Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Tasting notes in the New Yorker

Consider product A, in which

layers of cedar and raspberry strike a sharp upfront note, while clove and creamy notes add body while contributing an exotic, sumptuous character that conveys luxury in its essence. Might there also be a trace of rubber, though?

And then there’s B, with

its aroma of underripe bananas, and the way the fruitiness opens up on my tongue with a flick of bitterness that quickly fades to reveal lush, grassy tones.

Product C, on the other hand, is

fruity (with a high-profile role for the deliciously garbagey, overripe smell of guava) plus floral (powdery rosy) plus green (neroli and oakmoss).

These are descriptions of, respectively, a chocolate, an olive oil, and a perfume, but you couldn’t possibly guess that. I’ve never caught traces of red fruit in a dark chocolate, I don’t even know what neroli is, and, as for underripe bananas in olive oil, I’m more likely to catch the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. That doesn’t mean that the people who can taste these things are bluffing; rather, they have a vocabulary of specific sense references that I haven’t acquired. (To complicate matters, sometimes these people actually are bluffing.) There is a loss involved in learning about taste: as you gain a more detailed and precise vocabulary, you risk talking to fewer and fewer people—the people who know what these taste references mean. As your vocabulary becomes more specific, more useful, it also becomes less inclusive.

John Lanchester, restaurant critic and author of The Debt to Pleasure, considers our recent series of Tasting Notes, or something like it.


The New Yorker