it would.
An experimental psychologist at Oxford University, Spence is well qualified to talk about taste. In 2008, he provided the first robust empirical demonstration that the background music we hear influences the flavours of the food we eat, and was duly awarded an Ig (spoof) Nobel Prize for nutrition.
He‘s also a member of the Experimental Food Society, which holds its annual Spectacular in east London this weekend. The group, a collection of 56 groundbreaking food creatives brought together since 2009 by Alexa Perrin, aims to demonstrate there is more to our eating lives than just swallowing. As such, they will be on hand to meet the public and discuss their work, and Spence is itching to share his tales of taste to help improve the way Britain enjoys the flavours of its food.
“If you’re cooking an Indian meal, it will probably taste that much better with ethnic music playing,“ he insists. “It is a really cheap thing to do; change the music and that can really impact the taste, but that’s something we can all do.“
Spence‘s experiments revealed that at one end of the scale, when the brain hears higher-pitched music, say the tinkling of a piano, it associates that with a sweeter, more citric flavour; alternatively, a lower-pitched sound, that of a brass instrument, is more in line with a bitter, dark chocolate taste. Then there are all the notes in between. Now that we are starting to understand these relationships, we can tap into areas of our brain to get the most out of what we eat. And that‘s tasty news for us all.
The potential health benefits are just as attractive. If sound can stimulate the brain into increasing the salt taste of a food, we won‘t need to add so much. And Spence is already working with drink companies to minimise the use of the chemical responsible for the fizz in our drink cans.
“Research has shown that if you reduce the amount of carbonic acid, people don‘t drink it, they like the bubbles,“ he says. “We‘re doing research to change the sound of the popping bubble in a can or cup to make that drink sound more fizzy than it is, or by changing design of cans or containers to emphasise the sounds. It‘s all about capitalising on psychology by using sound and sensory interaction.“
Considering this work, the good professor is an ideal member of the Experimental Food Society. But with the group containing the likes of food magician John Van der Put, who turns water into ouzo; Ginger Comfort Emporium, which imports camel milk to use in ice cream; and cake artist Lily Vanilli, who will be sculpting 18 creations around east London this weekend, it must be a tough ask for any chef who cooks their annual banquet.
“They’re an interesting bunch,“ says the founder, Perrin, whose uncle was among first to open a Thai restaurant in London. “I refer to them as the unsung heroes of the food industry. They represent the interesting things that are happening in the UK food scene, people that are actually pioneering different areas of food.“
Perrin started the society after being disappointed and uninspired by the food trade shows on offer in the UK, and says culinary art and experimentation, for so long buried in British society due to wars and consumerism, is now undergoing a renaissance. “We all experience food, everyday,“ she says. “If you can make the experience more exciting, why not?“
The efforts of Cultivated Couture‘s Emily Crane certainly belong at the ‘exciting‘ end of the food spectrum. Crane is a gastronomic tailor whose work goes far beyond that of US-based Franc Fernandez, who hung a bit of raw lamb on Lady Gaga at the VMA awards last year. “It‘s a little more subtle,“ says Crane, who developed her concept when wondering what a fashion practitioner would do if no traditional resources remained. “I cook, blend, culture and form ice bubbles from food to create a sensory world of transient fashion.“
Her use of food by-products – especially pork and beef gelatin – to marry different types of seaweed to create wearable items has garnered interest from the fashion world across Europe. “And they‘re definitely edible,“ she says of her garments. “I’m currently in love with the idea your own body can dispose of your socks at the end of the day.“
But while chowing down on sweaty hosiery may not be to everyone‘s taste, Crane insists it‘s not too far in the future that we all could be eating our clothing. “Essentially we can wear these garments now. They‘re incredibly inexpensive because the material themselves are not expensive. We‘re talking here about by-products and you don‘t need a lot of technology or machinery to create these clothes.“
And it‘s the perfect chance to have that one-off item of clothing that no one will ever be seen in again. “This really is a fresh alternative to the compulsive shopper obsessed with fast fashion, high-street consumption and throw-away prices,“ she adds.
Crane‘s vision is exactly the sort of thing that would attract the nose of food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye, currently involved in the manipulation of odour styling and smell science. Gaye‘s work with product developers has led her to understand just how aspirational UK society is; how trend- driven we have become – and our diets are included in that.
Because smell, along with taste, is such an unexplored sense, advertisers are now looking at ways to infiltrate our nostrils in order to get us to part with our cash. It‘s happening already; consider why you can walk down the coffee aisle at a supermarket, past a bunch of hermetically sealed glass jars but still smell the aroma.
“It‘s because the coffee smell is embedded in the label,“ Gaye explains. “Lots of food brands are doing it and it can influence your behaviour. That’s why Whole Foods is doing so well, because people can smell the produce, the bread.
“We’re only just at the start, we’ll look back in 20 years and go ‘look at us, what idiots we were‘.“
She says odour, or our perception of it (due to the amount of synthetic smells out there, our sense has become corrupted) will soon be sent over the internet with the use of computer-activated USB sticks. And it goes further, too.
“In Japan, there‘s already embedded scent in clothing – men‘s shirts that when your neck rubs around the collar, release a scent. And then there are aroma jockies, DJs who spin the disks and spin the scent at the same time, to influence where you are in the mood of the clubbing event.“
Gaye‘s excited about the future of what and how we eat and also about presenting her findings at this weekend‘s Experimental Food Society Spectacular. Indeed, her articulation of the role our cuisine plays in 2011 seems to sum up collective quite nicely. “Food no longer exists in a vacuum,“ she says. “It’s affected by what we‘re wearing, what we’re thinking, what trends are around at the time, how those trends are influenced by politics – things like money, what’s going on environmentally, how we talk about things, what we read, what films are out there.
“Every single thing or we think about or what we don’t think about affects how we eat.“
– Jahn Vannisselroy
The Experimental Food Society Spectacular,
Fri, Oct 21, 1pm-6pm; Sat, Oct 22, 11am-6pm
Truman Brewery Dray Walk, 91 Brick Lane, E1 6QL