So you’re having friends for dinner. You’ve worked out a delicious menu, paying careful attention to the colours and flavours of the dishes. Perhaps you’ve even thought about music and lighting. But did you remember to consider the flavour of your cutlery?
Dr Zoe Laughlin and Professor Mark Miodownik, co-directors of the Institute of Making at University College London, think you should. They and their colleagues have conducted a series of scientific experiments into the way spoons coated in different metals affect the tastes of food. And recently, they held their first spoon-tasting dinner, an event attended by materials scientists, psychologists and culinary luminaries such as Heston Blumenthal and Harold McGee, who had flown over from the US for the occasion.
In a private room at Quilon, the Michelin-starred restaurant in London, guests tried seven courses of delicately spiced southwest Indian food with seven different, freshly polished spoons: copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc, chrome and stainless steel. The base of each spoon was engraved with the periodic table symbol of the element with which it was plated.
Laughlin and Miodownik are materials scientists who wanted to find out how identically-shaped objects such as cubes and bells behaved when they were made from different materials. Curiosity about how the materials might taste grew from this work. “It seemed obvious to do this with something that people felt comfortable putting into their mouths, which is why we ended up with spoons,” says Miodownik.
Laughlin, who is an artist as well as a scientist, designed the spoons and had them electroplated with metals that were – if not exactly edible – at least non-toxic, and essential, in trace quantities, for human health. She and her colleagues ran experiments in which human guinea pigs were blindfolded and given spoons to suck – on their own, and filled with simply-flavoured creams. What they found was that their subjects could distinguish between the flavours of the different spoons, and that the metals affected the perceived bitterness, sweetness and pleasantness of the creams.
After three years of research, they unleashed the spoons on this complex Indian dinner, served with a flight of seven beers. The sight of 15 adults sucking their spoons like babies was an unusual start to a dinner party, but they had surprisingly different flavours. Copper and zinc were bold and assertive, with bitter, metallic tastes; the copper spoons even smelt metallic as they gently oxidised in the air. The silver spoon, despite its beauty, tasted dull in comparison, while the stainless steel had a faintly metallic flavour that is normally overlooked. As Miodownik pointed out, we were not just tasting the spoons but actually eating them, because with each lick we were consuming “perhaps a hundred billion atoms”.
When the spoons were tasted with food, there were some surprising revelations. Baked black cod with zinc was as unpleasant as a fingernail scraped down a blackboard, and grapefruit with copper was lip-puckeringly nasty. But both metals struck a lovely, wild chord with a mango relish, their loud, metallic tastes somehow harmonised by its sweet-sour flavour. (“With sour foods, like mango and tamarind, you really are tasting the metal,” says Laughlin, “because the acid strips off a little of the surface.”) Tin turned out to be a popular match for pistachio curry. And Laughlin sang the praises of gold as a spoon for sweet things: “Gold has a smooth, almost creamy quality, and a quality of absence – because it doesn’t taste metallic.”
The idea of a meal as a multi-sensory experience is nothing new; what is recent is the science that’s illuminating the complexity of our perceptions. Professor Charles Spence of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, another member of the spoon research group, has shown how playing crunchy, crackly sounds to people eating crisps makes them taste crisper, and that increasing the weight of spoons makes the food they carry taste better, sweeter and more filling.
So, might chefs one day consider the taste of their cutlery as part of the flavour of a dish? Heston Blumenthal has been known to serve edible cutlery made of chocolate dusted with silver. “I can imagine a spoon being part of a dish,” he says. “I’ve been surprised at the range of metal flavours we’ve tasted, and at the way some sit quite well with certain sour notes in food, like the zinc and copper with mango. I’ve always been sensitive to metallic tastes and had thought of the cutlery as interfering with the food; but here, the metallic note can, with some flavours, be more enjoyable than otherwise.”
Although the evening was thought-provoking, I didn’t feel the spoons added much to what was, in itself, a marvellous dinner. The sweet-peppery prawns were perfectly balanced, and did not require an astringent lick of copper, or even a smear of gold. By the end of the second course my tongue was beginning to taste as though it had been electroplated with metal. And even if eating honey ice cream with a golden spoon had an air of magic about it, I’m not sure I’ll be hurrying to plate my own spoons in gold.
Still, Laughlin and Miodownik hope eventually to produce a set of spoons designed, for example, for stirring coffee or eating crème caramel, and accompanied by tasting notes and recipes. “It would be a kind of spoon piano,” says Laughlin, “to play the food and make your own music.”
For more information on the Institute of Making, visit www.instituteofmaking.org.uk