Book Review – Flavour

The cover of the book Flavour: A User's guide to our most neglected sense. By Bob Holmes. 
At the top is a quote, "Endlessly fascinating. A terrific book" - Bill Bryson.

Flavour: A User’s Guide to Our Most Neglect Sense, by Bob Holmes (I read the UK edition, hence the spelling mismatches you might notice).

This is one of those pop-science books, written by a journalist, that catches the imagination but probably requires some caution. It appears well researched and has copious cited sources, which is very good, but also contains some dubious claims that do not inspire confidence. This, for example, seems relatively arguable:

Sometimes, these experiments point to another noteworthy fact: Smells and tastes often go together differently for different cultures. For example, caramel odor doesn’t enhance sweet tastes for many Asian people, who are likely more used to encountering caramel in savory dishes instead of the sweets that Westerners are used to. The same thing happens with benzaldehyde, the main component of almond aroma. It enhances sweet tastes in Westerners, who usually encounter almond in pastries. But for Japanese, benzaldehyde enhances umami taste, because almond is a common ingredient in savory pickles.

Flavour, page 93 (ebook edition)

I have never seen any “savory pickles” with almonds in Japan. I have seen savory snacks with almonds in them here, though, so perhaps it’s just a simple mistake of which savory thing?

That being said, the fundamental arguments of the books are hard to refute: that our sense of flavor is primarily focused in our nose, and that it is formed by a complex arrangement of genetically influenced physical sensory apparatus and a vast array of cultural influences, such that the likelihood of two individuals having an identical sensory experience of the same flavor is almost impossible, but that shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying and exploring it.

There are many points in this book where I found myself cackling with glee as they reinforced things that I had been increasingly seeing myself about the obsessions of the gourmet/wine/sake world, like how even the most vaunted experts are working with flawed apparatus that can only accurately identify three or four aroma compounds at a time (see p. 52), or how flavor really only exists in the head:

Gordon Shepherd puts it best: “A common misconception is that the foods contain the flavours,” he says. “Foods do contain the flavour molecules, but the flavours of those molecules are actually created by our brains.” Thought itself, in other words, is one of our flavour senses. The brain constructs flavour by piecing together inputs from virtually every one of our sensory channels, plus inputs from thought, language, and a host of other high-level processes like mood, emotion, and expectation. That makes flavour a remarkably complex and changeable concept. It’s a wonder we can talk about it coherently at all.

Flavour, p. 104

The changeability is the real crux. Tasting exercises try to turn this infinitely variable and subjective sense into something objective and reliable, but it just isn’t. And there is more and more evidence that even the “pros” are simply better trained at putting words to their sensory experience, not actually better at sensing.

One particularly fascinating episode comes from winemaker and former oceanographer (a scientific minded person, in other words) Bob Hodgson of California. He noticed that he was completely unable to predict how well his wines would do in contests.

With his scientific turn of mind, Hodgson started to wonder why the very same wine could garner a high score last week and a low one this week. Could you really trust the judges’ scores, he wondered? Hodgson must be a persuasive guy, because somehow, he managed to convince the California State Fair to let him find out.
Judges at a big competition like the California State Fair taste about 150 wines every day, organized into 4 to 6 “flights” of 30 wines each. The wines within a flight are presented in identical glasses marked with identifying codes, so that no judge knows the identity of any wine he or she is tasting. Each judge individually—no discussion at this stage of the judging—gives each wine a numeric score on a 20-point scale. (Actually, the fair uses a 100-point scale like the ones you sometimes see on the shelves at your local wine shop. But any wine that’s halfway drinkable scores at least 80 points, so for all practical purposes it’s a 20-point scale.)
With the collaboration of the contest organizers—but unknown to the judges—Hodgson arranged that for one flight per day (usually the second), three of the thirty wines would actually be identical samples, poured from a single bottle of wine but given different code numbers. If judges’ scores are a true reflection of a wine’s quality, then you’d expect these triplicate samples ought to receive identical scores—or at least somewhat similar scores, allowing for a little bit of imprecision in the judges’ ratings.
The results were shocking.16 “We did everything we could to make the task easy for the judge: same flight, same bottle. And nobody rated them all the same,” says Hodgson. Only about 10 percent of the judges scored the three samples similarly enough that they awarded the same medal to each. Another 10 percent gave wildly different scores, giving one glass a gold and another a bronze or even no medal at all, and the rest fell somewhere in between. And that wasn’t just because some judges are better than others: judges who were consistent in one year were no more likely to be consistent the next year.

Flavour, pp 105-106

Hodgson himself found that his experience of his own wine was often largely guided by outside influences as much as what was in his glass. So, in conclusion:

All this points to an uncomfortable conclusion: If trained judges and experienced winemakers don’t consistently prefer one wine over another, then maybe there’s no real basis for calling some wines great and others merely good. And that may be how it really is, though it’s hard to find many wine people who will agree.

p 106

The gist of so much of this can really be summed up by saying: our enjoyment of a thing is only partly contingent on the thing itself, and most of it is based on the situation around our enjoyment. Our mood, the weather, the glasses we’re using, the people we’re with, it’s all part of it.

