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The senses: a starting point for creativity


Daily Gullet Staff
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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1144897038/gallery_29805_2457_5544.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">It

has often been said that the human activity that calls on the greatest number

of senses is gastronomy. When we look at a painting or photograph, only the sense

of sight is brought into play, just as when we listen to a symphony, the sense

that transports the information to the brain is hearing. An opera or film calls

for the joint participation of sight and hearing. When we are eating, four out

of the five senses come into play, to a greater or lesser extent: sight, smell,

touch and taste. Even hearing plays a small but interesting role in food with certain preparations, such as

those with a crisp texture. <br><br>

Sight is the first sense that transmits information to us when the dish arrives

on the table. It enables us to identify the product, and appreciate its composition,

presentation, colours and shapes. <br><br>

The next to come into operation is smell, thanks to which we perceive aromas.

All products have a specific odour which we appreciate when we smell them close

up, and sometimes it can be very powerful (truffles, shellfish, certain fruits

and vegetables). Stews and other products and preparations that are served hot

can be smelled from further away. To appreciate wine, smell is essential.<br><br>

The perceptions related to touch are two-fold: firstly the whole gamut of temperatures

that the mouth can discern, as well as possible contrasts between different

temperatures. Secondly, the various textures of products and preparations. <br><br>

The sense of taste is the one that plays the major role when eating. Just as

it is perfectly understood that the senses are the gateway for information to

the brain, it goes without saying that taste is the sense that needs most attention

when suggesting a dish to a diner. This is also true in our way of understanding

cooking, although we are now aware of the fact that the right proportion of

stimuli for each sense increases the pleasure.</p>

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<td><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1144883250/gallery_29805_2457_3169.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">When a diner goes to a gourmet restaurant, he will experience physical reactions that go beyond the need to feed himself, but also a series of sensations that his brain will process based on data collected by his senses. This process is usually taken for granted, and many chefs accept this as an undeniably important aspect, without warranting further consideration or thought. For example, they know that they have to choose a high quality product, cook it in its own style and ensure that the diner’s requirements are met. This does not necessarily mean that it is routine, or that disdain is shown for the options provided by the senses, even though they are not usually taken into account as a starting out point for the creating process.

<br><br>

For several years, this was more or less our attitude. We knew that the gateway to gastronomic sensations was the senses, but we never really asked ourselves how they functioned and how they could be influenced. Apart from one or two specific ideas prior to 1994, it was from that year onwards that a change of attitude began to be forged, directed at exploiting the entire potential of this relationship between the chef and the diner. Three years later, while we were writing Los secretos de El Bulli, our method of tackling this aspect had taken root, and in that book we explained what the senses meant for us. In all fields of human activity, knowing how a process functions helps one to work with it, by modifying it, being sparing with some factors or enhancing others, in order to obtain the desired result. This is equally true with cooking: if we analyse how cooking is perceived, how each sense influences the appreciation of a dish and the pleasure it provides, we can then offer the diner much more information, and thus increase the emotion.

<br><br>

Of course, this understanding meant that when creating, it was essential to bear in mind all the information that the diner received. In other words, because this information directly depended on the senses, we had to study the role of each one in the act of eating in order to use them as a creative method.

For several years, this was more or less our attitude. We knew that the

gateway to gastronomic sensations was the senses, but we never really

asked ourselves how they functioned and how they could be influenced.

Apart from one or two specific ideas prior to 1994, it was from that year

onwards that a change of attitude began to be forged, directed at exploiting

the entire potential of this relationship between the chef and the diner.

Three years later, while we were writing Los secretos de El Bulli, our

method of tackling this aspect had taken root, and in that book we explained

what the senses meant for us. In all fields of human activity, knowing

how a process functions helps one to work with it, by modifying it, being

sparing with some factors or enhancing others, in order to obtain the

desired result. This is equally true with cooking: if we analyse how cooking

is perceived, how each sense influences the appreciation of a dish and

the pleasure it provides, we can then offer the diner much more information,

and thus increase the emotion. <br><br>

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We stated earlier that sight is the first sense to transmit information

