Thursday, 1 December 2011

Paring wine and food pairing

At the Parisian restaurant Il Vino [], the house philosophy is that a poulet de Bresse roti avec girolles is a nice piece of fowl with mushrooms, but a bottle of ’95 Domaine de Romanee Conti is something worth a detour. In contrast with most everywhere else, Il Vino asks you to choose your wine from their extensive cellars, allowing the chef to sauté, flambé, or simply fry-up some nice morsels to match it (or more likely, them – who’d choose only one wine?).

I mention this not because Il Vino is likely to be at the vanguard of changing attitudes to wine and food hierarchies – although, perhaps it might – but because their approach to wine does make us consider how and why we match foods and wines. In fact, why does this question even arise? Certainly, wine and food writers all seem to think it important. Unfortunately, such writing sometimes comes across as an idiot’s guide to what you are supposed to do with the wine: a cool-climate Chardonnay is the perfect accompaniment to langoustines in a beurre noisette sauce; the Riesling’s ideal with chilled Andalusian gazpacho. I suppose that it is possible that you’ll be caught in the dilemma of being given a nice bottle of Shiraz-Cabernet-Malbec. How to drink it?! Rustle up a supper of venison sausages with roast beetroot - problem solved!

Isn’t this all perfectly fine? After all, we do tend to feel that some wines go with some foods, and that other matches are less appealing, or perhaps seem less appropriate. But it all sounds a bit like homeopathy: white wines go with white meat, reds with red meat, sweet wines with sweet foods, and so on. Is there any rational basis for these pairings? The usual thinking is that whites – whether wine or meat – are delicate, shy, wallflower flavours. Red, however, is the colour of strength – lets face it, it’s the colour of blood. A white meat doesn’t stand a chance against the sort of wine that’s willing to spill blood at the slightest provocation! And as for a poor semillon caught in the same paddock as a rare steak ….. I’ll stop there for fear of frightening the children.

The prevailing wisdom on wine and food matching appears to rely on two assumptions about how tastes and flavours interact with one another. The first of these is that strong flavours overwhelm weaker ones, an issue of contrasting strengths. The second assumption concerns the ways in which qualities are meant to interact. One the one hand, similar tastes – sour plus sour, or sweet plus sweet – are thought to accentuate one another, while dissimilar tastes counteract each other. Thus, a sour food will build upon the acidity in a wine; but an acidic wine will cut through the sweetness of a dessert.

Let’s deal with these each of these assumptions in turn. Firstly, its important to remember that eating and drinking occur over time – we eat something, then have a sip of wine, then another bite and so on. The one thing that we can reliably predict about our senses of taste and smell (and indeed other senses) is that repeatedly experiencing the same quality over a short time will reduce its intensity. Hence, the second sip of a sweet drink is always less sweet, the effect of a process known as adaptation. Interspersing different flavours and tastes, as well as the passage of time, acts to reduce adaptation and maintain flavour intensity.

Secondly, does a weak taste or flavour appear even weaker following a stronger one? Quite probably, if they are of a similar quality (e.g., sweet and sweet; vanilla and vanilla) and adaptation takes place. Often, though, the effect may be more apparent than real. Certainly, intense qualities are more likely to hold your attention and be remembered than weaker ones. In all likelihood, though, paying attention to what’s in your mouth is likely to maintain the strength of any taste or flavour.

Thirdly, when we are dealing with tastes, the most common interaction seen with different qualities is a process known as mixture suppression. You’ll realise that you are already intimately familiar with this principle when I invoke (and I apologise in advance for this) the voice of Julie Andrews chirping that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go …….”. Horrible, but true. Sweet tastes reduce the bitterness of medicine or anything else. In fact, all taste qualities – sweet, salty, bitter, sour – suppress one another to varying degrees.

So, what do all of these interactions mean for our food and wine matches? Does the acidity of a wine “cut through” the sweetness of the dish, or does it render the dish sweeter by making you less sensitive to acidity in the food? Now, this is not what most people want to hear from a scientist, but …… who knows? Taken together with adaptation, the fact that tastes suppress one another means that it has suddenly started to get quite complex to predict what we are going to experience. Having a sip of a sweet wine prior to tucking in to your mousse au chocolate is likely to make the pudding less sweet, not more – because you have just adapted yourself to sweetness, making subsequent sweet tastes less intense. But, in addition, the mouthful of sweet mousse will accentuate the sourness of a wine because you have adapted to the sweetness that, in the wine, was suppressing its sourness, but is no longer.

We can consider how these effects may build and multiply ad nauseam, but it is neither a great way to endear yourself to your dining companions nor does it add to eating enjoyment. But it does mean that it becomes very difficult to provide some underlying principles of why some foods and wines might go together particularly well. Moreover, there is yet another factor we must consider. It is not enough to know the science of processes like adaptation and mixture suppression. To understand how we perceive the complex mixtures of tastes and flavours that are foods and wines, we also need an in-depth understanding of the impact of our expectations and beliefs derived from prior experiences with foods and wines.

