“The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet… has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French ‘a’ evokes polished ebony,” Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his memoirs, describing his experience of synaesthesia. “This black group also includes hard ‘g’ (vulcanized rubber) and ‘r’ (a sooty rag bag being ripped).”
Nabokov lived with the most common form of synaesthesia: seeing letters (and/or numbers) as colours. For other synaesthetes, a sensation in one of the senses triggers a sensation in another: a banana might taste purple, or an oboe melody smell of roses.
While relatively few of us experience clinical synaesthesia—estimates have ranged from as high as 1 in 5 to as low as 1 in 250,000, depending on how the term is defined—the interplay of our different senses is so complex that we can all approach it. And, curiously, it is that most basic, most vital and most multisensory of experiences—eating—that brings us closest to synaesthesia.
The principles of neurogastronomy
Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, is helping pioneer an emerging science named gastrophysics, and recently published Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. Gastrophysics combines an exotic range of disciplines—experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, sensory science, neurogastronomy, behavioral economics, marketing and design—to understand and shape the human experience of food.
Its insights can inform everything from the most ambitious and experimental haute cuisine to the blandest, stodgiest hospital fare.
Even for those who are not synaesthetes, the linkage between the senses is more complex than it seems. Children learn that humans have five senses, but neurologists recognize many more: some count over 20.
And, says Spence, far from being distinct, our various senses are connected much more closely than experts had ever imagined.
“When I started doing research 20 years ago, there was one guy down the corridor who spent his life doing vision, and the guy next to him did hearing: they hadn’t spoken to each other for 20 years,” he recalled. “That view is falling away now, and more and more we’re realizing that things are multisensory.”
As anyone who has ever experienced a bad head cold knows, when it comes to eating, our sense of smell is so intimately interwoven with our sense of taste that it is hard to separate the two. For scientists, flavour is the product of an interaction between taste, smell and the trigeminal senses, which pick up the heat of chilli or the cool of menthol, among other elements. Taste, a much less rich experience, is what remains of flavour when you hold your nose.
More surprisingly, hearing is intimately connected to our enjoyment of food. Spence received an IgNobel, a prize awarded for comical yet valuable research, for proving that the louder a potato chip crunched, the crisper and fresher it seemed. “In the west, we like texture—crispy, crunchy, crackly—in our snack foods,” he explains. “But since we don’t have any touch receptors in our teeth, when we bite into that snack food or biscuit we hear all those qualities.”
From the succulent grapes depicted in the tombs of ancient Egypt to the #foodporn hashtag on Instagram, humans love to look at food. Our ancestors may well have evolved trichromatic vision in order to spy out bright fruits in the forest canopy. And colour is still vital to our gastronomic experience.
“I like to cook with colour”
It’s a topic that’s close to the heart of Martha Ortiz, Mexico’s top female chef, and the woman behind Mexico City’s celebrated Dulce Patria. Ortiz’ mother, Martha Chapa, combined working as a painter with promoting Mexican cuisine, and, while Ortiz defines cooking as a craft not an art, her vibrant, flawlessly framed dishes have an artist’s touch. “I like to cook with colour,” Ortiz said. “When you eat our black mole, it’s like you’re tasting the night.”
Colour, Spence added, can shape our experience of food in a myriad ways. Changing the hue of a wine alters the perception of its flavour. We associate black foods with a bitter taste and white foods with salt.
“Unless we are in a dine-in-the-dark restaurant, we’re always going to see our food before we put it in our mouth,” he said. “By the time we taste a food our brain has already made a prediction: it’s judged how many calories it contains, and how it’s going to taste… Colours anchor and modify our experience in that way.”
At Ella Canta, the restaurant that Ortiz opened in 2017 at the InterContinental London – Park Lane, the shades of Mexico glisten. Golden flowers garnish a brilliant guacamole studded with jewel-like pomegranate seeds; a painterly sweep of chocolate mole, rich with the colours of the night, frames succulent duck breast.
A vermilion “Warrioress” cocktail sports a headdress of feathers like an Aztec queen; an ultra-feminine “couture” taco overflows with bright blossoms and fresh herbs. The bold hues don’t just look beautiful: they gear guests’ palates for big flavours.
Gastrophysics shows that even the colours of the tableware can shape the sensory experience. In 2012, Spence conducted a study with legendary Catalan chef Ferran Adrià which showed that an English red strawberry mousse tasted 7% sweeter on a white plate than a black plate—and also had more flavour.
Westerners will eat fewer snack foods when they are served on a red plate. And, at least for Taiwanese, spicy tofu tastes spicier eaten from a red dish.
The David Collins Studio, a celebrated London design house, worked closely with Ortiz as they created the colour palette for Ella Canta, inspired by the landscapes of Oaxaca. The brilliant hues of hand-crafted Talavera pottery recall the vibrant colonial houses of Mexico’s UNESCO-listed Guanajuato or the startling shades of indigenous textiles—even as they highlight the bold flavours of Ortiz’ cuisine.
For Ortiz, who considers the craft of the cook a form of magic or alchemy, the synaesthetic intermingling of the senses that gastrophysics explores is the nec plus ultra of fine dining. “Ella Canta will be a sensual experience with a real sense of enchantment,” she said. “We’ve created a world like the magical realist universe in my great friend Laura Esquivel’s novels.”