The whiff of a particular food during a particular scene of Pixar’s Ratatouille transports a particular character back to childhood. Aromas evoke a subtle blend of memory and emotion and this scene always brings a little tear to my otherwise gristled, Saharan eyes. I won’t spoil it with particulars – go watch the film (warning: the food in the Blu-ray version looks so realistic, you’ll grow hungry within the first few minutes).
Food is an experience and flavour its essence. Flavour emerges from your senses and expectations, from swirling combinations of smell, sight, sound, feel and, of course, taste.
Your tongue, mouth and throat are pocked with little taste buds: tiny cells that trigger nerves running to your brain, allowing you to perceive taste. (Taste perception fades with age, which might be why you see so many old people wearing beige.)
Whatever you stuff in your mouth holds some combination of five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury (known as umami – also translated as ‘yummy’ – and first identified as a distinct taste at Tokyo Imperial University in 1908).
My taste buds are flashing a disco of sweet, salty and savoury. I’m chewing on a slice of varra banno gahko or pancakes made from reindeer blood. Looking down, I see a wheel of spongy, lumpen brown sprinkled with refined sugar. Sometimes it may be important to disassociate sight from taste. As a fan of sweet, batter-y things and miscellaneous parts of animals, I think it’s delicious. With a warm pot of coffee steeping by my side, this is perfect food for the environs: a ramshackle cabin up by the fences. Outside is blanketed with rain and all the world looks grey. We are warm and full.
Taste buds are only a tiny part of the story – and I will be leaving a lot of detail out of this story. Staying within your mouth for now, your gustatory utensils also pick out pungency (think chilli), coolness (think spearmint), numbness (a Sichuan pepper), astringency (red wine or a nice cuppa), metal, fat, temperature and another Japanese term: kokumi, or a sensation of heartiness.
Flavour is “part taste, mostly smell,” according to ‘kitchen science’ writer Harold McGee.
Breathe in. These sensations of taste and the sense of smell are deeply connected. Under your nose, steam from a freshly-cooked crab tickles your nostrils.
The Red King crab is not really a crab, not truly. It is crab-esque. Although, like all crabs, they resemble great spiked machines of war, the Red King nests on a different branch of the tree of life.
True crabs are symmetrical; the Red King has an uneven belly. True crabs have ten legs: the Red King, a mere eight. Though perhaps ‘mere’ is the wrong choice of word. Its mere eight legs can span a distance of six feet. Not a beast to be trifled with.
These ‘untrue’ crabs evolved by a process known as ‘carcinisation’. The British zoologist Dr Lancelot Alexander Borradaile coined the term back in 1916, meaning it to be ‘one of the many attempts of Nature to evolve a crab’. To become crab-esque.
It seems the mobile armoury of a crab makes a wonderful solution to the perils of ocean life. As well as the King crabs, the species known as Porcelain, Hairy Stone and Coconut crabs have – each, in their own time – stumbled across the crab form. One by one, these species felt and succumbed to ecological pressures. They adapted separately, but similarly. This is convergent evolution.
Another example: birds have wings and bats have wings. Bats are mammals and birds are… dinosaurs. But these distantly-related animals both evolved the ability to fly – independently. Convergent evolution. And carcinisation is a crabby example of it.
A young chap from Karasjok fished our Red King crabs from the Porsanger fjord: the plunging neckline of Finnmark. Steamed in an oniony, carroty broth and served with aioli on a sweet, almost pancake-like bread, this is evolution at its tastiest.
Now exhale. Breathing out allows more flavour to mingle.
The human olfactory system – your industrial smelling complex – allows food its rich and varied yumminess. In your nose, five or six million proteins known as olfactory receptors bunch into an area of ten square centimetres: around a hundred times more densely populated than Hong Kong. These receptors catch molecules floating about in the air. Each receptor sits on a nerve cell, which in turn fires a signal to your brain, allowing you to perceive the smell.
Olfactory receptors don’t just belong to the nose. They show up on cells throughout the body, including sperm. Perhaps this means sperm snuffle their way to the egg, but we don’t really know yet. So while the image of a sniffing sperm wriggles its way through your mind, I’ll make a tenuous leap to plants.
Angiosperms are the flowering plants, the producers of fruit. In Norway, one fruit is prized above the rest: the cloudberry. Throughout our travels in the mountainous parts of Finnmark, we’ve seen the bright reds and ripened oranges of this bulbous little berry popping up all over the place, often accompanied by cloudberry pickers.
The plants grow wild – none are farmed – and people here go mad for them. We experienced the luxury of a fresh cloudberry jam breakfast: a bowl of the fruits, slightly squished, mixed with sugar and lathered over bread.
It’s a zesty little number. The tiny berry capsules pop in your mouth, all sweets and tart, and its seeds crunch in your mouth and roll down the throat like an intense pomegranate. This wonderful mess provides a gloopy illustration of how sights and sounds and textures combine into flavour.
Of course, not every meal will melt your heart as it melts in your mouth. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had, through accidents in self-motivation, recourse to that harbinger of distaste: the ready meal, where the tangled beauty of flavour almost disintegrates before you peel back the film.
Not all life can be gourmet. Not all the time. I know that now.
As I sit alone and think about what I’ve done, I will leave the last words on the matter in the erudite and demolishing hands of food critic Matthew Fort, reviewing a microwaved spag bol:
“[Eats a bit] It’s not bad – I hate to say this – it’s not bad, you know. I’ve had worse food cooked from scratch, which is a terrible comment to make. [Eats a bit more] It lacks any of the sort of the richness and the balance and the fullness and the beauty of a true pasta alla bolognese and, of course, it’s served with spaghetti, which no Italian, no one from Bologna would actually tolerate. They’d think this is an abomination.”