in the act of eating. The data can indicate various aspects, such as the

amount served, the shapes and proportions of the products and preparations,

colours or the layout of food on the plate. Thanks to sight, we can immediately

identify, before trying it, what food we are going to eat, as well as the

type of cuisine the dish belongs to. In creative cooking, it is often even

possible to identify the chef that has created a dish, merely through what

we might call its artistic style. In view of all the data that the diner

receives using his sense of sight, the chef has various options. Firstly,

the appearance of a dish is undeniably a motivation: playing with colours,

shapes, proportions, layout and so on – in short, everything that gives

rise to what we colloquially call “eating with one’s eyes”. But this appearance

can also “tell” things, such as indicating how the dish should be eaten,

in what order the ingredients are to be consumed. There are gourmets who

are particularly good at “reading” a dish, people who know the right way

to appreciate the chef’s idea. <br>

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This is one of the senses that intervenes the most in the act of eating, and it plays various roles. Firstly, it has a physiological function which has nothing to do with culinary sensitivity: it is responsible for preparing the gastric juices for digestion. In the area of perception, thanks to smell we perceive the aromas of a dish. Furthermore, smell is a very important aid for the chef in order to judge the quality or condition of a product.

<br><br>

When creating, only the second of these functions, perceiving the aroma of a dish, is important. The aroma of a product or preparation is essential, to the extent that if we could not appreciate its smell, we would only be able to perceive a fraction of the basic flavours and refinements when tasting, but without the characteristic personality of these ingredients, since the two senses are very closely related. It is well known that a person whose sense of smell is neutralised (because of some product or a simple cold) does not experience the “savour” of food.

<br><br>

It was not until 1997 that we dealt with smell at a creative level in our cuisine, when we decided to concentrate an aroma to add flavour to a dessert. In 2000 we enhanced the aroma of a dish with rosemary in our Norway lobsters au naturel with rosemary or with a sprig of vanilla in our sweet vanilla potato purée. In 2001, with the creation of the aromas of elBulliolor, we invented three dishes in which smell played a crucial role: raw/sautéed St George’s mushrooms with elderflower and yoghurt and pine foam with a woodland scent, orange, pumpkin with yoghurt powder and bitter almond and oysters on a trip.<br><br></td></tr>

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1144883250/gallery_29805_2457_8046.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">The first tactile sensation that our mouths experience when we introduce food is temperature. The human palate is capable of standing only a certain range of temperatures, and anything that exceeds the limits of -20 ºC and 70 ºC approximately (depending on a person’s sensitivity) should not be considered when cooking. Within this range of temperatures, the sense of touch

acts by detecting whether a food is cold, warm or hot, and also by perceiving contrasts between various temperatures.

<br><br>

So temperature is a source of sensations that a chef should know how to exploit, so that, for example, contrasts between different temperatures may be appreciated. In addition, it is important, and not just in creative cuisine, that the temperature of each dish is right, a factor that is often ignored. A variation of 5 ºC in a preparation can mark the difference between success and failure.

<br><br>

When creating, it is also important to bear in mind which preparations lend themselves to different temperatures. Soups, sauces, custards, crèmes or purées can be cold, warm or hot. Since 1998, jellies and foams, which until then could only be cold, can also be hot. In other cases, temperature defines the physical state of certain preparations: the temperature of a sorbet will always be below 0 ºC; the same preparation at 5 ºC is no longer a sorbet.

<br>

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After appreciating the temperature of a mouthful (or sometimes simultaneously),

the sense of touch detects its texture. This factor is very important (borne

out by the fact that many people do not like a product, not because of its

taste but because of its texture), and in El Bulli it plays a vital role.

The wealth of sensations provided by texture is only limited by the number

of textures that actually exist. <br>

<br>

Firstly, one can play with the original textures of a product. It might be said that the appeal of certain products is based more on their texture than their flavour: pasta, rice, elvers, caviar, etc. The gelatinous texture of pigs’ trotters, frogs’ legs or cod plays a vital role in their gourmet value. Furthermore, by working on these textures, an infinite number of variations can be obtained: countless textures are provided by cutting and cooking asparagus in as many ways as possible. A large number of textures can also be obtained from a liquid or purée: whey, mousse, foam, water ice, sorbet, ice cream, custard, jelly, and so on. Then there are other preparations whose textures are not based on liquids or purées, such as caramels, croquants, pastry and all its variations (biscuits, sponges, tiles, millefeuilles), etc.

<br><br>

Creative playing revolves around offering contrasts in textures, and also modifying the usual texture of a product to provide a completely new perspective. Deciding which textures to provide in a product and combining them with others is one of the most complex, yet at the same time agreeable, aspects of creativity based on the senses.