One particularly visceral section is a long quote from flavor chemist and wine expert Terry Acree on the subject of wine pairing, which I think almost certainly has much to teach us about sake pairing, as well:

What does it mean to “go together”? My mother was an interior decorator, and when I was about five, I walked in and said to my mother, “My favorite color is red.” And she said, “No it isn’t, kid. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. Nobody has a favorite color. Color has a place, and you have to find out where it belongs and where it doesn’t belong. It can only be your favorite if it’s in the right context.” So the first thing I’ve got to say about wine and food pairing is that it’s completely contextual, and almost entirely individual. It makes no sense to write a book on wine and food pairing, except to say there is such a thing as wine and food pairing, and go figure it out for yourself, because it’s your own pairing that counts.

Flavor, p. 192

If flavor truly is this complex experience influenced by almost countless variables both internal and external, ranging from genetics to mood to the weather, then trying to build bedrock principles to guide that experience is a futile thing that only works if everyone involved agrees to just nod and go with the flow–an experience I often find myself having during guided tasting.

The ending message of this book is exactly what I find myself trying to tell people about sake: Be mindful, and enjoy it in your own way. Or, as he says

Remember, even expert perfumers and flavourists can’t accurately identify more than three or four aromas from a mixture. In something as complex as wine, that means the experts’ flavour identifications miss the mark pretty often. (You can easily verify that by comparing two critics’ reviews of the same wine and noting their lack of overlap.) The bottom line is that accuracy doesn’t matter. What’s important is that coming up with a description forces me to pay attention, and paying attention enriches my flavour experience. It slows me down, so that meals become a time for dining, not merely for eating.
There’s a world of flavour out there waiting, and it’s ours to enjoy.

Flavour, p. 224

Review – Ceramics and Modernity in Japan

I’m trying lately to build a solid base of knowledge in ceramics, not only of aesthetics and mechanics, but of culture and context as well. This book, part of the Routledge Research in Art History series, is an excellent resource for exactly that.

The cover of the book Ceramics and Modernity in Japan.
The image is the abstract work Mr. Samsa’s Walk by Yagi Kazuo.

It features 11 scholarly essays (including the intro and epilogue) examining how the whole ceramics world—creating, seeking, purchasing, and appreciating—changed in post-Meiji Japan. The individual topics are relatively specific, but are well arranged and referenced enough to give an excellent overall grasp of the various issues at play.

The articles are all both rigorous and accessible, with the possible exception, perhaps, of “More than “Western”: Porcelain for the Meiji Emperor’s table” by Mary Redfern, which reads like something an undergraduate in social science might write to fill in a word count assignment. Study, overly erudite, and off questionable insight

Of particular interest to me are the many references to the interplay between attitudes toward other Asian nations during Japan’s colonial and post-colonial periods and the concurrent growth of the mingei movement under Yanagi Sōetsu. There is also a very illuminating reference to the circularity of how ceramic science from Europe influenced Japanese pottery, which in turn went on to influence the British studio pottery wave spearheaded by Bernard Leach.

These incidents fundamentally changed my perception of the mingei movement and Leach; particularly his “translation” of Yanagi’s work into “The Unnamed Craftsman.” The clear biases and, dare I say, agenda they shared makes much of what they say very suspect, even as it touches on some clearly vital issues of the intersection of art and Buddhist ideas.

Anyone who is interested in fort insight into the historical context of his Japan came to be “potter’s paradise,” the tension between art and craft in ceramics, and the roots of Japan’s enormous valuation of pottery and the “living national treasures” that create it would do well to read through this one.

Highly recommended.

Book Review – A Sense of Place

The cover of the book A Sense of Place by Dave Broom, featuring a picture of whisky casks on the cover. In front of the book is a small glass with some amber whisky inside.

A Sense of Place: A journey around Scotland’s whisky
by Dave Broom
Photography by Christina Kernohan

I first saw this book mentioned on the author’s Instagram, where he used something like the phrase “sense of place, not terroir.” That is what grabbed me. The growing ubiquity of “terroir” usage in drink writing is puzzling to me, because it is such a wine-centric term. Its core meaning, “the taste of the land,” makes sense for grapes but not for much else. That has encouraged people to make it mean, basically, whatever they want if it helps them sell some kind of very expensive processed agricultural good—from chocolate to, well, whisky. I am immediately suspicious of any use of the term outside wine, because it’s just become a stand-in for “this is different for reasons” as part of a sales pitch.

A sense of place, though? That, I can get behind. It’s not trying to dress itself up in fancy clothes. It’s honest about being a story. A story about a place, which has room in it for all kinds of things. People. History. Water. Land. Plants. Rocks.

