Food has become a rushed necessity for many, rather than a sweet and savoury affair, but there is hope for our palates.
Your tastebuds probably want to pull up stumps and move to a mouth like the one on Chris Barnes.
And why wouldn’t they? He knows how to taste things. Really taste them.
You might think you do too, but stop me if any of these scenarios sound familiar.
You’ve got a child on one hip, a couple more squawking like impatient chicklets around the dining room table and by the time you’ve fed them all, you’ve only got the energy to quickly eat your own dinner standing up at the kitchen bench.
Or you’re chained to your desk all day, your face only inches away from your computer screen and you’re gently transporting salad leaves into your mouth and chewing silently because you’ve got Jenny from Accounts on the phone.
I’m not judging.
Me? I’m the raised-by-wolves type who grew up around three burly brothers in a house where only the first to finish scored any seconds.
We’re busy workaholics, the kids come first, the family dinner is a fading tradition and you can distract yourself with Facebook whenever you sit down to eat.
It’s little wonder food is often just a fuel, eaten out of necessity instead of savoured as an adventure on a plate.
But it doesn’t have to be like that, Chris Barnes insists.
He’s a long-time wine educator and taste consultant based in Melbourne who says there’s an art to properly enjoying a flavour, and you hold all the tools to create a masterpiece.
First, he wants you to know there’s a difference between the taste of something and its flavour.
“Most people, for example, would say ‘I love the flavour of strawberries. I love how they taste’ but they’re different things,” Chris explains.
“Taste is just simple physical sensations in your mouth – simple things like sugar, salt, bitterness and acidity picked up by your tastebuds.
“These are components that give food texture and tell you whether it’s fresh or oily or creamy or sharp, but that’s all that taste is.”
But flavour, Chris says, is the sum of various senses as well as the robustness of your memories and the maturity of your palate.
Flavour is your perception of food, and most of the work is actually done by your sense of smell.
As well as confusing taste and flavour, Chris reckons most people mistakenly believe their palate improves only with age.
The passage of years can have something to do with it, but he says anyone can improve their palate at any age, and the learning curve can be steep if you set your mind to it.
“It’s not about a factor of age, per se. It’s about how much experience you’ve had with thinking and really concentrating on flavours and taste,’’ he says.
“You can be a chef or a winemaker and at 24 you can have an extremely sophisticated palate because of the number of experiences you’ve had and the concentration you’ve paid.”
Local cafe owner Oliver James, 31, is proof.
He had a privileged introduction to food at his father’s restaurant in Exeter, New South Wales, where all the produce came from the garden, and a pork and rabbit terrine was standard fare for the nine-year-old Oliver.
Rather than going to fancy culinary schools, Oliver’s food education came on a plate.
He emerged from his heady twenties in Sydney with a big credit card bill but a honed appreciation for expertly structured dishes and balanced flavours.
He says developing the palate involves a leap of faith, but those daring enough are handsomely rewarded.
“I’m the sort of diner who, if I don’t recognise the name of something on a menu or it sounds really different or interesting, I’ll go for that,’’ he says.
“I’ll happily pick out something new rather than stick to the safe things.”
Oliver encourages you to take recommendations from staff whenever you eat out and reconsider the old specials board, which has been re-purposed as an outlet for creativity in recent years.
“Specials boards traditionally had a place in the restaurant to get rid of products – stuff that the restaurant had too much of and needed to offload,” he says.
“Whereas now its role has changed. It’s an opportunity for a chef to create new things, maybe new dishes that might go on to the menu later, sort of like a little testing ground for adventurous customers and adventurous chefs to meet.”
His own cafe, Caffiend, offered an oxtail ragout on the specials board last weekend.
“Lots of people were like ‘Oxtail? I don’t really know what that is’ and they stayed clear, but other people thought ‘Oh, that’s different, I’ll try that’, placing their trust in the establishment that it would taste good. And it did.”
Beyond just trying new foods, Chris and Oliver both say the process of dining needs to slow down for food to be properly appreciated.
“To improve the palate, we need to improve our memory bank of smells,” Chris says.
“It sounds simplistic, but many, many people don’t smell their food before they eat it. Most people are just talking to their friends about the football or politics and they’re not paying attention to what they’re eating.
“If we want to learn about food, we should smell it first.
“We also get an enormous amount of smell from our mouths and to get these smells properly, you need to slow down, chew it and let a little bit of air into the equation.
“Then swallow it and chew on a bit of air.”
Chris recommends doing some homework too, to mentally link an ingredient to the flavour you’re experiencing, especially when it’s a new food.
“If you’re given a dish that’s completely foreign to you, you certainly may eat it and think it was lovely.
“But you’ll never improve your palate unless you learn what’s in it and what those flavours are. Unless someone says to you ‘That’s lemongrass’, you won’t know it’s lemongrass.”
And what else should an upwardly mobile diner try to notice on their dish?
Oliver says everything on the plate is there for a reason if the chef is doing their job well, so take notice.
“Take particular care to think about what you’re eating,” he says.
“We eat three meals a day but how often do we sit there and notice the balance between the four main tastes on the plate – sweetness and acidity and saltiness and bitterness?
“And what’s the texture like? Is there a contrast between hot and cold? Is there something crunchy, something runny, something smooth?
“And what are the colours on the plate? Colour plays a huge part when we’re designing a dish.”
It sounds like a lot to take in, but you’ll find life is sweeter when you’re not racing for seconds anymore.
Well, sweeter, saltier, more bitter and acidic.
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Oliver James, Caffiend owner. photo // Anna Rogers