Synaesthesia – Blurring of the Senses – and Foundation of the Most Intriguing and Creative Dining Experience

“I frolic here in the words of my thoughts, the words I hear, the words I read and write. The words are in me, and around me, and through me, and they never stop. I bob and swim and dive in them, splish and spash. This is the world I live in, my natural habitat. I can see the words and feel, hear and taste them.

The word-water is brown; a thousand drops of colourless conjunctions, and in-between words and only-there-to-serve words. But some words are silver, like fish that dart and leap, glittering bows in the sun. Action words, wholly dynamic. Verbs. Living words. And others are heavy, dark, riverbed words, round rolling boulder words that scrape and chip and erode.”

Trackers, Deon Meyer

Improve your netball with The Black Eyed Peas

Last week I read about a fascinating piece of research being carried out at Queen Anne’s – a school for girls near Reading. The initial results of the study suggest that tailoring the music to the particular activity or subject can improve performance – so for example, Pump It Up by the Black Eyed Peas is played during netball matches, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with its structure, logic and calmness is played during maths classes, and Juan Luis Guerra accompanies Spanish lessons, not just for the language itself but also for the poetic rhythm which encourages retention.

Associating sound with taste

I am not surprised to hear that the initial results are sufficiently compelling to have persuaded three other schools to take part. And I’m sure that music, whether by a direct connection, for example listening to cowboy music while cooking or eating grits; or by more subliminal accentuation, for example listening to Tudor music as you make Shakespearian pies, can reinforce the pleasure and intensity of both the preparation and the consumption of food. Taking it back to basics the Pavlovian experiments where dogs learnt to associate the sound of a bell with food and would salivate on hearing the chimes before they could even see their dog bowl show how strong these cross-sense connections can be. In a less successful taste-smell experiment my culinary hero, Heston Blumenthal, inspired me to try spraying kirsch around guests tucking into a Schwarzwälderkirschtorte. Blumenthal has also experimented with sound – and it doesn’t have to be music. He’s issued recordings of the sea with seafood dishes for example.

Associating sight with taste

And it’s not just hearing. The sense of sight is also powerful – just looking at a juicy red cherry can elicit touch sensations of biting through the skin and the eruption of the juice on the tongue. But other visual and tactile experiences can also intensify the sense of taste. For example I defy anyone to drink from any of the beautiful glasses on my pinterest board and not experience a heightened sense of pleasure at the taste of the contents.

Hence when I read of chef Jozef Youssef’s fascination with the phenomena of synaesthesia I was immediately interested and signed up for the pop-up experiential evening he conceived which explores the relationship of taste with our other senses.

What, exactly, is synaesthesia?

Synaesthesia is a condition in which senses become paired – so for example Duke Ellington would hear a note and associate it with a colour; or certain tastes may be experienced when words are spoken – hearing the word ‘basketball’ might result in the taste of waffles.

It’s estimated that about 4% of humans are affected by synaesthesia, but I agree with Youssef in thinking that this neurological phenomenon is not as clear cut as that, that most people experience it to some degree or other. So, for example, when I read Ruth Fainlight’s evocative poem, Handbag, even though she specifies the particular odours of her mother’s mints, lipstick and Coty powder, I can actively smell my own mother’s handbag with its powder and lipstick and automatically substitute Werther’s Originals for the mints. The main difference seems to be that for some people the ‘pairings’ are a bit less obvious and a bit more random.

Pairing, and confusing, smell and vision

The pairing of smell and vision is particularly potent. In 1912 Jacques Guerlain, the creator of the scent I wear, L’Heure Bleue, was inspired by the hazy play of light and shade prominent in the paintings of contemporaneous Impressionist artists.  L’Heure Bleue is, if you like, the scent equivalent of an impressionist painting, no wonder I like it so much! Now there is a movement in Berlin named Le Cinéma Olactif where the perfumier, Mark Buxton, develops a scent to be diffused through the room as the film is watched. His Mood Indigo scent echoes the film, with initial bright scents of freesia, water lily and pepper, followed, in line with the film’s transformation to tragedy, by base notes of incense and camomile (“there’s something sad about camomile, even something dead” comments Buxton).

What happened at the Kitchen Theory event?

So it was that, together with a fellow investigator, I hurried through run-down Maida Vale to arrive at the clean, smart, low light venue of the event. We were greeted and briefed by a beautiful, elegant black-clad lady with almond eyes, a wide smile, and a swinging, heavy curtain of jet black hair. She explained that smaller utensils make you eat more…the visual connections to food and eating may be subconsious, but they are very compelling.

She handed us a fresh tasting cocktail (a bellini with rose water), a fresh roll and a couple of pats of butter (one of which she informed us was worm butter…. it tasted fine… my companion thought actually better than the real thing) and the evening began.

worm butter
Which is the worm butter?

I won’t go into too much detail because half of the enjoyment was intrigue created by not quite knowing what was coming next. Jozef Youssef is ex-Fat Duck, ex-Connaught, and ex-Dorchester so whatever was coming was going to be good, and we were not disappointed.

There were seven courses, the first being an exploration of the connection between taste and colour. Between the early courses were projected videos by the psychologist, Charles Spence.

The shape and sound of words – and their taste

Next was a demonstration, based on Wolfgang Köhler’s 1929 experiment which looks at the connection between the shape and sound of words and their taste (more on that in a post to come, commenting on Jan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food, where he shows how ice cream brands manipulate us to buy).

There were further courses which were, for me, less convincing, but revelationary for others (all the diners are sitting at one long table). I failed to see much connection between the music produced by the brain activity resulting from looking at the colours in a langoustine with a white miso veloute; although I do admit that the spritz of saffoil which accompanied it was a lot more successful than my kirsch experiment (see Schwarzwälderkirschtorte, above).

A texture-taste course

I loved the texture-taste course which combined paneer, mushroom crisps, pearl barley, bacon and maple cream – and it wasn’t just because of the excellent wine pairing with a Lirac, Domaine des Garrigues.

And the final course was a true triumph – a sweet confection of chocolate chips, cubes of passionfruit jelly, popping candy, toffee, popcorn. The best end to a meal I have ever savoured.

This course demonstrated a mix of textures… the soft pearl barley contrasting with the crispy mushrooms.

You can find out about the final dates for this event (the last is at the end of June) on the Kitchen Theory website.

Other sources of information on synaesthesia:

Richard Cytowic

Sean Day

Professor Charles Spence

Professor Barry Smith

Ophelia Deroy

James Wannerton

For more on synaesthesia on Saucy Dressings, see also the post on Soundscapes.

Books on synaesthesia

Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a debut novel by Molly Prentiss about an art critic whose success is due in part to his synaesthesia.

Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard E Cytowic and David M. Eagleman (MIT, £30)

For a post by Jozef Youssef on Mexican cuisine, follow this link.

Special thanks to Lulu Razzaq, she of the almond eyes, wide smile, and swinging jet-black hair, for her help with this post.
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