Is Learning to Taste a Real Thing?

Posted by: Rachael Kaapu in: Food/Beverage -


Tasting foods and beverages is a fascinating and complex process using the five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell and, on some occasions, sound. We identify foods based on previous knowledge stored in our memory banks. Whether it’s an old favorite or something new to our palate, we rationalize and categorize tastes by assimilating them with other tastes we are familiar with.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the privilege of observing, experiencing and learning how people perceive tastes. “Tasting” might seem like an elementary skill. However, the process is so quick, it’s hard to slow down and understand the whole action of tasting in its complexity.

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Several weeks ago, Moonstruck Chocolate released a line of savory chocolate truffles. While most of us are familiar with chocolates that feature savory accents – such as bacon, matcha green tea or hot pepper – we can still ultimately tell that these products are primarily chocolate based. However, Moonstruck’s master chocolatier, Julian Rose, has pushed this concept further, concocting a line of truffles with a savory base and chocolate accents!

Even after a 30-minute explanation of these truffles, I was still unprepared to taste something so savory. Rose phrased it perfectly, noting that “the mind tricks you into believing it’s sweet, and our memory bank reminds us chocolate is sweet.”

Just as Rose had predicted, my brain told me that since it looks, smells and feels like chocolate, it must taste like chocolate. But as I tasted the different truffles, I was shocked and amazed each time by this illusionary phenomenon.

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I experienced another lesson in tasting last week with Heidi Yorkshire, a recognized writer, author and life-cycle celebrant. For this month’s educational happy hour, part of LANE’s #25for25 campaign, Yorkshire stopped by our Portland office to provide a mini seminar on the art of tasting wine.

She first laid out several samples of tea: one plain, one sweetened, one with lemon and one with cream. With each sample, Yorkshire demonstrated similar wine characteristics, such as tannins, sweetness, bitterness and overall mouthfeel. With her guidance, we were able to distinguish familiar tastes and textures in the tea that we could relate back to our wine experiences.

We then moved on to the wine and observed the look, viscosity, smells and flavors of several different kinds of wines, and how those tastes change when the wines are paired with different types of foods. The flavors changed drastically when accompanied by almonds, cheese or chocolate.

According to Yorkshire, environment has the biggest impact on our tasting experiences. It was fascinating to see how subtle hints, like the smell of grass or petroleum, can change the way we perceive a flavor.

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These two events showed that no two palates are the same. For example, when I smelled and tasted berries in the wine, a co-worker experienced grapefruit. And as I munched on the savory truffles, I sensed a strong flavor of basil while a colleague noted the heavy presence of lemon.

I also learned that we experience foods differently each time, and we cannot always replicate those moments. Essentially, what makes food memorable is not just the smells, the initial taste or the pairings; it’s the people we share it with!

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