Those aspects of perception that occur more in the mind than the nose and mouth are frequently shown to be immense influences. In one study [1], wine enthusiasts were asked to sniff white wines with all visual cues hidden, and to describe the aroma characteristics of the wine. When led to believe that they were sniffing a red wine, the words used matched those of red wines – blackcurrant, cherry, chocolate, and so on. Since these research participants were neither clueless nor, we assume, wanting to deliberately embarrass themselves, this outcome indicates a powerful influence of expectations over what we experience.

None of this means that we have been deluding ourselves when we thought that shiraz and red meat were a great combination, or that there’s something fishy about our choice of Sauternes with foie gras. But it probably does mean that such combinations, far from being based on some elemental principle, are – like food and wine preferences generally – part of our eating culture, a heritage of combinations that work because circumstances originally dictated their use. We expected those combinations to work and our expectations became reality over time. So, go ahead, drink whatever you like with whatever you eat. If it isn’t a success, you can always spit out your food.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tastes Like Home

What would you rather eat – sautéed duck breast with a chestnut foam nestling on forest mushrooms enlivened with herbs de Provence or some roast chicken with vegetables? It rather depends, doesn’t it? Are you in the mood for a big night out or a quiet night in? We recognize that either of these dishes could be terrific in the right circumstances. So how does the humble roast chicken compete with the clearly more gastronomically adventurous dish? The answer is that sometimes we simply feel like comfort food, food that is not only familiar but also part of our childhood, our culture and that reminds us of ‘home’.

Even haute cuisine chefs recognize the power of simple, familiar food. Chef Alain Ducasse, weighed down as he is by multiple Michelin stars, produces at his flagship Paris restaurant a main course of Bresse chicken and spring vegetables. It is a very good (and – it goes without saying – expensive) chicken, but simple nonetheless. The anointed head of the new British food movement, Fergus Henderson, knows too that the dish of Middlewhite (pork) and peas served at his St John restaurant in London is memorable not just for being delicious but for the resemblance it bears to home cooking.

In a North American context, the prototypical comfort food is chicken soup. Researchers Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel from the State University of New York, Buffalo recently set out to examine where the comfort in this particular comfort food comes from[i]. Their starting point is previous research, unconnected to foods, showing that feelings of loneliness are often offset by social surrogates, including favorite television programs and the lives of celebrities. They suggest that some foods act in much the same way. Why? Because they are foods that have most often been eaten in the company of those with whom we have important relationships, including parents, siblings and partners. They argue that the feelings of psychological comfort that were experienced at the time of eating such foods becomes ‘encoded’ with those foods.

This idea makes sense and is also consistent with how we typically develop likes and dislikes for food. In the latter case, food flavour become associated with their metabolic consequences – provision of calories or other important nutrients – and this association is expressed in future in terms of liking. This form of associative learning can also be seen when a novel flavour is paired with something that is already liked – a sweet taste, a convivial environment or a famous actor or sports personality.

How did Trosi and Gabriel make their case? First they divided the 111 university student participants according to whether or not they considered chicken noodle soup to be a comfort food or not. Next, in each approximately equal group of students they were asked to undertake a word completion task. This involved asking the participants to complete word fragments, some of which could be made into whole words that were associated with relationships (e.g., welcome, like, include) and other fragments into different sorts of words unrelated to relationships. At the same time the students either consumed the soup or not.

The researchers were interested in how many words fragments were completed as relationship-related words. As they hypothesized, the number of relationship words completed was highest when the soup was eaten ….. but only for those who considered chicken noodle soup a comfort food. The interpretation by the authors was that the soup activated those relationship-related words because of past experiences of the soup in the context of their own important relationships.

One other characteristic of comfort food, according to these researchers, is that because it evokes associations with positive relationships, it may actually counteract feelings of loneliness. To test this notion, in a second experiment, another group of university students were divided via a standardized “Attachment Scale” according to whether their relationship style was generally ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ – that is, those whose experience of relationships is generally positive or not, respectively. Half of each of these groups was then asked to write about a fight they had had in the past with someone who was close to them. The other half wrote about something completely neutral. Next, the participants were asked to write about their experience with either a comfort food or a novel food. Finally, all participants filled out a standardized “Loneliness Scale”.

Consistent with their predictions, the authors found that “securely attached participants who wrote about a fight with a close other experienced less loneliness if they were given the opportunity to write about their comfort food than if they wrote about a new food” (p. 750). In other words, the comfort food offset the feelings of loneliness that were evoked by writing about a relationship-threatening fight.

This research gives us some important insights into the motivations behind seeking out comfort foods. Such foods not only evoke pleasant associations, they can clearly act as surrogates in the absence of loved ones. The idea of comfort food is therefore not just merely a way of referring to home cooking – rather it is food that literally provides comfort.

While this may sound very positive, the authors raise the possibility that such effects may also underlie instances of increased eating that sometimes – and in some people – accompanies negative emotions such as loneliness, sadness and anxiety. Such ‘emotional eating’ is considered to be a risk for obesity in susceptible individuals.

We can also see some opportunities following from this research to further explore how foods may be attached to other emotions or experiences. Could we through suitable associations tailor foods or beverages to make us feel energetic or optimistic or sophisticated? Certainly, the idea that foods can influence our emotions in quite specific ways suggests a world of possibilities in intelligently utilizing the various elements – sensory, image, packaging – that have an impact on our food choices to increase positive emotions.