A place is what we make of it. What we say about it. It’s a story.

And that is what this book is all about.

In this incredibly beautiful book (and it is among the most beautiful I have ever held—Kernohan’s photography is glorious), Dave Broom writes two hundred and fifty-odd pages worth of ode to Scotland. Its people. Its history. Its water. And yes, its rocks. He writes about whisky, yes, but what this book truly does is delve into what makes Scotch special to him, and that is its position within the communities around each bottle.

It’s a celebration of Scotch as more than a drink, as something else than the icon of capitalism it has seemingly become: it is a product of a community bound by shared land, shared history, shared culture, shared language. A cultural artifact.

The book is lyrical. Rhapsodic. At times gloomy, and at times filled with hope. The language is unabashedly Scots English—I have to admit I was grateful for the glossary in the back—and that is a lovely thing. The book touches on that, on how Gaelic was taken from so many Scots and how that was part of the Clearances that not only scarred Scotland’s culture, but in so doing shaped modern Scotch whiskey and the places it is from, and also how words influence not just how we speak, but how we perceive. How we taste things.

In a way, this book has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. I have to admit that, as a thoroughly common person with stubbornly low-class tastes, the fetishization and hyper-valuation of whisk(e)y turns me right off. As a beverage, I like it fine. It’s a delicious, complex, nuanced and exciting thing to drink in and of itself. But so much of the modern placing of it is about image, status, and wealth. At both ends—production and consumption—whisk(e)y has become a rich man’s game. And I mean all three of those words. The history of whisk(e)y in Scotland and Ireland, in particular, is one of capital, empire, and the forceful transformation of a common culture to a private one.

But here, Broom pokes at the cracks in that, revealing the humanity and love that maintains in even the largest of distilleries. Yes, they’re still massive monuments to capital, but there is also a reverence for craft, and a (re)growing respect for the farmers that once would have been making the drink. I found myself actually wanting a sip of single malt on finishing this book, something I very rarely feel these days. (Sorry, Dave, but it was Miyagikyo. No proper Scotch in the house, I’m afraid).

And he did it with such style! What a writer the man is. I found myself snapping pictures of sentence after sentence, almost wanting to shout with glee at the beautifully made points.

Let me also add, I am so happy and in favor of his persistent cheerleading for blended whisky. The fact that “whisky lovers” persist in looking down on 98% of the market is not only silly, it reeks of classist arrogance. Never poo-poo the cheap stuff.

It is no exaggeration, not even a hint of a lie, to say this is the book I wanted (want?) to write about sake. I am not the writer Broom is, nor is the English-language sake book market mature enough to have room for such a departure, but maybe someday.

Until then, I am grateful for this wonder of a book.

Review – The Japanese Sake Bible

The Japanese Sake Bible: Everything You Need to Know About Great Sake – With Tasting Notes and Scores for 100 Top Brands by Brian Ashcraft

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are quite a few good books for sake beginners that introduce concepts like how it’s made, the different classifications, and the basic history. There are also very technical books that go into the chemistry and technical details of brewing and flavor.

This might be the only book that is both.

I’ve yet to encounter such a comprehensive discussion of sake-its history, its brewing, and the figures who have guided them both.

You can start this book from zero knowledge and end up with an admirable understanding of Japan’s national drink after finishing. It’s a truly well researched, nearly exhaustive look at sake. It’s not as technical (or difficult) as Gautier Rousille’s Nihonshu, or as intimate as John Gauntner’s Sake: The Hidden Stories, but exists as a bridge between them.

The tasting notes at the end offer a look at many of the most important modern brands, but tasting notes are always exercises in subjectivity so don’t get too caught up in them.

Overall, this is a stellar addition to the English language sake library.

Jump on it.

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Review – Penguin Highway

ペンギン・ハイウェイ by Tomihiko Morimi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Penguin Highway

This is a coming of age novel, a story of children facing reality bending mystery, and lots of talk about boobs.

Akireta Aoyama is a young boy with an analytical mind and an obsession with breasts. Not exactly in a prurient way, but in the confused way of a young boy on the cusp of puberty who knows he’s interested, but not exactly why.

One day, his small Japanese town is set abuzz by the sudden appearance of penguins… And that is only the beginning of the weirdness.

I read this novel as a bit of exploration of Japanese SF, and I fear it did little to deepen my understanding of the first. This is a shallow, wide ranging look at all kinds of things: friendship, death, reality, love and so on. The topics can be heady, but they’re all destiny with by children, so nothing goes very far-topics are touched on, then left to wander as the children go about their adventures.

The climax mixes utter predictability (there is very heavy foreshadowing of a certain event) and utter nonsense in a vaguely unsatisfying way. The characters are memorable and enjoyable, though, and there is enough going on to keep interest going.

But in the end, this felt like a pretty rote “kids in small Japanese town have weird adventures and grow up a little” kind of story, complete with Summer festival yukatas and the bully who ends up helping the heroes when they need it.

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