Can ordinary mortals ever experience the subtleties of flavour that the world's top chefs do?

Rebecca Hardy puts her palate through its paces

I have always hated cabbage. Whether it's down to the overcooked sludge served up at school, or the smell of it drifting from the dinner hall, it is one of the few foods that I genuinely dislike. And yet here I am, eating not only cabbage, but an entire plate of cabbage-related vegetables at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham.

I am here in a bid to expand my palate and educate my tastebuds, and, rather fortuitously, Sat Bains has decided to present me with cabbage. But this cabbage is delicious, cooked down to a cream, and piled high with contrasting textures of burnt onion ash, braised turnips, raw broccoli stalks in lemon vinaigrette, radish and puréed broccoli, all brought together with a luxurious smoked hollandaise.

"You're eating cabbage," Bains laughs, and hands me another forkful. His point is that you can retrain the mind to like something you hate by presenting it with surprising new flavours. "I used to be the same about beetroot," he says. "I hated it. I associated it with being forced to eat it at school. Then I decided to look again. I tried it raw. I looked at its properties and explored the flavours. It is now one of my favourite ingredients. We do beetroot sorbets, lollies, ketchup. Beetroot enabled me to evolve as a chef, but I had to break my relationship with it. It was a great learning curve."

For a lesson in tasting, Restaurant Sat Bains is a good place to start. The tasting menu highlights which tastes dominate in each dish: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Of the five tastes, the last of these is a passion of his: most of his dishes are oozing with umami, that moreish, lip-smacking taste first discovered in Japan, which he creates by adding umami-rich foods, such as parmesan, anchovies, soy, tomatoes, marmite, seaweed. He is also big on acidic flavours (white wine, lemon juice, fruit-based vinegars), which he says freshen the palate and add to the longevity of the meal. (Two hours later I can still taste the belly pork with brown shrimps, apple and elderflower tingling on my tongue). But can foodie novices like me really learn to appreciate good food?

"Yes," says Bains, "most definitely. I taste around 100 times a day. I know what burnt hay tastes like. I have taught myself to lock different tastes into the brain and recall them when I make a dish."

Atul Kocchar, another Michelin-starred chef noted for his exceptional palate and subtly spiced Indian food, agrees: "Yes, a good palate can be actively trained. Some people are gifted, but others can learn. It's a training of the mind." Kocchar regularly gives masterclasses at his Mayfair restaurant, Benares. "I teach them how to use spices – quantities and combinations. I always give this advice: use spices the same way you use salt and pepper. Taste it and see. There is no combination which doesn't work, or any that work magically."

Both chefs say that home cooks can give their palates a workout by turning up the flavours, using the most lip-smacking ingredients. "Throw umami-rich anchovies into roasted potatoes or add parmesan to mash," says Bains. "I make a marmite butter, made from 100g unsalted butter and 25g marmite, and brush over fish, meat or vegetables to bring out flavour."

Kocchar recommends cooking spices in the right way. "Indian food is all about extracting the essential oils. To do this, sauté spices gently and add to the marinade. If you just throw them in, you won't get any effect. Garlic and mustard work really well, as do fennel, star anise and cinnamon, perked up with black pepper." Be gentle with chillis, however. "Chillis are about flavour, not heat. I take away the heat by removing the seeds."

"It is a misconception that chefs are picking up on stuff that others don't," says Dr Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. "They are just better at labelling them. One place they do better is recognising 'off' flavours. Many report to be 'super-tasters', more sensitive to bitter food and tastes in general." A quarter of the population, he says, fit this category, while another quarter, non-tasters have fewer tastebuds. "With super-tasters it is important what you pair the food with: if you serve coffee (bitter) with cream, for example, gradually they will learn to like the coffee."

