© 2019 Museum Tinguely, Basel; Foto: Daniel Spehr

The Taste of Art

With contributions from biochemistry, psychology, ethnology, food sensorics, linguistics, literature, cultural studies and the culinary arts, Amuse-bouche was a grand showcase of the effect of taste on the human experience. Held at the Tinguely Museum in Basel, the two-day symposium on taste and food culture hosted internationally renowned speakers from science and other fields and provided exciting insights into the numerous aspects of the study of taste.

Where does taste start?

We see, we expect.

We smell, we assume.

We feel, we speculate.

Taste starts long before we grab the spoon, put it to our mouth, and let the food pass our lips and touch our tongue. Almost all of our senses are involved in the process of how we taste, and help to determine what foods we like or dislike.

We think we know how something tastes due to lifelong learned facts and patterns. Our sense of taste decides if we will swallow something or spit it out. Wolfgang Meyerhofer, from the the Center for Integrative Physiology and Molecular Medicine in Homburg, guided us through the biochemical perspective of aversions and attractions in taste. Emotional valence categorises experiences as positive or negative, or in this case, attraction and aversion. An aversive valence protects us from possible poisoning, by acids or salt for example. An attractive valence, for example sugar, indicates calories which are vital for sustaining life. This means that our sense of taste is an overall safeguard for our health.

Our taste preferences, on the other hand, are learned through experience. Whether it is our first roommate’s amazing hangover porridge or our grandmother’s sausage curry that we still refuse to eat 20 years later, we have a coded memory of taste linked to certain moments, feelings and memories. If we understand taste as an experience-based coded program, we can begin to understand an individual’s dietary behaviour by considering their culture, living conditions, environment, etc. But it doesn’t just help us to understand; there is also the tantalising possibility that we can recode our taste preferences if we connote food with new memories.

© 2019 Museum Tinguely, Basel; Foto: Daniel Spehr

"So if taste is linked to our experiences, how can we design these experiences?"

So if taste preference is linked to experience, how can we design these experiences?

Taste, or better said, flavour, is a multi-sensory construct. Though whether it is solely a construct of the mind, or a result of the mouth/mind interaction is a question that divides scholars. Designing experiences in order to influence taste is becoming a common way to enhance a customer’s experience, for example at high end restaurants. Lots of chefs around the world collaborate with visual artists, sound designers, product designers and virtual reality experts in order to influence and control the consumer’s experience to the fullest. Works such as these are designed to accompany culinary art, such as Tokyo’s Tree by Naked who create audiovisual room concepts.

© 2019 Museum Tinguely, Basel; Foto: Daniel Spehr

© 2019 Museum Tinguely, Basel; Foto: Daniel Spehr

“The pleasures of the table reside mainly in the mind, not the mouth”
– Prof. Charles Spence, experimental psychologist, University of Oxford

– crisp, refreshing, cool, beautiful.

– tastes like a snowflake. slightly sour. little body.

– watery, tasteless.

– like water with white wine taste.

– it tastes of field. I taste earth and something hard cold.

An array of smells, pictures, colours and feelings stimulate our brain when we are eating. Think about it! Our brains are actually quite busy in designing various worlds of taste while we’re eating (or even thinking) about food.

And how do we talk about taste?

Jeanette Nüssli Guth from the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zürich drew our attention to the habit of speaking about taste. The German vocabulary for food is fairly small, even though the German language has around a thousand adjectives to describe taste. A lot of them are used metaphorically, such as the words ‘sweet’ or ‘sour,’ and hence are semantically complex. To be able to share our impressions of taste with others more precisely, we therefore resort to other forms of description. These might include entire scenarios, references to other products, or the use of pictures as a medium or proxy.

“We all need minerals. So why don’t we cook with stones?”
– Stefan Wiesner, 17 Gault Millau & Michelin 1-star

Even if we know what is in our food, it is sometimes hard to describe. That is exactly how most of the audience felt at the symposium while trying Stefan Wiesner’s iron ore dessert. Stefan Wiesner is an avant-garde nature cook—an alchemist who has dedicated his life to a culinary experience in close collaboration with nature. His way of cooking is a fluid line between high-end culinary work and edible art, such as the dessert he brought to the Tinguely museum: iron ore ice cream, air pastry and crumble.

Do stones have flavour?

The ice cream had a sour cream base and a beautiful dusty pink colour which came exclusively from the ground iron ore. Around me I heard people mentioning the word metallic. But, wasn’t that an idea made up by our minds because we knew we were eating iron ore?! It was hard to say if the stone powder had an actual influence on the flavour. Stefan Wiesner and his team create soups with hay, use mosses and algae from stones or even charcoal and peat for flavouring. Culinary specialties are no longer on the horizon, but on the doorstep. Gault Mileau and Michelin have said that Wiesner’s food is not really rateable. They say, “Wiesner is Wiesner.” His method of culinary expression is not measurable using the current ranking systems.

What we consume and how we want to experience food is changing. We will need new words to describe food and new methods of sustainable culinary creativity that bring us closer to a way of consuming and living with what we are given by the planet. The focus lies in our senses and our taste preferences, and depends on the interactions we create.

The symposium will be followed by an exhibition on taste and senses, on show from February 19th to May 19th, 2020 at the Tinguely Museum in Basel.

Article written by Swiss designer Tosca Weber.