How does your brain make sense of truffle aroma?
Do you go weak in the knees for truffles having experienced a meal so good that all other dishes pale in comparison? Or do you roll your eyes at the mere mention of truffles, thinking they're just expensive and pretentious? I get it - truffles can be a bit extra. But the more you discover about them, the more intriguing they become. As a psychologist, I find myself fascinated by people's reactions to truffles, the way they have come to beguile we humans, and the way their pungent aroma plays with our senses and brain. In this post however, we'll start to dig into perception's role and not so much taste and smell's role in the love story we have for truffles.
As a psychologist, I'm constantly fascinated by how our brains process information - and that includes from our senses! Believe it or not, there's a whole field of psychology dedicated to perception and the ways we experience the world around us. Back in my uni days, I had an awesome perception lecturer who once recruited us for a weekend experiment at the the Hoyts cinema in Sydney. It turns out that the pattern in the new carpet together with the low light was causing a lot of problems with people’s perception of depth. While not too much of a problem while walking on the flat, it was causing people to trip when walking up and down the stairs. The solution? Every staircase and escalator had a rug placed at the top and bottom of it. It's moments like these that get psychologists fired up.
Remember that viral dress debate? Psychologists couldn't get enough of it! These phenomena offer us a window into how our brains work. You can find an explanation of the phenomenon here.
But, have you ever wondered why there's so much information out there on tasting coffee and wine, but so little on tasting truffles let alone on food pairing with truffles? Same here. It's been bugging us for ages, so this year we decided to take matters into our own hands and explore the fascinating world of truffle tasting and pairing them with foods. Along the way, we are hoping to bust some myths and share what we have found out about our perception and how it shapes our experience of truffles. By the end of this post, we hope to shed some light on this often-overlooked aspect of gastronomy and hopefully start to catch up with the coffee and wine aficionados out there. Ready to dive in? Here we go!
Truffle appreciation is a whole different ball game compared to coffee and wine. Why? Well, with coffee and wine, you actually taste them on their own to judge their qualities. But with truffles, you only get to taste them once they've been incorporated into a dish. This makes a big difference as we rely on all of our senses, smell, hearing, vision, touch and taste to make judgments about our food. Take a look at the table below to see how the senses used for coffee and wine appreciation differ from those used for truffles. Can you see the big vacant box for gustation and truffles. But wait, it gets worse.
In his book "Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells," Harold McGee recounts a fascinating olfactory experiment he conducted in his own kitchen. After returning home from a run, he was greeted by a foul odor that seemed to be coming from every corner of his kitchen. Being a curious soul and in the midst of writing his book, he decided to turn the unpleasant situation into an experiment.
McGee began to sniff around his kitchen, trying to deduce the source of the odor. He wondered if there was a dead mouse between the walls. He checked the fridge for rotten food and the toilet to see if it had been flushed, but nothing seemed amiss. Finally, he stumbled upon the culprit: a soft-ripened cheese that he had left out on the table under a dome to bring to room temperature. To continue his experiment, he lifted the dome and took a whiff, detecting a range of different but stronger smells, including ammonia. Despite the noxious odor, McGee decided to take his experiment one step further and taste the cheese. The result? Well, I'll let McGee speak for himself.
“Because I had molecules and the brain on my mind, I wanted to see how the cheese itself tasted after this unusual introduction. I cut a hole in the top and tasted an oozy spoonful. Even though the source was now right in my mouth, the stinky note seemed much reduced, and milky, meaty, piney, and fruity aromas took over center stage, along with salty, tart tastes and creamy texture. The smell of the cheese in my mouth was very different from its smell in the kitchen air.”
McGee's mistake was not realizing that olfaction alone would not provide him with all the tools he needed to solve the mystery of the stinky kitchen odor. This same mistake is made by many food industry writers who focus on the power of smell and taste only, often ignoring the crucial role that perception plays in our experience of food. While they may briefly mention that foods trigger emotion and memory, they fail to acknowledge the complex processes that take place in our brains. This oversight is particularly problematic in the case of truffle appreciation. To truly understand truffles, we must differentiate between sensing and perception another oversight made by food writers who often uses these two terms interchangeably. The examples above, from the carpet, the dress to Harold's cheese, can only be solved by understanding how perception and the brain work. In the next part of this post, we will explore olfaction and gustation, but more importantly, we will take a deep dive into perception and what it means for our appreciation of truffles.
Sensing, perceiving and the enjoyment of truffles
Making sense of the world (and truffles) requires an understanding of how our senses work as well as how our brain understands those sensations.
Because you can easily find information about olfaction and gustation with a quick google search, I won’t labor the point here other than to refer you to the video below where my friend Hank takes a quick jump into it all.
Oh! Before you go, notice the myth about the tongue that he busts.
Gustation and Olfaction (taste and smell)
With a deeper understanding of how we taste and smell the second myth that needs to be busted is the often quoted 'fact' that Olfaction (smell) makes up to 90% of our food appreciation. Actually, it’s just not true. Nobody knows. Check this and this out.
Smell is dominant, but it difficult to say how much more compared to taste when it comes to appreciating food. The key message you need to focus on is that we need all our senses but particularly taste and smell to get a full appreciation of our foods. Again this complicates things for truffles because the only time we get to taste truffles is when they are mixed in our food.
So I hear you ask, is there a way out of this delema? Well, yes there is. The answer is locked in the way we perceive things. Below is a great video, again by Hank and his team, which deals with the problem I mentioned above. By clarifying the difference between sensing and perception we can not only dig deeper into our problem with truffles but start to find some of the solutions.
Sense and perception.
The next video should start to bring it all home. As you are going through it, see if you can identify the perception mistakes McGee makes as he tries to identify the source of his stinky kitchen smell.
