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But the perfect meal isn’t just about the senses. ‘It is also about memories and emotions,’ says Spence. ‘Increasingly the perfect meal is about the theatricalization: the imagination and storytelling are all brought to bear to turn the food into something memorable.’

What about cutlery? The Fat Duck, for example, is known for its incredibly heavy cutlery – is this part of the perfect meal? Does the weight in your hand make things taste better? Spence mentions and experiment that looked at this, with 160 diners in the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh. Half use the regular heavy cutlery, the other half use lighter cutlery, and those using the heavier are willing to pay £1.50–£2 a plate more for the same food.

He gives the example of Denis Martin in the Valais, whose restaurant has 2 Michelin stars. It’s based in the middle of a knitting museum. Martin can see when people walk through the door that they aren’t going to enjoy his modern Swiss cuisine fully: they are uptight, suited Swiss businessmen dining on an expenses account. How does he solve this? People are told to arrive at 7 pm and there’s nothing on the tablecloth except for a toy Swiss cow. Nothing happens until someone picks the cow up and it moos, and before long the restaurant is filled with the sounds of laughter and mooing cows. This breaks the atmosphere: a psychological palate cleanser, preparing people for the meal to come.

Then there’s ‘digital seasoning’. This began with Heston Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea dish (recipe here - I won’t be trying it at home), where diners are given a conch with an ipod shuffle in it, and listen on headphones to a marine soundtrack that works  to enhance the flavour of the dish. A residence at the House of Wolf in Islington took this idea more midmarket, with theme music playing with each dish across the whole restaurant. And this was taken further mass market by British Airways: customers on long haul can dial in on headset to music that matches the taste of their food.

Spence notes that some high profile new restaurants have been multisensory. There’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai, a 10 seater restaurant based in a secret location (you get taken there). It’s a high-tech experiential dining room, with each course enhanced by a taste-tailored atmosphere. For example, it serves fish and chips with sounds of the sea, projections of the Union flag on the table, and a device squirting out marine smells: it’s a true multisensory experience.

There’s Sublimotion in Ibiza, which at £1200 a head is thought to be the world’s most expensive restaurant. ‘At this sort of price it cannot just be about the food and taste and flavours,’ says Spence. ‘It has to be about the whole experience.’ And Sublimotion certainly delivers an experience.

 

One of the strongest influence on flavour is visual. ‘We are led by our eyes,’ says Spence. He refers to a dish (again, from Heston) that’s a scoop of pink/red food that looks like strawberry ice cream. It’s actually a crab bisque and Heston thought it tasted wonderful, but people found it over-seasoned and too salty. The eyes say ‘sweet’ and the palate says ‘savoury’, and the result is that given this expectation, it ends up tasting too salty. ‘The first experience of this dish has to be right and involve the right name,’ says Spence. ‘If you call this dish fugue 386 it’s enough to suspend expectations and you come at it with a fresh palate and it will taste seasoned just right – the chef has to get into the mind of the diner and to lead their expectations.’

How food looks matters now more than ever, in the age of smartphones and sharing pictures of our dishes on social media. Back in the 1960s French chefs didn’t care how things looked: food was about the taste, and it was served on the plate as it might be at home. Then came nouvelle cuisine and things began to change. ‘In the 21st Century the perfect meal should look just so,’ says Spence.

The way a plate looks is a key element in our enjoyment, but does it make a difference with taste? Yes is the answer. This has been studied. Many chefs these days do asymmetric plating , but in studies people are willing to pay less and enjoy the food less than if the food is plated in a more symmetrical manner.  

The colour of the plate matters. In one experiment, Ferran Adria took one of his desserts and served it to half on a white plate and half on a black one. It tasted 10% sweeter and 15% more flavourful on the white plate. And in a hospital setting, patients ready for procedure are often given a red tray. But ‘red’ says ‘don’t eat me’: put anything on a red plate or red tray, and people will eat less.

Why do we consume 35 percent more food when eating with one other person, and 75 percent more when dining with three? How do we explain the fact that people who like strong coffee drink more of it under bright lighting? And why does green ketchup just not work?

