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A Little Nutty

January 3, 2010

The family is still on vacation.  We just made the long drive from western Pennsylvania to Connecticut.  I love long distance driving.  I like the pace of it.  I like how you can set the car in cruise control and let your mind roll all kinds of thoughts around and around.

Especially when the baby is asleep, and there is no other sound but snow tires on dry road and Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” on infinite repeat.  That’s a story for some other bad parenting advice blog.

Today I was contemplating taste.  Specifically, I was thinking about how one can describe the taste of common foods.  For example, how can you describe what an almond tastes like, without using the word nutty?

To make it more interesting, I had a bag of mixed nuts: Almonds, cashews and macadamias.  Peanuts are legumes.

So, I spent the better part of an hour very consciously tasting nuts.  I thought about little else, except what was going on in my mouth.  For every taste I would try to reach back into my catalog of sense memory to see if I could come up with a corresponding flavor or smell.

The exercise was both very challenging and very rewarding.

All of the nuts were roasted, but the almonds were the only ones that retained their skins.  This gave them the toastiest taste of the bunch. I felt there was a woodiness about them too.  Toast didn’t seem to be quite the right word, either.

The macadamia nuts were buttery and a bit fruity, although I was a bit uncomfortable with using “fruity,” since I couldn’t quite refine it further.  If you remember my post about the wine aroma wheel, fruitiness encapsulates stone fruits, berries, citrus, tropical fruits, etc.

My cashews gave a distinct barnyard impression, which was not displeasing.

Please do not get me wrong.  The point of this isn’t to turn the simple act of eating nuts into some pretentious display of taste supremacy.  The point is twofold:

1)    Tasting your food can lead to a greater appreciation of it.
2)    People rarely take the time to really taste their food.

The added side benefit is that now that I have thoughtfully and mindfully tasted these nuts, I will be better able to identify their taste in other foods.  So, should I take a bite of cheese, and it gives off a distinctly nutty impression, I can use my newfound nut flavor knowledge and try to refine how I describe the taste of that cheese.

Pulling out flavor and aroma components out of wine or other substances is hard work.  And it is virtually impossible if you yourself don’t know what things taste and smell like.  It’s like trying to recreate a Degas using a box of eight Crayola crayons.

The more tastes and flavors you have cataloged in your sense memory, the better you will be at identifying them in the wines you drink.  And I find the exercise I stumbled onto today is a great tool to etch these taste experiences into my brain.

It’s a little late for New Year’s resolutions, but I would like to do more of this in the year to come.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. wendalicious permalink
    January 3, 2010 6:50 pm

    I love the experiment. We did this experiment in acting class with raisins and Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. You definitely taste things you don’t taste as you shovel them down your gullet.

    Regarding wine: is there some sort of “taste kit” for those flavor components that one wouldn’t encounter in daily life? I’m thinking of tar, minerals, leather, etc. – those flavors that wine connoisseurs claim to taste. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical.

  2. RealFoodMom permalink
    January 3, 2010 11:27 pm

    Your story on really tasting things reminded me of a wonderful cooking teacher I once had, who suggested a way to really get to know an herb or spice: Cook a simple pot of plain rice, except for adding that singular herb or spice to the pot. Then eat a serving of the rice with no accompaniments (except for butter and salt, of course), really noting the flavor imparted.

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