Photo credit: Geoseph Domenichiello
In Western Culture, especially in North America, it's more common to reduce the amount of noise you make while you eat. We don't slurp, breath to hard, or even pay much attention to what we are doing when we ingest food. The truth is, increased mouth movements, increased breathing and airflow, and mindful eating all enhance the flavour of our food. Not just by a small margin, but greatly increase the flavour, and in turn increasing our satisfaction with what we eat.
It's not news that eating slowly and chewing your food are to be encouraged. However, we may not know exactly why we do it, or if we do, we often forget and neglect these behaviours. What does this have to do with chocolate? Everything.
When you enjoy a piece of dark chocolate, how would you explain the flavour? Chocolate? Seems obvious. Bitter perhaps? Maybe sweet, or roasted might be some other descriptors. If you are one of those people who enjoy fine chocolate, you may pick up flavours such as nut, raisin, hazelnut, toasted bread, or even cherry. This is because chocolate doesn't just have to taste like chocolate. The reason why most chocolate tastes very similar and has very little dimension has to do with how most chocolate is made today. Now, there is nothing wrong with chocolate that has a more simple flavour profile, but enjoying chocolate that contains an array of flavours can be very satisfying to certain people. It's also something that many people don't know exists, or have yet to experience.
However, it often takes knowing how to eat fine chocolate to get to that stage of enjoying all those flavours. If you've ever gone to a wine or espresso tasting, you're familiar with the idea that these drinks will contain notes of fruit, nut or herbs, depending on the variety or terrior (region) the grapes and coffee berries grew. The same is true for fine chocolate.
Where do these flavours come from? They are contained within the cocoa bean. They are not added during the process. The process of making fine chocolate creates and highlights these flavours within. The minerals in the soil where the cacao grew, the way the beans and chocolate were processed, are some aspects that will allow for such flavours to exist.
Many people are intimidated by this idea of fine chocolate. Many feel there is snobbery within the fine wine and coffee gourmets of the world, and they are not wrong. The same is happening within chocolate. A real connoisseur, a confident individual who understands and appreciates their food at an intimate level, is not a snob. A snob is insecure. A snob is unsure, and puts others down in order to heighten your status. A real connoisseur encourages, educates, and shares their passion! They don't stifle the growing curiosity in those who wish the reach that same level of satisfaction.
But it takes work. It takes educating yourself on chocolate, not just with taste, but how it's made and what contributes to flavour. As well, and for our purposes here, it also takes knowing HOW to eat chocolate. Learning the techniques to savour the flavour, and learn how to articulate what's going on inside you when you're eating a delicious piece of chocolate.
It's true that some people have a better sense of flavour, but we all have a great sense of flavour! We're human, and our big brains allow us to develop this beautiful complex world of taste, aroma, and flavour. Anyone can learn how to sing by learning proper techniques, and you can learn how to taste like a connoisseur. Yes, you may not be the top chocolate taster in your region, just like you may never end up on the radio with your singing voice. The truth is, you can improve, and improve to the point of being more satisfied with the way you experience flavour!
How Mouth Movements Improve Flavour
When I say being rude to enhance flavour, I mean making more noise and movements when we eat. Moving our jaws more, our tongues, breathing and not being afraid to make noise! Sure, it's not always polite or socially acceptable, and you may receive some harsh glares. However, should that get in the way of your satisfaction with chocolate? I'd hope not.
An article entitled "The Effects of Mouth Movements, Swallowing, and Spitting on Retronasal Odor Perception" by Konrad J. Burdach and Richard L. Doty (1987) explains in good detail what we're talking about here. It may be an older article, but it's worth taking a look at. Their research has shed light on an area of study that, even today, isn't given much thought in the academic world and certainly not among the everyday chocolate eaters.
Flavour combines our senses of predominately taste and olfaction, but also sight, touch, and our aural senses. Olfaction, picking up aromas in our nasal cavity, is enhanced when we move our mouths and tongue around, and exhale through our nose when we eat.
If you were to swallow right now, you would notice that right after swallowing you exhale. Even if you didn't inhale before swallowing, you exhale. Try it. Don't inhale, take a sip of water and pay attention to what happens next. When we swallow, our mouth is closed. We couldn't swallow without closing our mouth, and when we exhale, the air passes through our nasal cavity and out our nostrils, not out our mouth. What's happening here?
The flavour of our drink or food gets caught up in the air leaving our lungs after we swallow. This air captures aroma molecules left behind by the food we just swallowed. This aroma rich air gets passed up into our nose where our olfactory receptors come in contact with these aromas. This is called retronasal olfaction. Retro meaning from the back. Sniffing would be orthonasal olfaction, ortho meaning from the front. This exhaling through the nose behaviour while we eat allows our olfactory receptors to pick up all the aromas contained in our food, and send it up into our brain. Without retronasal olfaction, our food would only taste sweet, sour, salty, savoury, or bitter. We wouldn't taste anything else. Those flavours we describe when we eat, that we say we taste, we actually create when we combine what we taste with what we smell (as well as our other senses).
