INTIMATELY LINKED TO OUR EXPERIENCES AND OUR EATING HABITS, TASTE IS ONE OF THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL CULTURAL TRAITS. IT ENABLES US TO PERCEIVE, CONSCIOUSLY OR NOT, THE ENTIRE RANGE OF FLAVORS WHILE CREATING DIRECT LINKS BETWEEN OUR PAST AND OUR PRESENT. IN OTHER WORDS, IT ALLOWS US TO TRAVEL IN TIME AND SPACE BY ASSOCIATING OUR PERCEPTIONS TO OTHER SENSORIAL AND CULTURAL DOMAINS. ON THE OTHER HAND, TASTE IS NOT AN INFALLIBLE SENSE, AS OUR PERCEPTIONS CAN CHANGE ACCORDING TO THE CONTEXT AND ENVIRONMENT. BUT SINCE WE ARE EQUIPPED WITH THOUSANDS OF TASTE BUDS THAT ACT AS RECEIVERS AND REGENERATE EVERY 10 DAYS, WE HAVE THE CAPACITY TO EDUCATE AND REFINE OUR TASTE.
Tasting is first and foremost a quest for, sensorial pleasure, but it is also a way of appreciating taste. It allows us, through our sensory organs, to identify the components that make up a fragrance and to then analyze and communicate our taste impressions.
It is not easy to learn how to identify and dissociate impressions, especially as certain fragrances may be imbued with happy or unhappy memories, leading our brain to make associations that may have nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the food or drink that we are trying to taste. The point of tasting is, therefore, to go beyond first impressions (it’s good, its bad, I like it, I don’t like it) so we can more precisely evaluate the quality of whatever we are tasting. No special talent is needed to do this. With a little effort, we can all develop our tasting ability. That being said, it helpful to understand the basics of the complex mechanism of taste in order to properly appreciate the tasting experience. Here, as elsewhere, theory enhances practice, increasing the pleasure to be derived.
Our first contact with tea is usually made through sight. Although it is not always a reliable indicator of the richness of a tea, the appearance of the leaves (their shape, texture, color, the presence of buds) still gives us a first impression.
A close observation of a tea’s leaves can give us some idea of its taste. The presence of white tips formed by buds can be an indication of quality, as can a brilliant, shiny color, which is often a sign of freshness. On the other hand, dull, grayish leaves without luster can indicate processing or storage defects.
Taste is a combination of several complex sensations, It mainly involves two of our sensory systems: olfactory receptors (the nose) and gustatory receptors (the tongue).
After visual analysis, the second critical step of tasting is to sniff the fragrances released by the tea leaves. In addition to preparing the brain to receive tasting information, this step provides important information that the tongue alone cannot detect. Our olfactory system is far more complex than our gustatory system. Most of the information relating to taste is impossible to perceive without a sense of smell (such as when your nose is blocked).
Let us briefly review how the olfactory system works.
Olfectory sensations can be perceived in two ways: by direct olfection or by retro-nasal olfaction. In both cases, they must reach the olfactory gland, where the information is processed.
In the case of direct olfaction, volatile molecules pass through the nasal cavities and go directly to the receptors of the olfactory gland, giving us a first impression or an indication of the taste. As for retronasa olfaction, this occurs once the liquid is in the mouth. Aromas rise through the pharynx toward the nasal cavities to reach the olfactory gland. This gives a more intense perception of the aromatic aspect of a tea.
SMELL AND AROMA
“Smell” is used to describe sensations perceived by direct olfaction, while “aroma” defines perception through retro-nasal olfaction.
In addition to direct olfaction through the nose, a taster should pay close attention to the phenomenon of retro-olfaction (indicated by the red arrow).
While aromas are perceived primarily by the sense of smell, flavors are detected mainly by the tongue, which is covered with gustatory receptors (these are also found in other parts of the mouth, such as the soft palate). These receptors lie under the taste buds. The tongue is equipped with some 10,000 of these, and each represents a bouquet of 50 to 100 cells that react to all flavors.
Human beings detect only five essential tastes: sweet, salty, acidic, bitter and umami (which means ”tasty“ in Japanese). Each of these tastes is detected to different degrees, and the perception of one can be affected by another. That is why we generally refer to a gustatory “continuum.”
THE PERCEPTION OF FLAVORS ON THE TONGUE
As taste buds are not specialized, any taste bud, whatever its position on the tongue, can detect all tastes. However, certain parts of the tongue react differently according to the intensity of the flavors and inform us of the predominance of a particular flavor, as illustrated below.
As taste is also defined by sensation, other sensory receptors in the oral cavity are involved. Among other things, they allow us to determine texture, temperature, freshness and astringency.
It should be noted that the temperature of a tea can affect our perception of its flavors. At very high temperatures bitterness is less noticeable and sweetness is accentuated. However, heat has no effect on the perception of acidity.