</td></tr>

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<hr size="1" noshade color="#333333"></td></tr> <tr><td align="right" valign="top"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1144897038/gallery_29805_2457_395.jpg" align="top"></td><td><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1138590929/gallery_29805_2457_2236.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">The world of prepared textures: the panaché, a distinctive dish. It is not often that we can say that a dish of ours has generated a whole line of evolution. Almost certainly, one of them would be our textured panaché, since it represents a veritable frontier between our way of tackling cold dishes up to 1994 and what we did afterwards. The panaché opened up a new world to us, the world of prepared textures, in which the transformation of products took on a new prominence in our cuisine. The origins of the panaché dish occurred more or less simultaneously. In 1994, concepts and techniques to obtain new textures were created: savoury ice creams, foams, or jellies which we had been experimenting with since 1991. All these factors were subsequently incorporated into our panaché, an ideal showcase displaying this complete range of different textures.

<br><br>

We usually say that the need to create this dish goes back to the time we tried Michel Bras’ gargouillou dish. From that moment, our dream was to create a vegetable dish that would offer the same response to a different attitude. With the panaché, we succeeded. Furthermore, it was probably one of the first dishes for which we used the deconstruction method, although at that time we had not even thought about it. For all these reasons, we consider this dish to be a symbol, a distinctive dish.

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<td><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1144883250/gallery_29805_2457_5850.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">The

sensations perceived by the sense of taste while one is eating may be categorised

as follows: <br>

<br>

- Perception of the primary flavours: sweet, savoury, acid, bitter.<br>

- Perception of refinements: sour, astringent, spicy, balsamic, iodised, smoked, aniseed, etc.<br>

- Identification of the characteristic flavour of each food.

<br><br>

Through taste we also perceive the harmony between the elements of a dish, although it is not actually this sense that judges the success or otherwise of combinations. This is done afterwards by the brain taking into account the perceptions that arrive via taste.

<br><br>

When creating, we can play with this harmony by modifying the proportions of basic flavours, complementing it with refinements, etc. To understand the potential of this creative method related to taste, we had to think about it for a while. For a long time we had assumed that the savoury flavour should predominate in a savoury dish, and sweetness in a dessert. On that basis, the other primary flavours merely acted as points of contrast. The evolution of the symbiosis between the sweet and savoury worlds stimulated a new way of looking at things. Our intention when creating a dish based on flavours is to provide variety, in which the four flavours are balanced, so that different sensations may be experienced. An essential ingredient of this method is the chef’s sensitivity, which will enable him to attain balance and harmony between all the elements.

<br><br>

When we are asked to give an example of the importance of balance between the basic flavours, we usually say that if one adds too much salt (or too much sugar) to a savoury dish, it is out of proportion. Harmony is the objective. And multiplying sensations does not mean multiplying the ingredients in a dish. For example, if we put a pinch of Maldon salt on a grapefruit segment, we have a taste of something with the four basic flavours. To these are added the flavour refinements (spicy, astringent, sour, etc.) that are as important in gastronomy as the basic flavours, and a vital component for enhancing a dish; however they are sometimes relegated to second place when talking about the sense of taste. This search for balance between flavours and refinements has also been the driving force that has led us to use new products that are distinguished precisely because of some of these aspects.

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<td><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1144883250/gallery_29805_2457_2923.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">The

concept of sequence when eating a dish is one of the ideas that enabled

us to enter into the world of the senses with a different attitude. The

catalyst was our green asparagus wrapped in ceps, which we wanted to serve

with a ceps jelly, macadamia nuts and a parmesan vinaigrette. After trying

the dish several times we found that the balance was almost perfect, but

there was something missing, something to set it off. At that time, we were

also working on citrus fruit reductions, and it occurred to us that we might

add an acid flavour by using a mandarin reduction. <br>

<br>

Now we just needed to know what part of the dish to apply it to, and we saw that the most suitable solution was to put it on the asparagus tip. This led us to set a sequence for eating it: the waiter told the diner that the dish was to be eaten in a certain order, and that the tip with the reduction had to be eaten last. This would produce an explosion of the acid flavour of the mandarin once the asparagus had been finished. In short, the dish consisted of three asparagus spears that had to be eaten in sequence. This was the catalyst of the analysis that led us to understand that there were two ways of eating: in the first way, the order in which the elements of a dish are eaten is not important; in the second way, it is essential so that its entire harmony can be appreciated. We also realised that the proportion of each element was extremely important, and that a lack of balance in this aspect could thoroughly upset the result. One only has to think of what happens if too much salt is added to a dish. If the harmony of a dish were to be expressed in an equation, order and proportion would be major elements.

