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How We Taste (Or More Accurately, Smell)

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This Is the first of several articles on How We Taste. The sensation of “tasting” is different for each individual. Have you ever gone to a group dinner at a fine restaurant and one guest is complaining that the food is too salty and another is requesting the salt shaker?

Our tongues can be “mapped.” The front top section of the tongue, near the tip, is where we experience “sweetness.” Along the sides of the tongue extending back from the tip to about half-way back is where we experience “saltiness.” Next down the sides towards the back and on the top sides are where the “sour “tastes are experienced (think citrus, lemons). And, finally across the top at the back of the tongue is where the “bitter” receptors are located (think black unsweetened tea). These are the only four sensations you experience through your tongue receptors unless you think “umami” (savory) is also a taste, in which case many argue we have “umami” sensors on the top center region of the tongue.

Everything else is a smell, not a taste, which is why, when we have a cold or a stuffy nose, it may be harder to enjoy wines and foods. Coffee is generally regarded as one of the most complex set of smells that we humans get to experience. Researchers have isolated at least 800 different smell compounds in coffee, some say it is as high as 1200. Over the last century at least 600 flavor/aroma compounds have been found in chocolate, and it is believed that there are at least 1000 in wine. Coffee and chocolate are served at the end of a meal so that they don’t overpower more delicate foods or foods with less complex flavors served earlier in the meal. As a professional winemaker, I never drink coffee or cappuccino or have a latte on a morning during which I will doing blending, judging, or comparison tasting. I find the complex coffee flavors decreases my ability to properly taste the compounds in wine.

Each taste zone on our tongue may have a more or less dense concentration of taste sensors. If you have fewer bitter receptors you are “bitter-tolerant.” If you have a greater number of bitter sensors you are “bitter-intolerant.” Bitter-intolerant people enjoy three deserts after dinner, prefer sugar and cream in their teas or coffee, don’t like tannic wines and prefer honey mustard vinaigrette to a more intense acidic vinegar or lemon-forward salad dressing. Bitter-tolerant people stand at the espresso bar in Rome or Venice popping shots of espresso (straight up, no sugar or cream), love strong vinaigrettes, favor tannic-structured wines, and love savory spicey foods.

Is it no doubt, therefore, that the same dish can taste salty to one taster and under-salted to another? This, then, leads to a conundrum for a recipe or cookbook writer. Does the writer need to appeal to the broadest group of tasters in society (i.e. make “safe’” recipes that will not offend certain diners)? A reader of recipes wanting to create a new dish has to decide whether to be a slave to the recipe or to use it as a guide. If you don’t like salt, decrease the salt. If you love salt increase the salt. If you want neutral follow the recipe. And this same concept goes for every item on a list of ingredients. How much “heat” in a curry is “too much” or “not enough”? More or less pepper? This is obviously subjective based upon the preferences of the “taster” and their DNA, and the density of the various receptors on their tongues. The correct advice is “to think own self be true” and make that which tastes good to you.

Smells, on the other hand, abound–foods contain dozens or hundreds of smell compounds. Our furry friend, the dog, is very adept at discerning different scents. It is estimated that a dog’s nose or sinuses may contain up to 30,000,000 receptors. We humans are shortchanged with maybe 5-6,000,000. The part of a dog’s brain that can recognize and sort out smells is estimated to be forty times larger than that area in a human. But even so, we can do pretty well at sorting out different smells, which can also be read as “tastes” when it comes to food and wine. It is for this reason that we see professional chefs waive their hand over a pot of food, the sensors in their nose let them know what is going on in the pot. A professional coffee taster/blender or professional wine taster/blender or professional distiller each uses their sense of smell to differentiate products. We see them “swirl” liquids over their tongue, not to get to different parts of the tongue but to cause the various sensory components to get into their sinuses where the flavor receptors are located.

A very simple example of the molecular biology of taste can be found in eating a piece of toast. When we smell bread right out of the over, warm, we get a yeasty aroma. Once we toast it for our breakfast we bring out caramelization, that is, turning the sugars in the wheat into caramel, and giving the bread a “toasty” scent. Is it any wonder, then, that each chef can make a completely unique tomato sauce different that that of the next chef? How many spices or herbs? How much of each? Toasted spices or untoasted? Sprinkled at the end of cooking or added early and allowed to simmer and blend? And…etc., etc., etc., etc….!

So with this basic understanding that we all taste and smell differently, we can then go on to develop our own favorite recipes. The next question would be “and how does this affect pairing various foods to various wines”? Stand by for following articles on this very subject!


By Ronald L. Fenolio
CEO/Proprietor – Veedercrest Estates LLC
Chair – Family Winemakers of California
© 2021 Ronald L. Fenolio

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