[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

Nomadic gatherers used tongue and nose to test possible foods. 

Not in a pretentious sommelier-adjacent way (cat’s piss on a gooseberry bush was just that in those days), but in a prehistoric ‘will this do me good or harm’ way. Does this taste indicate nutrition or death? Is this kale food or foe? (Foe, obviously).

It’s all just so much easier now! We have labels, lulling us into a false sense of nourishment. Could we survive without use-by dates and printed dietary claims? Have we lost the knowledge and trust in our own ability to taste and categorise what we sense? Yes. Although we have the diagnostic equipment of old we don’t know how to use it. Apart from with kale of course.

It’s all about the buds … between five and ten thousand of them depending on your age. They’re mainly on your tongue but also around your mouth. Replaced every two weeks, they’re only here for a short time, but a sensational time.

Taste has five accepted categories with a further three putting their hands up for recognition. Sweet, sour, bitter, salt and savoury (umami) are in. Fat, spice (heat) and ammonium chloride are the pretenders to the gang. 

The last, whose origins predate ‘use-by’ stickers, is a taste present in decaying food and so has an important role in our decisions of what not to eat. Think of the whiff you get from the yellowing, ‘ripe’ brie you bought on special. Now buyer’s remorse has set in along with that challenging “window-cleaner” tang.

Flavour, taste’s more voluptuous cousin, is all about enjoyment, fun and hedonism. Gustatory sensors in the mouth team up with olfactory receivers in the schnozz to afford us literally limitless combinations. Lip-smacking, finger-licking, nuanced variations and combinations made to make you go ‘Yum!’.

Taste sensors play a part in flavour, but are more importantly signposts along the road to help us work out what is the good, bad and ugly. Salt is an indicator of minerals. Sweetness of energy. Umami of proteins and nutritious density. Sour can be bad and bitter is often ugly.

Myriad content makers used Covid lock-downs and smartphones to launch themselves at us, showing us cool things to cook and eat. We watch and we listen to hacks doing kitchen hacks, paying little attention to the signals coming from our own mouths. Should we trust our buds or TikTok? I suggest the former has less to gain and therefore more to offer.

Our taste buds are ancient and link us back to primitive humans and beyond. We produce 25 proteins encoded by 25 genes to detect different bitter, alkaline flavours. Bitter is there to warn us off things. But there are just three receptors, used in different combinations, for sweetness and umami. Some scientists think the over abundance of bitter detectors developed to help us avoid a variety of toxins. Similarly, a sour taste indicates acid, which could burn body tissues or indicate spoiled food. Sweetness is just sugar, in lots of different forms, but sugar nonetheless.

Then why do I like banoffee pie more than my cat does? Evolution. Cats and most birds have lost the ability to detect sweetness because they have no use for it. But they do carry historic traces of the necessary genes, which indicates evolution has steered them away from the cake trolley. Hummingbirds are a feathered exception and go for honey sweetness, while a song thrush turns up its beak in favour of worms. Hummingbirds, incidentally, shun artificial sweeteners and so should you.

Knowing about these ancient tasting super powers is one thing, finding interesting ways to use that knowledge is where the really juicy stuff lies.

How do we translate these taste indicators into conscious appreciation of the food we eat? From the perspective of appreciating markers of nutrition, detecting toxins and discerning spoilage, sure, but yawn, yawn, yawn.

Much more deliciously interesting is how taste sensations and flavours are combined in the food we prepare and enjoy. As an example, how we perfectly balance sweet, sour and umami in Wednesday’s Wok Wonder. Or identifying the manipulating tactics of satiety in highly-processed snack foods. You can’t trust your buds, they’re being lied to by the Doritos.

There are many more conundrums to be considered in the next issue:

Is boujee salt all that it’s cracked up to be?

What soured the cherries and why are lemons bitter about it?

Parmesan and steak are both umami, but are they the same umami even if they’re in the same pie?

I’m also going to quiz some local chefs to garner tips on balancing flavours while cooking anything you like. Except kale of course. 

Ian Thomas is a caterer and formerly free range egg farmer, cooking demonstrator, and manager of a commercial food production business. He specialises in cooking paella. paellaagogo.com


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