This sensitivity, however, may come simply from repeatedly tasting food. "It's like anything," says Sara Jayne-Stanes, chief executive of the Academy of Culinary Arts, which runs a chefs-adopt-a-school programme. "Everything improves with practice. We work on children's palates with sensory exercises. We take a baguette, smell it and listen to the sounds as it breaks. Then we explore the tastes – we give lemons (for sour), chicory (bitter), jam (sweet), crisps (salt), and taste them on the tip of the tongue. Close the eyes. Where are you tasting it and what are you tasting? We all have a different number of tastebuds which have different sensitivities. Around 98 per cent of the population have the five tastes in the same areas of the tongue, but these can overlap. Tastes are not one-dimensional, they are quite complex."

Chocolate, like wine, is a good place to learn to identify flavours, she says. "A good dark chocolate with 70 per cent cocoa solids contains 300 different flavour compounds, 400 different aromas and should stay in the palate for 40 minutes." Start by sampling half a piece of milk chocolate, and then adding a Maldon sea salt flake to the other. "The difference is phenomenal: it brings out the flavour and prepares the palate for the next taste."

Tastebuds also slowly diminish with age. We start with 10,000 but most of us have only 5,000 left when we reach retirement. Many of us try to compensate for this by adding sugar and salt, which can dampen our tastebuds. Heavy drinking and smoking are also no-nos: they dull the palate and may accelerate declining tastebuds. The nose, too, is crucial in good-tasting: heightening your sense of smell will improve your appreciation of food.

All five senses, in fact, are crucial to taste. "Visuals, such as colour, are vital in how we rate food," says Spence. "We gave white wine coloured red to wine experts who went on to list flavours such as berries normally associated with red wine." In another study, people rated Pringles as tasting better the crunchier they sounded. In other experiments, fish and chips were perceived as being fresher when the sounds of the sea played – a discovery that led to Heston Blumenthal's infamous "sound of the sea" dish – seafood served with an iPod playing the sound of crashing waves.

Since then Spence has moved on to even more eccentric discoveries: when we speak he tells me he is travelling the next day to the Fat Duck in Bray to work on a new "bittersweet symphony", where chefs will be matching food to the specially created music. "We are trying to change the taste of the dish by changing the sounds people hear. We want to explore: if we give music that matches, will it make food taste better, and vice versa?"

The implications for working on our palates may not be clear, but Spence says, "We are discovering that we are all naturally synaesthetic, and when things are synaesthetically congruent, it leads to a better experience." If you get the music right, he says, the food will taste better. "Our research shows a dark chocolate bitter mousse goes with low brass sounds such as Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti, while a sweet sugary meringue with strawberries and citric ice cream would go with high-pitched tinkling pianos or bells such as Carnival of the Animals." There is lots of evidence, too, that ambience and environment are crucial. Playing Italian music or hanging Italian flags on the wall make people think that Italian food is more authentic."

So we should play French accordion music while eating coq au vin and hang onions on the wall? Exactly, says Spence. "If you were to ask me how much of the pleasure comes from the food and how much from environment I would say 50:50."

Nevertheless, all the experts agree that eating out at good restaurants is crucial training ground for the tastebuds. Bains, however, thinks there is no substitute for home cooking. "You are building the tastes yourself from raw to finished. It's the only way to understand it," he says.

Ultimately, it seems a good palate it isn't about super-refined tastebuds, it's about the nose, paying attention, enhancing all five senses and not being afraid to experiment. Since my tasting session with Sat Bains, I notice I have started to taste food in a new way. And I have learnt to like cabbage.

Improve your palate

* Eat slowly, mindfully and attentively. Take time to savour each flavour.

* Smell the food when you eat: the nose is crucial in tasting.

* Don't drink or smoke, both dampen the flavours and kill off tastebuds.

* Eat out at good restaurants and treat it as a gastronomic experience.

* Cook at home and don't be afraid to experiment with seasoning and spices.

* Do a blindfold tasting session, Masterchef-style.

* Cleanse the palate between tastes with water, lemon, apple or white bread.

* Keep a food journal and note how you do.

* Watch your use of salt: too much can dominate the dish.

* Try a taste detox: stick to white rice, vegetables white fish and water or fruit and herb teas for a couple of days. Afterwards, forgo the usual salt for new spices and herbs.

* Aim for a full synaesthetic experience to enhance the food and make it as full an experience as possible: choose music and ambiance that fits the food.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?