Friday, April 10, 2009

Tongue Maps and Wine Glasses

Occasionally, manufacturers of wine glasses try to promote their product by claiming that some particular design is better for wine because it delivers the wine to a different part of the mouth, thereby increasing one sensation (the one whose receptors are concentrated in that part of the the tongue).

You may have even seen a drawing of the tongue with different areas assigned to different taste sensations. Sweetness is on the front tip, bitterness along the sides in the back and so on. It's an interesting thought, it sounds like it could be useful, for anyone trying to amplify the experience of one taste or diminish another. Unfortunately, it's dead wrong.

Before we talk about it any more, it might be worth taking a second right now to touch, let’s say, a bit of salt to the front of your tongue where the sweet receptors are supposed to be. Taste salty? You bet it does. In general, we taste most tastes everywhere on the tongue. The story of how this particular weird idea has been passed down and accepted uncritically is a good cautionary tale.
The tongue map dates back to research by D.P. Hanig that was published in 1901. Hanig set out to measure the relative sensitivity on the tongue for the four known basic tastes that were then known in Europe. Based on his subjects’ reports, he concluded that sensitivity to the four tastes varied around the tongue, with sweet sensations peaking in the tip, etc.
In 1942, Edwin Boring took Hanig's data and graphed the levels of sensitivity. Boring’s graph made it seem like areas of lower sensitivity were areas of no sensitivity. The modern tongue-map was born as an artifact of the way the chart was presented.
In 1974, a scientist named Virginia Collings re-examined Hanig's work and agreed with his main point: There was some difference in sensitivity to the four basic tastes in different parts of the tongue, but the variations were too small to matter. Collings found that all five tastes (she included umami) can be detected on taste buds anywhere: all over the tongue, on the soft palate and in the flap that blocks food from the windpipe.

Later research has revealed that taste bud seems to contain 50 to 100 receptors for each taste. There’s still some uncertainty about the distribution of taste receptors, but the map itself is a pure myth.
In fact, there are enough stories like The Tongue Map that they have their own category: they're called fakelore. You may have heard that you can tenderize meat my marinating it or that browning ‘seals in juices’. Maybe you’ve put a spoon in a bottle of Champagne to conserve the sparkle. Or perhaps you believe the one about spices originally being used to conceal the taste of rotten meat. Beware of folks who want to sound smart by passing along the bull: watch out for the Tongue Mappers! (Oh, and try to be aware when you're being one yourself.)

For more on the taste of beer, check out:

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Toronto's Beer Bistro

Beer geeks tend to be fond of the worn and the comfortable. We like leather jackets with cracks at the elbows, jeans that look like they've been around and bars that look like long and loving use has polished them a bit. So the truly great beer bars in the world seem to exude patina. The d├ęcor- the wood, the leather, the mirrors, even the light itself tends to suggest that it’s all been there forever and that somehow, it wishes you could be too. In this respect as in several others, Toronto's Beer Bistro is radically different. It is a place that’s designed to challenge and change the way people think about beer
The main room is high-ceilinged with huge light-gathering windows and an air of shininess. In an architectural translation of the house style, the bar is separated from the dining room by no more than a line of banquettes.
The menu nods to some traditions, but it’s a brief nod indeed. Chef Brian Morin takes off on some inventions that explore the possibilities of beer as an ingredient in food as well as an accompaniment to it. The whole business is pulled off with exceedingly good humor and not a hint of pretension.
You can get the feel of the place by ordering the corn dog. For those of you who haven’t been to a state fair or a boardwalk lately, the corn dog is a hot dog dipped in corn meal batter, fried and then put on a stick to be eaten out of hand. At the Beer Bistro, the pair of corn dogs are made from molded duck leg confit and served with a pineapple mustard and a house-made cherry beer ketchup. Put aside the fact that pineapple is the lover that mustard has been waiting for all these years and that the ketchup begs to be eaten with a spoon. Concentrate on the richness of the duck and the crispness of the batter and the heightened sensitivity that these little condiments create in you mouth. Try to remember to breathe, sip your beer.
Salmon sliders are strips of salmon, house-cured in beer served on blinis with a capered cream cheese and micro-thin slices of red onion. The blinis are just firm enough to be a foil for the moist fish and the whole combination of taste and texture is just crying out for a beer to make it complete. The house suggests underchallenging them with a belgian wheat beer, you could just as easily confront the taste head-on with a pilsner.
Mussels are pretty much old-hat in a beer bar, but baked mussels florentine open up a whole new field. Without subverting the firm, oceanic character of the mussels, baking opens up a whole realm of possibility. In this case the shellfish are topped with cubes of beer-cured bacon, three cheeses, sauteed spinach, arugala, shallots, and garlic butter. The menu urges you to try Saison Dupont and that seems just about perfect.

You expect beer bar service to be friendly and casual-after all this is beer which even at its most elegant is somehow easy, effortless and available. At the Beer Bistro, you get that and a little more. Listen to manager Kathleen McGinn: “Our staff feels like teachers. We want customers to be confident that if they have questions, their server has answers.” The wait staff goes to regular on-premise beer school and they are more than just knowledgeable, they understand that the point of all that knowing is for you to end up drinking something wonderful.
Then there’s the matter of beer ice cream. (I'm having a hard time believing that I used those words together in a sentence.) You’ll just have to try the one made from Jamaican stout and chopped candy bar.
The owners of The Beer Bistro describe the place as worldly, casual and elegant, just like you and me. They also say that everything is made from scratch, no shortcuts, no premix. They bake their own bread, cure their own bacon and salmon, smoke their own short ribs. They are the first of their kind in this large, exciting city and unlike most pioneers, they seem to have found exactly the right path. It’s time for the rest of the city-and maybe the rest of the world- to play catch-up.

For more about beer, check out The Short Course in Beer at: