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Changing tastes: the wandering palate

Changing tastes: the wandering palate

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Changing tastes: the wandering palate” was written by Oliver Thring, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 22nd June 2012 09.00 UTC

I still don’t know why it happened. I used to love white wine, knew of nothing nicer with a piece of fish, thought little more perfect than a misted glass of it in the sunshine. It felt right with certain foods, at certain times of day, in certain moods. I savoured and studied its permutations, regions and styles. I thought we were fixed for life.

And then, over the last few months, something changed in my brain, nose or mouth. White wine slumped from exquisite nectar to slightly qualified pleasure to just about fine to something I didn’t seem to want any more. Eventually I could barely touch the stuff.

We know that our appreciation for individual tastes is transient. Air pressure affects the way food tastes on planes. After a big main course, you might have no desire to eat anything savoury but still have space for pudding. Pregnant women often suffer strange cravings and uncomfortable taste changes as well. But in addition to these acute fluctuations, as we age our palates can change forever.

Mostly this will be out of our control. Children tend not to like vegetables, or any strong tastes other than sweet ones, but after adolescence they usually turn away from the most egregious sweets, and some even come to enjoy the sprouts they used to spurn. Old people’s tastebuds often fail them: when your grandmother complained that x dish or y ingredient didn’t taste like it used to, she was at least subjectively right. People can even lose their sense of taste altogether through disease or the treatment of disease.

But taste is also malleable. You can condition yourself to like things. Most people have to train themselves to enjoy oysters, durian or any delicacy that teeters between repulsive and exquisite. If you stop adding salt to your food, then after a few appallingly bland and colourless weeks, your palate will become more sensitive to it, and you’ll be able to get by with less.

Despite this, I reckoned that a person’s enjoyment of specific foods was more or less set once they’d grown up. You don’t expect to go off a drink as varied and vital as white wine, any more than you expect to find that all bread suddenly tastes revolting. “Most people think that your tastes are relatively fixed as an adult,” says Dr Lucy Donaldson, senior lecturer in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Bristol, who has done extensive work on the physiology of taste. “But the preference for a particular taste or the drive to have a particular taste can both vary massively over time.”

Donaldson says that people will go off certain foods for a number of overlapping reasons. She speculates that I might have had a cold which could have removed the “positive enforcement” of white wine and stopped it from tasting pleasant. (Many bitter things, including wine, are toxic in large enough doses. But a little wine can make you feel pretty perky: “the aversive side can be overcome”, as she puts it. Anyway, I don’t remember having had a cold.) “Or you could have had a bad experience with white wine,” she suggested with some tact. Which was possible.

I’ll probably never know for sure, and in any case, perception and prejudice influence taste to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to separate the sensory experience from the effects of the subconscious. (You won’t need reminding that many if not most so-called wine “experts” can’t distinguish red wines from white ones in blind tastings.) These things become self-fulfilling: like the infant wailing over the broccoli, the more you tell yourself you don’t like something, the more vile it seems. Have you ever had to train yourself to like something? Are there any foods you used to love that you can no longer eat? And is it worth trying to enjoy them again?

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