Häagen-Dazs Masters of Real: Professor Barry Smith

Häagen-Dazs Masters of Real: Professor Barry Smith

by Great British Chefs 10 September 2015

As part of the Häagen-Dazs Master Ice Cream Academy, sensory expert Professor Barry Smith shared his knowledge and expertise with ice cream lovers at their London event. We found out more about what makes for the ultimate multi-sensory eating experience.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Previously confined to fine dining restaurants and establishments, multi-sensory dining has recently become much more widespread. Awareness of the effect that sight, sound, smell, taste and touch can all have on our perception and experience of food has grown, and can be applied to home-cooking as much as restaurant dishes.

On a quest to celebrate the quality and integrity of the ingredients used in their ice creams, Häagen-Dazs invited Professor Barry Smith, founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses in London, to be one of three expert ‘Masters of Real’ at a pop-up academy and tasting event. Professor Smith talked about the importance of ingredients on the senses, and led detailed experiences around aroma, sound and sight, looking at the interplay between these individual senses. Did you know high and low frequency sounds affect perception of sweetness and bitterness? And that certain colours are often associated with particular tastes?

We asked Professor Smith to explain a little bit more about what multi-sensory dining really means for our taste-buds.

Tell us a little about your background?

Originally, I was trained in philosophy and cognitive science but I have been moving more and more into sensory science since I launched the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the Institute of Philosophy, where I work with psychologists and neuroscientists on the nature of perception.

How did you first become interested in multi-sensory perceptions of flavour?

I was writing a little about wine and telling people about the tastes of wine and why one wine was better than another and I suddenly began to ask myself, how does tasting work? So I talked to my colleagues in psychology and neuroscience and I discovered it was a very complex process, combining inputs and interactions between our senses of taste, touch and smell to create perceptions of flavour. I soon realised that we had the senses all wrong. We have many more senses than five and that most of our perceptions are multi-sensory.

Most people would naturally think that taste is our strongest sense when it comes to the enjoyment of food – but how much does the tongue actually contribute to tasting?

All the tongue can contributes to what we’re tasting is salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami (or savouriness), and also metallic. And yet, we can taste, melon, pineapple, beef, lamb, chicken, cinnamon, mint, strawberry, raspberry. We don't have raspberry receptors on our tongues. This is all the result of smell.

What would you say is the second sense we should try to take into account when preparing food?

The sense of smell makes a huge contribution to what we call taste, which is really flavour. And it is not smell as we usually think of it when we inhale odours from the outside. It’s the odours rising from the mouth to the nose when we chew or swallow that creates the combined sensations of taste and smell that we call flavour. When we eat a dish or taste a wine, we think we are getting all the flavour from the tongue, but very little comes from the tongue, as we can tell if we eat while using a nose clip. This is also why we say we cannot ‘taste’ very much when we have a bad cold.

Which sense do we commonly think little about and should we focus on more?

Smell is important when we are tasting, but so is touch. How creamy, chewy, oily or sticky something is makes a difference to its flavour. Another sense is due to irritation of the trigeminal nerve that serves the eyes, the nose and mouth. This is the one that rings bells when we eat too much wasabi. Trigeminal sensations are how we experiences spices. They make mustard taste hot and peppermint taste cool in the mouth even when they are at the same temperature.


Vanilla’s one of the most common flavours for ice cream – in itself it doesn’t taste sweet, so why is it used so much as a flavouring?

Vanilla is really interesting. If we sniff a vanilla pod we will say it smells sweet, and yet sweet is a taste not a smell. And, as you say, if we were to taste a piece, it wouldn't tastes sweet at all. In fact, it’s slightly bitter. So why do we think it it smells sweet? The answer is that we usually combine the aroma of vanilla with sweet foods like ice cream, custard or chocolate, and brain has made a form association between that aroma and the experience of sweetness so when we get the smell of vanilla we are already expecting sweetness. Notice, though, that for cuisines from South-East Asia who combine vanilla with salt and with fish, the aroma of vanilla will seem salty.

Salted caramel is one of Häagen-Dazs’ most popular ice cream flavours – from a scientific point of view why would you say it’s so pleasing?

The increased popularity of salted caramel is due, I think, to the perfect salt-sweet balance. So many sweet foods are helped with a pinch of salt; biscuits, for instance, or salty and sweet food matchings like bacon with maple syrup. With salted caramel ice cream we are going as close as possible to the two extremes of these much loved tastes and contrasting them in a beautifully balanced way. Each brings out something in the other, and caramel already has something almost savoury to it. Think of caramelised roasted meats.

Freeze something too hard and you will stun the fruit.

How does coldness impact on our senses when eating?

Temperature is one of the other hidden factors that contributes to flavour perception. Chilling a drink can accentuate bitterness and acidity; think of letting your coffee go cold. Coldness keeps a check on sweetness. Fizzy drinks are more palatable cold than hot. But they also accentuate fresh fruit flavours. But again it is balance. Freeze something too hard and you will stun the fruit.

Do you need to make any special considerations when making ice cream given the extreme coldness?

The use of fresh fruit flavours suits the coldness and moderates the high level of sweetness. But there will also be an ideal temperature of ice cream when brought out of the freezer ahead of time and beginning to soften when the delivery of flavours will be at its peak. Fully melted ice cream can be too sweet and unsatisfying.

What are the most interesting flavours of ice cream in your opinion from a multi-sensory perspective?

It’s impressive when ice cream manufacturers manage to capture real fruit flavours as unique as strawberry. This is all about that distinctive aroma and the balance of sweetness and fruitiness. I’m also a fan of nut brittle as a multisensory ice cream flavour having the different textures contributing to the interest of what we are eating, but also the sounds that the crunching makes in our heads. All part of the experience.

What are some of the most interesting textures for ice cream?

Texture is hugely important and often underrated. How the ice cream behaves in the mouth, how creamy it is matters a lot. Creamy textures will stroke the touch receptors on the tongue that respond to stroking and create pleasure. Melting chocolate does the same. The creaminess is part of the luxurious mouthfeel. But once we know and are expecting that velvety texture that is when a contrast is good. The brain loves contrast and it helps to keep our interest in what we are eating, so nuts or wafers provide good examples. And it’s not surprising that ice cream in a cone has always been a favourite. But now we can add the texture of wafer to the ice cream itself.

Who are some of the current thought leaders in the science of tasting?

It is one of the best times for the science of tasting with the rise of interest in multisensory experience and the coming together of chefs and scientists. In many ways the boundary between scientists and chefs is becoming blurred. Some of the leading chefs have labs and many sensory scientists have developed their interests and ideas as a result of ingenious dishes coming out of experimental kitchens. Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal have been the pioneers here, and Heston’s work has inspired some of the most exciting science research on the multisensory perception of flavour that my friend and collaborator, Professor Charles Spence, has helped to develop. There are more and more people producing great work in the science of tasting but right now Charles Spence stands out as a leader in the field. My other picks would be Dana Small, John Prescott, Ep Koster, Juyun Lim, Pamela Dalton, Richard Stevenson, Ophelia Deroy and Martin Yeomans.

Why should we really care about all the senses when preparing food?

All experience is multisensory and although we think we are only using taste or smell, in fact all our senses are involved when we cook. Chefs know by the sound as well as the smell of what they are cooking when it is ready, or when the gas has to be turned down. Using the information the brain effortlessly puts together to figure out what is going on will result in dishes that please our senses and give us the right inputs to combine to produce a balanced and highly pleasurable experience.

The Centre for the Study of the Senses is part of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Using the information the brain effortlessly puts together to figure out what is going on will result in dishes that please our senses