The Expectations Game

The most awkward moment of my professional career occurred over a piece of Roquefort. I was giving an informal cheese-and-wine tasting to a distinguished American newspaper wine critic, and it was quite clear that he did not appreciate being lectured by a British interloper. However, we had reached the stage of the tasting that I felt was sure to win him around: We would taste the blue cheese with a young Napa Cabernet, and I was certain he would agree that it was a vile combination.

My optimism was premature. The crunch of Penicillium roqueforti, salt, and tannin brought forth no frown. On the contrary, this was a pairing our illustrious guest enjoyed. As he tucked into some more cheese, he enthused how with his tasting group he would often round off an evening of youthful claret with a plate of Gorgonzola or Stilton. "They are," he said, "the best food for all those tannins." There was nothing I could say. Blue cheese and red wine is not a combination from which I derive pleasure. But my studiously worked-up argument linking the physical properties of the wine and cheese was simply irrelevant in the face of an experienced taster with his own preferences.

And that was the problem. I could explain exactly why the combination should not taste good. In fact, from my perspective, it tasted revolting. Yet aside from any physiological differences in our tasting apparatus, this was a set of flavor experiences that my guest held in high regard. Having reached an impasse, the rest of the tasting passed with stilted politeness and mutual distrust.

As chefs have discovered the utility of the physics and chemistry of the kitchen, so approaches toward wineand- food matching have become more thoroughly grounded in an appreciation of flavor science. The shining light of reason can certainly remove much of the voodoo from choosing a wine: With a little understanding we can build an eminently sensible system. But while we can delight in the shocking and novel pairings that such systems generate, the great problem (and this is applicable to much of my own work) is that they ignore the cultural expectations the diner is bringing to the table. Assuming (foolhardily, I fear) that what we taste is the same, the value judgments that we apply to those experiences might differ vastly. By way of an example, we might consider high-status foods. Humanity has shown remarkable ingenuity in devising the dishes that are held in the highest esteem: It is sometimes not even necessary for them to be edible.

Icelandic fermented shark is popular with television producers looking for a segment of gross-out revulsion, but even a staple like Korean kimchi can be a distinctly acquired taste.

The weight of this cultural baggage can scupper even the most determined attempt at empirical analysis. Perhaps the most fully developed system for food-and-wine matching is that devised by Dutch restaurateur Peter Klosse, for which he received his doctorate in 2004.

With an emphasis on describing food through the parameters of mouthfeel and flavor richness, Klosse gives levelheaded advice. He advocates pairing wines with foods with similar flavor profiles and suggests that a menu should progress as a crescendo -- from the lowest levels of flavor richness to the highest. But the ultimate conclusions that he reaches are not as interesting as the route by which he arrives at them. Klosse is determined to separate "taste" (the judgment of the taster) from "flavor," associated exclusively with the food products themselves: "Compare it to color: Red is red and independent of the one who sees. If you happen to be [color] blind, it doesn't change the color."

Klosse looks to expand on this understanding to try to determine culinary success factors. And it is here that the pleasing theory is undone by its encounter with messy human reality. Unfortunately, people do not necessarily like the things they are meant to like. "Liking" is entirely subjective. Instead, Klosse turns toward the concept of palatability, which he defines as flavors that are pleasing to the palate. Where liking is a product of the human response to a product, palatability is the successful combination of product characteristics. "The mission of a chef or winemaker," he insists, "is to make palatable products. But even the most palatable products are not liked by some people."

It is all rather a fudge. The more I taste, the more I wonder if perhaps the external values and expectations that we bring to our tasting are the greatest determining factor in our enjoyment. Tasting together to build a shared outlook is a central part of any organization reliant upon taste. From the brigade of a Michelin-starred restaurant, to students preparing for wine-trade exams, the senior instructor seeks to break down individual taste preferences and replace them with those of the institution. Just as a military drill instructor might use bayonet drill to instill controlled aggression, so might a head chef work upon "correct" seasoning. In my own experience of the professional kitchen, I initially found that the desired level of seasoning was considerably saltier than I would myself have added. Swift remedial action soon corrected my heresy.

Perhaps all tasting occurs within such institutional constraints, albeit on a subconscious level. Tastes reflect our cultural associations, and to some at least, red wine and cheese represent power and sophistication. A friend of mine is an academic of formidable intellect. "I can't see what you are going on about," he said as he munched some Stilton and glugged a juvenile red Burgundy. "It tastes great to me; the wine is like alcoholic water. It is the taste of High Table."