Flavour represents an uncharted area, where single perceptions blend in a mixture of tastes, scents and touch. It is by far the most difficult feature to assess: flavour constantly hides its secrets, so much that its definition is mostly an exclusive prerogative of the taster. It is indeed processed in its taste, tactile and aromatic components by the brain through an integrated procedure that gives the opportunity to define “the flavour” of the food or drink we are consuming. Bite by bite, sip by sip. This descriptor is to be identified in a range of alternating phenomena continuously evolving and resulting in what is normally known as a comprehensive mouth perception. This happens because the sense of touch tends to overwhelm taste, which in turn absorbs the scents coming from the aftertaste and characterises the personality of the flavour.
The perception area is common, and in this case, the entire oral cavity participates in the identification of the perceived inputs, triggering a multi-channel integration of sensations concerning different sensorial systems.
If you think about it, the mechanism triggered by flavour can slightly remind us of a firecracker box ready to explode. Throwing a petard up in the air means creating confusion, a deafening noise, however, limited to a defined period of time. The same thing happens to the perception of taste: we put on our tongue an orange slice, and immediately we perceive its acidity, thus its intensity. This is an event that can be objectively defined and generally quantified.
By contrast, with a box of petards, only a fuse is lit, or the well-known reaction is triggered by leaving one lit petard inside; it happens that in a matter of seconds, the content of the box starts to crackle and explode inexorably, creating confusion and din. The source of all of this is not easily definable, but it triggers an immediate enthusiasm in the improvised pyrotechnical experts, exactly as it happens when we taste the flavour of something we like.
Flavour creates all of this in a continuum of interactions that cannot be easily defined in a balanced way. We can only enjoy the show then, with the hope of being able to watch all its acts without the occurrence of any particular plot twists.
Although the perception of the different nuances in the mouth is not an easy task, we can try to grasp and define how the sensations show up simultaneously. This is an interesting aspect that can be analysed by anyone, confirming the idea that flavour is an interaction of several sensorial processes.
The solution is, therefore, at our fingertips if we try to break up the tasting experience into more stages. Easier said than done, but we must try to do it. In most situations, tasters move from one sensation to another to define flavour and they think they have a clear picture of the situation. On the contrary, that creates only more confusion because of the continuous interactions occurring in the mouth. What I want to suggest is to try again to assess the same feature after some minutes, without forgetting that the assessment criteria and times change depending on the product.
If we had to choose one single food that can be easily used while conserving its preparation parameters, it is a piece of chocolate, as it would be far less difficult to break up the sensations in several tasting blocks.
Choose a brand name, if possible, a bar of specialty chocolate which shows on its label an indication of the aromatic track and divide it into three pieces of the same size. This is an important step because the texture, together with the chewing times, has an impact on the perception.
Put the first piece in your mouth without forcing the chewing process and focusing only on the tastes. Do it again, focusing on the tactile sensations and trying to understand how astringent it can be if you choose 100% cocoa or acidic in the case of a 70% aromatic product.
Lastly, eat the third piece and focus only on the aromatic feature. Your brain will tend to elaborate a comprehensive sensation including the three steps, but you must try to focus your attention on this single sensation. Only in this way can you define every feature in the best way, hoping to gain more clarity on flavour. This experiment could also be done using espresso coffee, but due to the countless steps concerning the grinding, the dosage and the percolation, it would be impossible to maintain the same extraction standard.
If you failed the experiment, at least I hope you enjoyed nice chocolate.
See you at the next sip!