Occasionally, I like to test my palate as part of an ongoing education in food, something I believe every chef should have. As a professional in the food industry, there is a lot of pressure and expectation to have a wide and varied knowledge of flavours and ingredients. I do my best but given my style of cooking is rustic, simple and largely European-inspired, this can be quite often a challenge. I enjoy a challange, if we don’t push ourselves, how else will we learn? Like any form of self-improvement, it is not always easy but often it’s the journey that is more rewarding than the destination.
As a part of a management training programme a few years ago, I was sent on an AA academy workshop. We were taught to taste like the AA inspectors; to define and then detect what they consider to be the criteria for well-balanced, well-executed dishes. Our palates were then tested by making us taste different food items whilst wearing a blindfold, a nose peg, and then both! For example, tasting the difference between samples of mashed potato with basil, beetroot or horseradish. This was really challenging. A lot of chefs or foodies would probably feel confident that they could identify different flavours and ingredients but when one or more senses are removed temporarily, this becomes extremely difficult, even for someone with an ‘educated palate’. This illustrates that what we think of as ‘taste’ goes beyond just the taste buds, one uses several senses at once to appreciate food. Many chefs use this concept to their advantage, adapting their dishes and menus to accommodate and utilise all of the senses, making the experience more holistic, and ultimately more enjoyable and memorable.
A few months ago, my friend Emily, of Bristol Bites fame, started co-hosting a food quiz with The Star and Dove pub in Totterdown. Dutifully, I went along to lend support not least as it was (supposedly) my area of expertise. I roped in a team of foodies and was quietly confident. The teams are organised into teams of four and is held every first Monday evening of the month. There are various question and tasting rounds. The team at S&D concoct (sometimes revolting on purpose I suspect) combinations of ingredients for identification for an ‘appetiser’ round, usually with very surprising results. Then they display ten food items on a tray which can be quite obscure, for identification. I find this fascinating, certainly challenging and I learn something new every time, I’ve been back every time since (my team even won once!). I recommend you give it a go (it’s a lovely pub that does great food, go there anyway).
I was able to experience both aspects last week when I was invited to attend a blind supper party at The Living Room, it was indeed an adventure. The table of eight guests were given several mini courses from the Living Room menu, including cocktails, to taste whilst wearing blindfolds. In between each course, we jotted down on a question sheet what ingredients or flavours we thought were in each dish. Sounds easy? It wasn’t. Again, I was reasonably confident about most of the ingredients but when the answers were disclosed I was surprised to find I’d got quite a few wrong. The deserving winner, the afore-mentioned Emily of Bristol Bites went home with a shiny trophy to add to her collection (I came a close second). It was a fun and interesting evening, a great way to test food knowledge and challenge what you think of as taste, and the whole food experience. I suggest you try this sometime yourself with a group of friends as an alternative dinner party.