The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips," published in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2004. The experiment was the first to successfully show that food could taste different depending on changes in sound. In the experiment, Spence demonstrated that the pitch and volume of the noise made when biting into Pringles chips affected people's perception of how fresh they were. Louder, higher-pitched crunch noises were rated by eaters to be 15% fresher on average than softer, lower-pitched crunch noises. [5]

Since then, his research has established that the sight, touch and sound of food can have large effects on its perceived taste. Other findings include that strawberry mousse is perceived as 10% sweeter when eaten from a white container over a black one, that coffee drunk from white mugs tastes almost two times more intense but only two-thirds as sweet as coffee drunk from a black mug, and that eaters perceive yogurt to be roughly 25% more filling when its plastic container weighs two and a half ounces more.

Well, have you ever eaten Chilean sea bass?* It is the product of a particular sort of alchemy, ‘The Alchemy of Semantics’. The $20 slice of fish that graces plates in high-end restaurants under the name ‘Chilean sea bass’ actually comes from a fish that for many years was known as the Patagonian toothfish. No one is going to pay $20 for a plate of Patagonian toothfish – call it Chilean sea bass, however, and the rules change. An American fish wholesaler called Lee Lentz had the idea, even though, strictly speaking, most of the catch doesn’t come from Chile and the toothfish isn’t even related to the bass

More recently, a similar thing happened to pilchards. Caught off the Cornish coast before being salted and shipped all over Europe, they had been a delicacy for centuries, until the advent of domestic refrigeration and freezing caused the appetite for salted fish – at least outside of Portugal – fall away. ‘The market was dying fast as the little shops that sold them closed down,’ says Nick Howell of the Pilchard Works fish suppliers in Newlyn. ‘I realised I needed to do something about it.’ He discovered that what the Cornish often called the pilchard was related to the fish that was served, with lemon and olive oil, to British tourists in the Mediterranean as a fashionable sardine.* So he changed the name from the pilchard, a name redolent of ration food,* to the ‘Cornish sardine’. Next, a supermarket buyer who called to ask for French sardines was deftly switched to buying ‘pilchards from Cornwall’. A few years ago Nick successfully petitioned the EU to award Cornish sardines Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, and the result was extraordinary: the Daily Telegraph reported in 2012 that sales of fresh sardines at Tesco had rocketed by 180 per cent in the past year, an increase that was partly explained by a huge increase in the sales of ‘Cornish sardines’. This rebranding exercise had reinvigorated the entire Cornish fishing industry.

Merely adding a geographical or topographical adjective to food – whether on a menu in a restaurant or on packaging in a supermarket – allows

you to charge more for it and means you will sell more. According to research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, descriptive menu labels raised sales by 27 per cent in restaurants, compared to food items without descriptors.

A gelateria can charge more than an ice-cream parlour. adding artisinal into the description makes it feel artisinal. 

Image by Augustine Fou
Image by Emiliano Vittoriosi
Image by Iñigo De la Maza
Fish and Chips
Image by James Giddins
Image by Matthew T Rader

He discovered that what the Cornish often called the pilchard was related to the fish that was served, with lemon and olive oil, to British tourists in the Mediterranean as a fashionable sardine.* So he changed the name from the pilchard, a name redolent of ration food,* to the ‘Cornish sardine’. Next, a supermarket buyer who called to ask for French sardines was deftly switched to buying ‘pilchards from Cornwall’. A few years ago Nick successfully petitioned the EU to award Cornish sardines Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, and the result was extraordinary: the Daily Telegraph reported in 2012 that sales of fresh sardines at Tesco had rocketed by 180 per cent in the past year, an increase that was partly explained by a huge increase in the sales of ‘Cornish sardines’. This rebranding exercise had reinvigorated the entire Cornish fishing industry.

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Image by Richard Iwaki
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If French music is played while you’re wine-shopping, you’re likelier to buy French wine. – this is all about priming. Study in Nature. Only 1 in 44 people recognized that the music influenced the choice. 86% of them thought it didn't affect them (but it did.)

However, a fetish for expensive wines seems to me entirely about self-placebbing or status seeking, and little to do with enjoyment – after all, is a great wine really all that much nicer than a good one?*

The Netflix documentary Sour Grapes is a fascinating insight into this world. A crooked, though brilliant, Indonesian wine connoisseur called Rudy Kurniawan was able to replicate great burgundies by mixing cheaper wines together, before faking the corks and the labels. He was rumbled only when he attempted to fake wines from vintages that did not exist. I am told that it is possible to detect a forged Kurniawan wine by analysing the labels, but not by tasting the wine.

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