The 6th sense

First, a recap of the taste and flavour post. We use all five of our senses to appreciate flavour: taste (from receptors on the tongue) is only one of them. Smell (as we breathe out and in) is a dominant contributor to the perception of flavour (and why food tastes bland during a head cold). What food looks like matters too (canned peas taste more strongly of ‘pea’ when they are dyed pea-green), as does the perception of touch (it’s why some foods are best eaten with the fingers, also touch receptors in the mouth – mouthfeel). Mouthfeel is thought to be what drives chocolate consumption. Even sound contributes (food is perceived as more crispy if it makes a crunchy sound, and that is why potato chips are sold in those crinkly bags).

All of these five sensory inputs are put together in the brain, which draws on a lifetime of eating experience and expectation to interpret what is being eaten, and with luck it perceives ‘delicious’.

Which brings me to the 6th sense, as articulated by Ferran Adria (photo). It is when the inputs to the brain from the five basic senses conflicts with experience and expectation. This creates a new sensation. Modernist cuisine deliberately manipulates this 6th sense for effect.

Here’s a good example from Heston Blumenthal:

orange and beetroot jelly

Two jellies: he tells the diner “an orange jelly and a beetroot jelly, I suggest you start with the orange”.

Of course, the one that looks orange is the beetroot jelly (from golden beets), and the one that looks like beetroot is the orange jelly (from blood oranges).

The dish is making an important point. If the colour of the jellies matched expectations, it would be an uninteresting dish, and the diner would wonder how Heston ever got 3 Michelin stars. As it is, it forces the diner to seriously consider what constitutes the flavour of these two ingredients – what does orange taste like again? It’s an elegant example of manipulating the 6th sense to intensify the dining experience.

Another example, also from Heston:

 mustard ice-cream

The dish looks like an innocent dessert, but it is served during the savoury course. He evokes the 6th sense simply by describing the dish – red cabbage consommé with mustard ice-cream. The very term ‘mustard ice-cream’ immediately makes the diner take notice and focus. It’s not right. Warning bells ring. I’ve actually made this for guests and it’s a delight (and I served a second-helping of the ice-cream). It is also a perfect match – cabbage and mustard are closely related, and it is mustard compounds that give cabbage its pungency.

Ferran is the master of this manipulation, with too many examples to know where to begin. He describes its development thus: “the sixth sense (and its multiple forms: trickery, surprise, irony, provocation, decontextualisation) became a new ingredient in the dish, an intangible ingredient, one that was not physical… but that formed an integral part of the offering”.

 des-sert

Des/sert – his diners’ most appreciated dessert of 2005. Looking desert-like, with bitter flavours from liquorice, coffee, caramel and spices, and sour flavours from yoghurt and raspberry. Not what a diner would expect in a dessert course, but that’s the point.