FOOD / The language of the tongue: The French have discovered there is more to taste than sweet, salt, sour and bitter. Nicholas Faith reports

YOU CAN forget all those simple divisions confining taste to sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The French have called in a squad of philosophers, neurobiologists, sociologists and 'agricultural engineers' to take apart the whole concept of taste.

What they found, once the intellectual packaging was unwrapped, is that there are as many tastes as a person is gifted enough to decipher. The key to graduating beyond the Famous Four is in understanding that taste is not just a one-dimensional activity.

The professionals' combined wisdom, published in a special edition of the French wine magazine L'Amateur de Bordeaux, represents the most up-to-date thinking on the subject.

Taste involves the whole of human physiology, compounded by our social conditioning: the infant's natural predisposition to liking sweet nourishment, part of its genetic inheritance, is naturally encouraged by its experience of mother's milk, or substitutes, during its first months.

In a typical French aside, one contributor points out that, in their first months, infants in Marseilles are conditioned to the garlic of aioli, a training denied to their contemporaries in northern France.

More seriously, Claude Fischer, a sociologist, divides the whole process of recording and categorising and responding to tastes as the distinction between the neurophysiological 'hardware' (in the mouth, nose, throat, stomach and brain, which records the information about the substances we are tasting) and the 'software' (the social conditioning which dictates our reactions to them).

In principle, the 'hardware' can be divided into the organs which decide on the texture and temperature of a substance, and those that analyse the chemical contents (even these can be complicated because a single cell can respond to different sensations). Not surprisingly, as one contributor puts it, 'we need an impeccable experimental approach to allow us to understand what our mouth tells our brain'.

At a simpler but more incongruous level, taste depends on our eyes. As Stylianos Nicolaidis, a distinguished neurobiologist points out, it is jolly difficult for our brain to accept that a substance which looks green and slimy will prove instead to be a tasty morsel.

But it was left to another neurobiologist, Annick Faurion, to show the fundamental flaw in previous discussions on the subject. 'The researchers who have worked on the idea of taste were trained as psychologists, and naturally expressed themselves in terms of perceived qualities.

'Since our descriptive categories covered only four sensations, they restricted their tests to these four.'

The idea of a mere four descriptive words is relatively new, she says. Aristotle divided tastes into a dozen or more categories, and in 1751 Linnaeus found 10 (wet, dry, acid, bitter, fatty, astringent, sweet, vinegary, viscose and salty). It was left to lesser names (such as Fick, Cohn and Henning) to reduce them to four.

Even when you have attempted some new categorisation - which none of the contributors dared to do - you are left with the different individual capacities to distinguish tastes. Some people are literally 10 times as sensitive as others.

As a result, the idea of the objective measurement of the intensity of a given taste (as opposed to its nature) becomes almost


Nevertheless, Ms Faurion has a go, spelling out the process as she understands it. She says that every stimulus interacts with a number of sensory cells, which together provide an individual signature for a given substance.

The ensemble of 'chemico-receptors' which analyse substances, is sufficiently discriminating to detect any modification in the chemical make-up of a substance, so that every individual has at his or her disposal a continuum of gustatory sensations.

Unfortunately, the words we have to describe these varied sensations are inadequate and contradictory since they derive partly from objective words distilled from daily experience over the centuries, and partly from an equally historic opposition between tastes that have been perceived as good and those that have been rejected through the ages.

So taste involves 'a whole heap of confusions: confusions between qualitative and hedonistic parameters, between olfaction and tasting, etc, etc'.

Finally, of course, comes the insoluble problem of the inability actually to describe tastes. Words can only provide comparisons, a basic fact that gives an opportunity to tasters.

In the words of yet another distinguished neurobiologist, 'the flowery vocabulary of the taster appeals to subjective associations, the better to hide his feeble analytical powers, for taste stimuli escape possible objective descriptions - unless you reduce them to their physical or chemical properties, which may be adequate for a solution of sugar or salt, but not for a chateau margaux or a jugged hare'.

In other words, the scientists have given up and, happily, have left it to us, individual wine-bores, to express ourselves in terms which may have no scientific basis, but which they cannot say are unsound, since they have (as yet) no objective criteria by which to judge our outpourings.

L'Amateur de Bordeaux, 22 rue des Reculettes, 75013 Paris.

(Photograph omitted)

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