A little clue, McGee is focused on molecules in the air which he thinks will alone give him the clues he needs to find the source of that smell. But his brain is getting in the way.
Don't you love this stuff......?
So to tease out what is happening with McGee's experiment, I want to underline and expand on some of the material that Hank in the videos has touched on but needs a little more detail to fully solve McGee's problem: top down and bottom up processing.
Here we go. Perception is the process by which we organize, interpret, and consciously experience sensory information collected by our sense receptors from the environment.
It involves both bottom-up processing, which refers to the building of perceptions from sensory input (McGee was trying to do this), and top-down processing, which is influenced by our knowledge, experiences, and thoughts. Our interpretation of sensory information determines how we interact with the world (but his brain made him do this).
For instance, consider the shape in the figure below. When seen alone, the brain engages in bottom-up processing by detecting two thick vertical lines and three thin horizontal lines. Without context, there is no top-down processing involved.
Now, look at the same shape in two different contexts. Surrounded by letters, your brain expects the shape to be a letter and to complete the sequence. In that context, you perceive the lines to form the shape of the letter “B.”
With numbers around it, it looks like the number "13"
When given a context, your perception is driven by your expectations. Now you are processing the shape in a top-down fashion. (McGee, had no hope. His brain told him it was a foul smell, and that is what he went looking for.)
One way to think of it is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological one. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking apple pie, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of baking apples, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the pie Nanna used to bake when the family got together for holidays.”
Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception as Hank explained in the videos and McGee experienced in his kitchen.
To quote McGee again this time as he tries to make sense of his experience. (Remember, he is aiming to write a book on smells and volatile compounds, and this also confines his expectations.)
Below are two paragraphs. The first is straight from McGee's book, the second is the same paragraph but includes my attempted explanations in red.
"A pretty mundane experience, but a lot of food for thought! Smells are triggered by mixed volatiles, and the brain does its best to make sense of all the inputs available to it. There were many different sides to that cheese, and my brain wasn't comfortable with one of them. It must share some volatile molecules with morning breath, rotting vegetables, stagnant drains, excrement and dead animals. Not so nice. On the other hand, it also seemed to share volatile with meats and ripe fruits. Why was it only the not so nice smell that I noticed before I saw the cheese? When I put a spoon right into my mouth, why did that note get weaker instead of stronger?
Now to explain.
"A pretty mundane experience, but a lot of food for thought! Smells are triggered by mixed volatiles, and the brain does its best to make sense of all the inputs available to it (yes). There were many different sides to that cheese, and my brain wasn't comfortable with one of them (yes). It must share some volatile molecules with morning breath, rotting vegetables, stagnant drains, excrement and dead animals (No! One smell in particular has triggered his expectations. He assumes there are molecules in common with the cheese, the rotting food, the dead mouse and poo, he never clarifys this. Because McGee is focused on volatiles he can only understand the problem in those terms.). Not so nice. On the other hand, it also seemed to share volatile with meats and ripe fruits (which he only got when he tasted the cheese). Why was it only the not so nice smell that I noticed before I saw the cheese? (again those expectations. Without additional information his brain went into alert mode. It needed more information if it was going to update its theory of what was going on) When I put a spoon right into my mouth, why did that note get weaker instead of stronger? (because your brain solved the problem and started to take information from your other senses to close in and make sense of the mystery. Gota love our brain)"
I hope its starting to be clearer now that the action in terms of appreciating any food is all about our perceptions. So knowing how our brain works gives us the clues we need to solve the problems of better appreciating our ingredients including truffles. Its here that we can at least start to look at what is happening with coffee and wine aroma sampling and start to adapt it for our glorious truffles.
Do's and don'ts of food pairing with truffles
Do study Prof Gary Lee's truffle aroma wheel
As we have seen, your brain needs context! When you pick up that fresh truffle, your memory of the wheel will allow your brain to process the aromas and more quickly to zoom in on the flavour compounds of each and every truffle.
As you progress in your truffle experience, another trick is not to think of the wheel when smelling truffles, instead focus on the the truffle's aroma and let it jog your flavor memory.
Do reset your nose with an arm pit sniff between truffles
Remember, sense cells in your olfactory system become fatigued naturally when exposed to the same strong smell. Remedy? Smell your armpits between truffles, yep you got it, try it! A less intrusive reset if you prefer, is to smell the crook of your elbow.
Do rub your index and middle fingers against your thumb.
We don't fully understand this yet, but it seems that idea or concept formation is somehow aligned with your right hand and in particular is aided by rubbing your index and middle fingers with your thumb. So next time you smell something and cannot quite get what it is, try rubbing your right hand fingers together.
Do expand your flavour/taste experiences related to truffles
Try various foods which are related to the compounds in the the Professor's Aroma Wheel. If you have never tasted a Cognac in your life, you will most definitely not be able to relate to the Cognac flavor and may relate it to Winey instead.
The real work of finding flavors hiding in your food is in developing a catalog of flavor memories to call on when needed. There is a bit of technique to this, (Coffee and wine have smashed this out of the park. Perhaps for a later post.)
Don't fuel your truffle flavour expectations with fake truffle flavours.
Products made with fake truffle aroma like truffle oil and truffle pâté are designed to entice you. As a consequence even though your brain knows they are fake, your brain won't be able to filter their flavour memory out when you want to smell or taste the real thing.
Are you still there? I hope so. This post has been a bit dense, but I hope you found it of use.
Over the next few weeks we will post some more do's and don'ts and get more into tasting and what paring theory has to say about our truffles. Look out for our next feature post next month.
If you found this post useful, give us a like, we love those thumbs up.
If you have a question or comment let us know in the comments below.
For regular video updates, look us up on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube @fishrivertruffles.
Ciao for now.