In Search of the Umami Experience

June 2005

  • Food experts gather at Cheltenham Science Festival
    to explore the 'taste of the future'.

    On the evening of 9 June, the pioneering 'New Frontiers of Taste' event, a highlight of the Cheltenham Science Festival, set out to explore the realm of taste, more specifically what it is exactly that makes something taste delicious, and discuss the future of gastronomy.

    This evening of culinary innovation took the form of a series of short talks by a variety of recognised food experts, each of which focused on umami from the perspective of the speaker's own particular area of expertise, followed by a panel discussion during which the audience had the opportunity to ask questions.

    New Frontiers of Taste approached the subject of taste from both an experiential and scientific perspective, and as well as exploring umami and the influences shaping the future of food science, offered opportunities to 'experience the theory'. All the participants, including the audience, received a Japanese style 'bento box' containing various samples of food, together with a glass of sake (Japanese rice wine), which were used to illustrate points during the talks.

    The event, chaired by festival director Kathy Sykes, who also holds the Collier Chair at the University of Bristol's Institute for Advanced Studies, featured addresses from five experts: Heston Blumenthal, renowned chef and owner of the 'Fat Duck'; Stefan Gates, presenter of BBC TV's innovative 'Full on Food' programme; Edmund T. Rolls, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Ichiro Kubota, Executive Chef at London's 'Umu' restaurant. Kumiko Ohta, Xavier Chapelou and Jean-Louis Naveillhan from 'Isake', an innovative company promoting the unique qualities of premium sake when matched with Western cuisine .

    Professor Rolls discussed the science of taste in general and the umami taste in particular, as well as glutamate, the substance that best encapsulates the essence of the umami taste. Stefan Gates, while remaining sceptical about the definability of the umami taste, suggested the term 'Wotsitsness' as an alternative (based on the snack 'Wotsits') and highlighted some of the myths that have built up around food. Ichiro Kubota illustrated how umami is intrinsic to the Kyoto style of cookery he has mastered, especially when he demonstrated how to make Japanese stock (dashi) using umami-rich kombu (kelp). Isake explained the production of premium sake and the synergistic 'umami effect' our tongues find so appealing when sake is combined with umami-rich foods. Heston Blumenthal outlined his scientific approach to food, before speaking about public perception of umami and preconceived ideas about food, and the use of other senses apart from taste when eating.

    The evening closed with all participants discussing points raised by the event while relaxing with glasses of sake and chocolates (which revealed a different dimension of chocolate!).

    Amidst the debate, everyone seemed to agree that the New Frontiers of Taste event opened up new ideas and possibilities for taste and food in general. It seems that umami is finally going beyond the realm of the scientists and getting closer to our everyday lives.

    Over the next 5 months, we will be bringing you a full report on the talks presented by each of the 5 guest speakers.