“Eating and drinking is the most complex multisensory experience we have in life”

“Eating and drinking is the most complex multisensory experience we have in life”

Libraries of cooks and gastronomy experts are usually full of different cookbooks, but there is a volume that is not often missing: The kitchen and food, by the Yale professor Harold mcgee.

The manual, originally published in 1984, is the largest informative study that has been done in the last century on the food science. A true encyclopedia that has influenced the cuisine of, among others, Heston Blumenthal or Joan Roca, which he has explained on more than one occasion how the book “changed modern cuisine” by giving chefs scientific tools to better understand what they were doing in the kitchen.

This week McGee’s new book, Aromas del mundo (Debate), a 700-page volume that explores all that the world has to offer, is published in Spain. sense of smell, for whose writing the Californian writer has spent a decade smelling everything around him.


Scents of the World: A Guide for Restless Noses (Kitchen)

“The good thing is that to train your sense of smell, all you have to do is smell,” acknowledges McGee in a videoconference interview. “We breathe many times a minute and every time we breathe we get a chance to smell, to catch the molecules that surround us and pay attention to them. Normally when we cook we follow a recipe, take the ingredients and close the jars. We don’t usually stop to smell everything, to think what rosemary smells like. But if you smell it three or four times and concentrate on noticing the nuances, you are educating the sense of smell ”.

A very complex interaction

As he explains in the foreword, the idea of ​​making a book on the sense of smell came after trying the grouse Scottish, a type of partridge that is highly valued in gastronomy in the United Kingdom –which in the Spanish version of the book is erroneously translated as “grouse”, another different species whose hunting is illegal.

The “taste” is the combination of the “taste” and the “smell”

When testing this bird McGee experienced mixed sensations: “I liked it and I didn’t like it at the same time. It has a very strong flavor that I was not familiar with. Initially I didn’t like it, but when I paid more attention to it I realized how exciting it was. But it was so strong, so close to unpleasant, that it gave me the wrong impression. “

Smell, as the Californian explains, interacts with taste in very complex ways: “I like to talk about” taste “, which is the sensation we have on the tongue: salty, sweet, bitter, umami … This is what which is properly the “taste”. But the “taste” is the combination of “taste” and “smell”. We can use both words, but normally the taste involves both senses working together. ”

– How does this interaction work?

– It is a very interesting and very complicated interaction, because there are two completely different systems but they interact with each other in the brain. In fact, you can make some smells seem stronger depending on the taste of the food. You can make the vanilla aroma seem stronger by adding more sugar to the recipe, or you can make the meat taste stronger by adding salt. It all depends on a complex interaction between smell and taste that, as a result, gives us different flavors.

Harold Zoom

Harold McGee during the interview, via Zoom.

The smell of marketing

But in the experience of eating and drinking even more factors are involved. We spoke with McGee about a concrete example of the curious interplay between taste and smell. Wines made with grapes from volcanic soils tend to have a strong aroma of hydrogen sulfide, reminiscent of sulfur or rotten egg. It is not a very pleasant smell, but once the wine is tasted, it is often great.

To write the book, McGee has tasted some of the stinkiest foods on the face of the earth.

“This is because eating and drinking experience something is very complicated, it is not just smelling it ”, he explains. “It’s the smell, the taste, the color, the temperature, the look it looks like in the glass, the transparency, the people you drink it with, the associations you make with the volcano, because if you know where this comes from, it is part of the experience. Eating and drinking is truly the most complex multisensory experience we have in life. ”

The food industry he is perfectly aware of this and uses it to his advantage. Many people who claim to be a consumer of one or another brand of food or drink are unable to distinguish this in a blind tasting.

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“The marketing it can make a big difference, ”explains McGee. “In many categories [de alimentos] there are different versions of the same product that are practically the same, because everyone has done the same market research, to find out what consumers want, and they all do the same, but with a different name. In this case, the brand is just a way to convince people to associate that flavor with a specific product, rather than with the entire category. ”

Fermented Herring

Fermented herring, or surströmming, is a Swedish specialty that is considered one of the stinkiest foods in the world.

The sense of smell and, therefore, the experience of taste has a biological component and another, very important, cultural one. “We have reasons to react to sensations that have nothing to do with the sensations themselves, if not with the connotations and associations what do we do with those particular smells ”, explains the writer.

To write the book, McGee has tasted some of the stinkiest foods on the face of the earth, such as fermented herring or surströmming typical of some areas of Sweden. “I did it once, but I would not repeat it in my life,” he acknowledges.

– They say that smells like urine.

– Yes, to urine and shit, to all the bad things. All in one.

– And how is it possible that there are people who like it?

– Well, it’s a traditional meal. People liked it because basically it was the only thing they had when they couldn’t fish, it was the way to preserve it. The same people who can enjoy something like that may not enjoy a very strong cheese, because they also stink and in many parts of the world you do not drink milk. The Chinese eat stinky tofus, but they hate western cheeses. They both smell similar to me, but they have different connotations for different people.

Harold2

The least important sense, until you lose it

One of the most widespread symptoms of covid-19 has been the loss of smell. Luckily, McGee hasn’t been through the illness, but he experienced what it feels like to not smell anything due to an infection suffered before the pandemic.

“If the smell disappears, almost all the pleasure in eating and drinking is lost”

“It’s not nice,” he says. “I realized that I had lost my sense of smell because when I got up I went to the kitchen, made myself some coffee, started drinking it, and instead of being delicious it was disgusting. This happens because all that comes through taste is bitterness, salinity and hot water, there is no aroma, and it is the aroma of the coffee that makes it delicious. If smell disappears, almost all the pleasure in eating and drinking is lost. It is something that I hope I will never experience again. ”

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Losing your sense of smell is not only unpleasant, it can also be dangerous. “If you go walking in the Canary Islands, near a volcano, you will notice hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic,” explains McGee. “If you are visiting a volcano and you have no sense of smell, you can get too close and you can end up dying, because you don’t detect the scent of the molecule that is hurting you. The same can happen in your kitchen, because if you cook with gas, and it is leaking, there is a molecule that you can smell to put out the gas before it explodes. If you don’t have a sense of smell, you won’t notice it, and in fact there are people who have died for this reason. Smelling can be a matter of life or death. “

We say goodbye to McGee thanking him for how much his magnum opus has helped us to write articles on food and asking him about his new projects.

“I will get into a new project soon, but I guarantee that it will not have another 700 pages “, concludes. “It’s too much”.

Images | Elli Sekine / Warren in the Weeds
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