Improving our retronasal olfaction behaviours while we eat, will increase the amount of aroma molecules that reach our nose, and enhance the flavour experience of our food.
Practical Behaviours To Improve Flavour
So how do we improve this? Mouth movements. Burdach and Doty state that "retronasal movement of molecules to the nasal epithelium is likely dependent upon air currents induced by active alteration of the musculature of the mouth and pharynx." They go on to state that although sniffing (orthonasal olfaction) will increase the number of aroma molecules to reach the nasal cavity, retronasal which includes "changes in tongue, cheek, and throat movements can similarly influence the number of odorant molecules reaching the receptor region [in the nasal cavity]." Their study in this paper demonstrated that ingesting an aromatic drink with no mouth movement, resulted in the weakest flavour intensity. When the drink was accompanied with movements in the mouth while it was held in the mouth, intensity of flavour increased greatly. When the drink was swallowed, it resulted in the most intense flavour perception.
Chocolate melts quite quickly in our mouths, and chocolate that doesn't contain nuts or other non dissolvable inclusions is not often a choking hazard as it melts into a liquid when we ingest it. It's still important to be careful and consume food carefully and consciously to avoid choking. However, when you're dealing with fine chocolate, most often enjoy a small piece at a time. Make sure to not inhale or swallow until the chocolate is completely melted.
Although many recommended NOT to chew your chocolate, but rather let it melt, they often mean to say this in order for you to savour the flavour more slowly. Often, when we chew, it only takes a few seconds before we're sending it down our throat. However, Doty and Burdach find that the concentration of molecules rises within the mouth during mastication. Yes, chewing your food can prevent you from choking as you grind up your food into smaller pieces, but it also tears and breaks apart your foods, allowing more aromas to escape and fill up your oral cavity. Although I don't recommend only chewing your chocolate, I do recommend a few chews to break up that chocolate and get it moving around in your mouth, not just sitting in one place on your tongue as it melts.
After we take a few bites and it begins to melt, it's helpful to move your tongue around. Rub your tongue on the roof of our mouth. After the chocolate melts, cup your tongue with your mouth closed, and then flatten it onto the roof of your mouth. You should feel a burst of air move into the back of your throat. Do this motion with your tongue as you exhale, and you will find a burst of flavour aroma gets picked up in your nasal cavity.
Even you have swallowed your chocolate, you still have an abundance of aroma molecules in your oral cavity, as well as residual chocolate on your tongue, teeth, and back of your throat. Move that tongue around, and breath. You have have ingested your chocolate, but the flavour isn't finished yet, there's still plenty of stimuli for your tongue and nose to enjoy.
Exhale Through Your Nose
Continue to exhale through your nose after your chocolate has melted and has even been swallowed. Take a big breath in, and slowly exhale. Close your eyes if you have to. Exhale slowly, and exhale quickly. Try different exhaling techniques until you find one that works for you. A technique that you feel allows you to really pick up the aromas in the chocolate you just ate.
We don't often think about the flavours of our foods, especially our chocolate, but if you perform these movements with your tongue and jaw, and slowly exhale, you will have time to think about what flavours you are perceiving. The more time you spend breathing and savouring, the more time you have to think about what these flavours are. We don't often have words to express these flavours, so think about what it reminds you of. Think in broad terms first. Is it earthy or fruity? Is it nutty or herbaceous? If it's nutty, is it roasted almond, hazelnut, some kind of nut but you're not sure which one?
Move that mouth and Breath
Explaining how to taste chocolate will be left for another time. For now, I'm hoping you have a better understanding of the importance of mouth movements and breathing, and how crucial they are to flavour perception. They do enhance the amount of flavour we pick up in our food. It's something to remind ourselves next time we break off a piece of chocolate. Do it after reading this. Try it with your coffee, your next meal, or whatever snack you may have on you. Hopefully though, you have some chocolate!
Perhaps you have enjoyed dark fine chocolate before, but had great difficulty picking up on the aromas and flavours. You may have told yourself you're just not good at it! "I'm really bad at picking up the aromas. I can't do it." You can. It could just be that you were not using your body effectively. Although other factors are involved, such as repeated exposure and our own biological limits, the way we eat and breath can enhance our satisfaction of food regardless of the other factors. It just takes the effort in paying attention to what we are doing when we eat. Don't give up on yourself. Fine foods are not just for snobs. Enjoy the flavours that surround you right now. Take the time to appreciate the wonderful ways your body works, and make it work for you. Buon appetito!