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A FINE SENSE OF TASTE

Think of tasting something and you'll almost certainly assume the taste buds do all the hard work. These relay information along nerve cells to the brain, in categories such as sweet or salty, bitter or sour. But these are not our only means of recording taste. In fact, the nose does a great deal of work in this regard - without a sense of smell, tasting would actually be impossible.

It's also true that the eyes play a part in our sense of taste, because colour influences what we think about a drink or item of food. And even our ears are important, because the noise a food makes influences our perception of it. Think of a cracker that doesn't crack, for example - it's always a disappointment to the eater. In addition to the obvious senses, our mind plays a part in how we experience particular flavours. We may be conditioned by our culture to like or dislike certain tastes, and we also make associa-tions with flavours depending on our own experiences. So the gourmet meal eaten in the wrong setting may taste disgusting, whereas the burger and chips consumed with close friends have all the hallmarks of gastronomic excellence.

For the tea taster, the challenge is to approach the task professionally and as objectively as possible. So he or she must focus on the task in a single-minded fashion and try to discern what, by anyone's standards, would constitute the best-tasting tea available from the harvest.

SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER

In the old British currency system, there was one particularly useful coin: the sixpenny piece. The first British tea tasters, who standardised the process, used the weight of this coin to set the amount of tea used in a test, hence the 2.86-gram rule. This remains the weight of tea used in contemporary tea tasting, even though it's a long time since the sixpence was legal tender.