Overlooking taste

BEFORE I embarked on a program of radiation seven years ago the specialist painted a very grim picture. It was not probable but possible nonetheless, he told me, that I would lose my sense of taste permanently, that I’d lose the capacity to swallow, that for the rest of my life I’d have to be fed through a tube directly into my stomach.

None of those or his other dire warnings came to pass, thankfully, although I did lose, as he told me I would, all taste for a couple of months. And I came to realise the importance of taste, that without it eating is a chore, that food offers little or no reward, no stimulation. As is so often the case, we don’t know what we’ve got until we’ve lost it.

I was reminded of this loss when I read recently that a British survey of 1000 people had found that 60 per cent said they never or rarely taste their food and that 79 per cent were unable to tell the difference between basic flavours. Researchers put this failure to savour or be aware of flavour down to the pace of modern life, citing the hurried lunch as an example of that. Breakfast, too, is hurried, and I suspect the meal in which flavour is least important. Maybe that’s why we’re happy to have the same thing for breakfast day in day out, indeed why we prefer to have the same thing every day.

Rather than failing to taste, we are more inclined, I believe, to mask taste. We do that with sauce, and if you look at the space given in supermarkets to sauces you’ll see that a great many of us do it. Children are the masters. Tomato sauce on everything, and the food that is hated the most will be the most drenched in the red stuff. We tried many times to limit our children’s use of it, even refusing to buy it, but sooner or later my wife would relent, and I was always relieved when she did because French toast without tomato sauce doesn’t work for me.

Adults aren’t much better even if we are a little more sophisticated in our saucing. When I was a child Worcestershire sauce was sprinkled liberally over dinner, and it drowns the flavour of a food even more effectively than tomato sauce. Chilli sauce is more popular now, and this sauce seems to overwhelm the flavour of a meal’s components not touched by the sauce.

Men in particular like chilli sauce, and I read that men usually have fewer taste buds than women. As well, the number of taste buds in men and women can vary hugely, so that one person may have a small fraction of another person’s capacity to taste. The fewer the number of taste buds, the greater the hit must be for the same effect, and this may explain, too, men’s predilection for adding a spoonful more spice than specified by the recipe.

People are more likely to add sauce to meat, probably because lean meat has little or subtle flavour. Perhaps it has little flavour for just me, but I think not. The main flavour I get from meat is the flavour of the cooking, as in the scorching or the marinade, which is simply sauce applied before the cooking.

None of what were held for so long as the four tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter – matches the flavour of meat, at least for me, and as understated as it is I believe the flavour is best described by the new fifth taste, umami, or savoury.

Perhaps the major quality of meat that appeals to us is the texture. That’s the case with tofu, or bean curd, which is said to be without flavour but which is one of my favourite foods.

On my blog a few weeks ago a reader asked why anyone would bother acquiring the acquired taste that is beer, and that’s a fair question. It may explain why mainstream Australian beer is so low in flavour, the brewers keeping the hurdle low. Olives are another acquired taste many adults never appreciate – I was 16 when I tasted my first olive, a green one on the end of a toothpick, and I’d never tasted anything as foul. I remember being puzzled as to why people would pretend they liked them. And do we grow to like blue cheese or do we like blue cheese when we’ve grown?

I think taste does deserve more appreciation.

Do you appreciate taste? Do you taste all your food? Have your likes and dislikes changed with age and fashion?

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