What you see isn’t always what you get – these yoghurts taste the same. So how do you taste food – and wine – without prejudice? Fiona Beckett tests her tastebuds in the dark
Well, I’m right about the food – it is tuna – but the wine’s a South African Colombard/Chardonnay, according to the manager at London’s latest eating experience Dans Le Noir? where diners eat in total darkness. It’s a strange experience, having to be guided by the (blind) waiter, take things on trust, rely on touch and hearing. (The question mark at the end of the restaurant name indicates that it may be you, not the waiter who is in the dark.)
Being more used to blind tasting I feel more confident with the wine, but even that, as we all know, can play tricks. One French critic in Paris, where the company originated, apparently mistook his red for a white. And it’s not helped by staff themselves being somewhat vague about what they’re serving. My wine-savvy companion and I were convinced that the second wine that arrived was a New World Merlot and not the Côtes du Rhône they later claimed. (They don’t tell you what you’re eating or drinking at the time.) But I guess it’s easy to get bottles mixed up when you can’t see them.
It makes one realise how important senses other than taste and smell are in the enjoyment of wine. What a wine looks like sets up an expectation not only of how it will taste but how it will go with the food. Serve a red wine with lightly poached white fish and you’re braced for disappointment, past experience prompting that this isn’t going to work. Conversely, having a well-established match like oysters and Chablis in front of you primes you for success.
A wine’s colour can also influence perception. A pale rosé with a steak is not just a matter of taste. It doesn’t look right. Pair it with rare lamb and you feel it might be OK. The light, glinting green-gold through a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, together with the cool feel of the side of the glass just after the wine has been poured sets you up for a pleasurable match with a seafood salad just as much as its crisp citrusy aroma.
The French seem particularly into this multi-sensory approach. In Lille there is a restaurant called Avec Les Doigts which dispenses with knives, forks and plates, while at the French-owned Novotel West in Hammersmith the management has introduced a ‘5 senses’ tasting and dining experience as a team-building exercise for companies.
‘It shows how much sight overrides taste,’ says Isabelle Macart, who leads the sessions. ‘For example, we give people two yoghurts – one pink and one yellow – and people think the pink one tastes of strawberry. But in fact they are both lemon-flavoured. We do a parmesan ice cream that people assume is vanilla.’ The experience extends to cover topics such as lighting (which can have an extreme effect, both positive and negative, on meat) and even table linen (blue makes you feel hungry, apparently, whereas green is not recommended).
Macart is looking for ways to incorporate wine into the experience. ’It’s long been known too that the colour and shape of a glass can influence one’s appreciation of the liquid inside. Pour even the finest wine into a chunky tumbler or a plastic cup and it won’t taste as good. Pour it into a glass designed to accentuate its character, for example one from Riedel, and you’ll see the wine in quite a different way. Riedel has also introduced an opaque black glass to assist sommeliers and buyers in making judgements on taste alone. ‘Sight is incredibly important in terms of the judgement we make about a wine,’ says UK managing director Steve McGraw. ‘If it’s dark red we decide it’s full bodied before it even passes our lips.’ Temperature too can make a difference. ‘You can easily mistake a white Rioja for a light red if it’s served at room temperature.’
What about sound? Can the ambient noise change the way one perceives wine? Absolutely, say researchers from the University of Leicester who conducted an experiment in a wine shop, playing French and German music. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French while 73% of sales were German when German music was played. Other experiments have shown customers are more likely to trade up when they listen to classical music. (See www.mindhacks.com)
You also realise how much the dining experience is affected by ambience, human interaction and mood. If you feel uncomfortable in a restaurant because of loud neighbours, because the sommelier puts you down or because you’re rowing with your partner, it will inevitably reflect how positively you feel about the food and wine. Anything that takes you out of your comfort zone takes the relaxation factor out of a meal. Wine-loving hosts underestimate the stress those ‘guess-the-bottle’ games cause where some guests are bound to end up looking foolish.
Could you dine in the dark at home? No reason why not as long as you deal with the inevitable hazards posed by hot food and sharp implements. It’s a surprisingly intimate experience – one that would be considerably enhanced by using top-quality ingredients, which I have to say Dans Le Noir?’s were not, and by someone talking you through what was coming. A comparative Champagne and caviar tasting maybe? Bolly, Beluga and Bach. Now you’re talking…
Written by Fiona Beckett