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<font size="-2" face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif">Our thanks to Juli Soler for his invaluable assistance in this project. <br>

Copyright Ferran Adria, Juli Soler, Albert Adria © 2006. Photographs by Francesc Guillamet. <br>

Introduction by Pedro Espinosa.<br>

El Bulli books may be purchased here.<br>

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Reading today's contribution to this series, posted shortly after Henry Lo's food blog, got me thinking about the relationship between food and architecture, again, and the ways that the visual arts, first, and now, culinary arts have relied on intellectual arguments to increase their prestige, moving from the baser connotations of "craft" to the elevated realm of "Art."

One of the strategies critics and scholars use to persuade others that the arts are not a rarified thing to be contemplated from a distance is to point to their immediacy: how they create a sensory experience for the beholder or the audience. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a heated debate ensued concerning the superiority of sculpture or painting. In his contribution to the Paragone, Leonardo claimed painting for the dominant role, in part, because a painter wears nice clothes without fear of getting covered in marble dust (this is before Pollock) and listens to music. No loud hammering. No calluses either. Nowadays, sculpture might be favored since it IS so tactile. Sensory experience garners greater respect. Students read about the history of the body and not simply the life of the mind.

Architecture's even better than sculpture for sensualists since you are engulfed by the work of art when you enter it. You're consumed by space. You're the food and the building is the stomach.

You see, you feel, you hear if standing, say, in the circle that Philip Johnson built into his addition to the museum at Dumbarton Oaks and your voice resonates. You taste, smelling incense, if a pilgrim taking communion in a side chapel of a great medieval church, or if you're Hugh of Lincoln on a visit to Vezeley where you take a bite out of the monastery's most prized relic, the alleged body of Mary Magdalen, so you can bring it back to England.

It should be noted that in the great experimental utopian movements of the past century, some of the best artists in theater, music and the visual arts joined together to create all-encompassing sensory experiences so that arts were a part of life and not this marginal thing to be visited at a museum or concert hall from time to time. Bauhaus and De Stijl. Arts and Crafts. The teapot and toaster of Michael Graves look back to such movements as their legacy.

Getting back to food as sense and art: in order to gain greater respect, does greater reverence for the artistry of today's great chefs have to be tied so tightly to wealth and the class system? El Buli does wonderous things for those who can afford them. That was the case for Leonardo and remains true even for Frank Gehry who favors concrete, cardboard and chain link fencing over marble and bronze. Here at eGullet there is lots of good, enthusiastic talk about inexpensive treats. Crisp apples. Pizza. However...

Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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Another fun installment!

Can someone elaborate on the Panache section? What exactly is it? Am I correct to assume that it is a plate of different flavors, textures and temperatures of vegetables? Anyone had it before?

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Elie, the panaché is elBulli interpretation of a classic dish from Navarra --you can have it also in the area of Aragón which is close to Navarra along the Ebro river-- called the menestra de verduras. This is an assortment of vegetables, typically from the cold months of the years, where every one of them is cooked by itself since the cooking times are different for each of them, and later bound by a light sauce using their stock. Some boiled egg or ham may also appear. I wouldn't call it panaché, but ...

I haven't had elBulli's version and chances are that you could only have had it back in 1994 or in the year they celebrated their anniversary when they offered menus based in what they did in other seasons. These are the textures and ingredients of their menestra:

Sorbet - almond

Mousse - cauliflower

Purée - tomato

Foam - beetroot

Fatty texture - avocado pear

Jelly - basil

Mousse - sweetcorn

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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This is yet another fascinating glimpse into certainly one of the greatest minds of culinary creativity. That they consider very carefully each and every aspect of sensation is readily apparent when sitting at a table there and experiencing the cuisine. While in some circles offering instructions on how to eat particular dishes may sound pretentious, it makes perfect sense for their cuisine in order to experience it optimally. I have had situations elsewhere in which I wish I was given adequate instruction or correct instruction. One of the reasons I like to photograph food is that the image does tell me a lot about a dish and can instill specific memories from my other senses of dishes that I have had.

One additional aspect besides the five senses experiencing external factors that effects a diner's experience is the diner himself. That is the condition, mental, physical and emotional that the diner is in at any given time while dining. I think this is much more difficult for the chef to control as it can depend on so many external variables. Was there an argument? Is the occasion special? What is the relationship with the other people dining? Are they enjoying the meal? Preconceptions? Is one already hungry or full? Is one feeling well? These and other elements go a long way in determining whether an individual will enjoy a particular meal or not regardless of the quality of the food. While it is dificult for a restaurant to control these things some restaurants do a better job of this than others. Some do better at making people feel relaxed or special. Others are good at defusing potentially aggravating situations. it was my impression that El Bulli was very good at all these things in addition to their cuisine.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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