Why You Should Play Opera At Your Dinner Party

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Why You Should Play Opera At Your Dinner Party

Words by Mr Oliver Franklin-Wallis

4 April 2017

The secret to a successful meal isn’t just about the best food – it’s about the science you can employ to make that food taste even better.

Professor Charles Spence knows how to throw a dinner party. As head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, Mr Spence works with the some of the world’s finest chefs, such as Mr Heston Blumenthal and Mr Ferran Adrià, and large food companies including Unilever and Nestlé, to study multisensory perception – how our minds, via all our senses, perceive the experience of eating.

In his new book Gastrophysics (Viking Press), Mr Spence explains, via the latest scientific research, how dining goes way beyond what you serve on the plate. “The environment, not to mention the plateware, dish-naming, cutlery, and so-on, all exert an influence over the tasting experience,” he writes. “This holds true no matter what one is trying to achieve, be it a more memorable, a more stimulating, or a healthier meal.” With that in mind, here are five takeaways (no pun intended) to help you enhance your next dinner.

Serve more bowl food

Gastrophysics is all about multi-sensory experience, engaging all your senses. One easy hack to make your food taste better? Serve it in bowls. “Serving hot food in a bowl allows, maybe even encourages, the diner to take a heavy sniff of the steaming contents. Most of us are less likely to do this if the same food is served on a plate,” writes Mr Spence. Studies show that the smell of food is integral to how we perceive its flavour. “Anything that enhances the olfactory hit associated with a dish is likely to improve flavour perception,” he continues. What’s more, encourage guests to hold the bowl – the warm touch can make people feel more relaxed, and more sociable.

Watch your plates

It might seem funny, but even the plate you’re serving food on can influence the taste of the meal. In research conducted with the Alicia Foundation in Spain, Mr Spence’s laboratory found that the same strawberry-flavoured dessert was rated as tasting 10 per cent sweeter and more than 15 per cent more flavourful – and was liked significantly more – when eaten from a white plate as opposed to a black one. On a diet? The colour of crockery has also been shown to affect how much people consume, too: one study showed that people consumed almost twice as many pretzels when eating from a white plate, rather than a red one.

Introduce sounds to your food

Any good chef knows that varying texture is vital to a successful dish, and it can manipulate your taste buds in surprising ways. In perhaps his most famous research, Mr Spence’s laboratory found that it was possible to change people’s perceptions of the crunchiness – and therefore freshness – of crisps by up to 15 per cent by boosting the volume and frequencies of the crunch sounds over headphones. The research therefore showed that sound plays an important role in how we actually taste. “The next time you throw a dinner party, be sure to ask where the sonic interest is in the dishes you serve. If it isn’t crunchy, crackly, crispy or creamy, are you stimulating your guests’ senses as effectively as you might?”

Serving pasta? Play some opera

It’s not just the sound of the food itself that counts. The aural experience around the meal can have a huge impact on taste. (Take “The Sound Of The Sea”, a signature dish at The Fat Duck in Bray, which is served with an iPod and headphones playing the sound of the ocean.) Several studies have also shown that music can even influence behaviour, from how much consumers spend, to how quickly they eat. When French music was played in a British supermarket, more people bought French wine; when the music was changed to German music (a Bierkeller brass band in this instance), the majority of wines sold were German. The same works with meal perceptions: if you’re serving pasta, studies have shown that Italian-sounding music can make diners perceive the dish as more authentic.

Invest in heavier cutlery

Just like the plates, your knife and fork say a lot about you – and the food you’re eating. “We… conducted a series of studies at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, demonstrating that if people tasted food with a heavier spoon, they generally had better things to say about it than when exactly the same food was eaten with a lighter spoon instead,” writes Mr Spence. Plus: most of us know that heavier cutlery is more expensive, and higher price is associated with greater anticipation of reward. Think of it as an investment – that expensive cutlery set really will make dinner taste better.

Gastrophysics: The New Science Of Eating (Viking Press) by Professor Charles Spence is out now