- Open Access
Place-based taste: geography as a starting point for deliciousness
© Evans et al.; licensee BioMed Central. 2015
- Received: 2 December 2014
- Accepted: 2 December 2014
- Published: 2 March 2015
Nordic Food Lab (NFL) is a non-profit, open-source organisation that investigates food diversity and deliciousness. We combine scientific and cultural approaches with culinary techniques from around the world to explore the edible potential of the Nordic region. We are intent on broadening our taste, generating and adapting practical ideas and methods for those who make food and those who enjoy eating. This paper describes some of our methods, using geography as a starting point for the exploration of deliciousness, exemplified in our lunch menu served at the Science of Taste symposium in Copenhagen in August 2014.
- Food diversity
- Food systems
- Nordic region
- Food design
- Theoretical framework
In November 2004, a symposium for Nordic cuisine was organised in Copenhagen at the then newly opened Nordatlantens Brygge, a cultural house for the North Atlantic parts of the Nordic region. Here a group of chefs and food professionals created a manifesto for a new Nordic cuisine that was signed by chefs from Denmark, Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Åland . The symposium and manifesto crystallised a new Nordic food movement that has since developed the regional cuisines of the Nordic countries and territories beyond what anyone could have imagined.
Nordic Food Lab was founded in 2008 in the same spirit, as a research and development lab with the purpose of exploring food in the Nordic region. Chef René Redzepi and gastronomic entrepreneur Claus Meyer, co-owners of the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, realised that this investigation could not be undertaken in the restaurant kitchen alone. They saw a need for a space where chefs, scientists, and other researchers could come together to investigate raw materials, traditional processes, and modern techniques more deeply than the pressure of daily service would allow. The outcome of the lab’s activities was directed primarily towards the development of restaurants, but also with the purpose of expanding knowledge in academic and applied contexts.
Since then, Nordic Food Lab (NFL) has helped to bring science and gastronomy closer together in Denmark . Over the years, we have attempted to shift how chefs and scientists work together, from a simple one-way process of chefs asking scientists to help troubleshoot and solve immediate problems in the kitchen, to a more collaborative effort where research questions are developed and investigated together, integrating different methods and types of expertise. One good example is the work by Mouritsen et al. , which explored the use of seaweeds in a Nordic culinary context, and demonstrated how the seaweeds sugar kelp and in particular dulse have great potential as ingredients in the new Nordic cuisine to provide flavour and umami. The interests of the chefs and scientists are diverse and none are experts outside their respective fields, so a true collaborative work brings all parties further than any of them would have managed alone.
The experimental methods used at NFL often resemble those of a design studio with iterations of recipes and as thorough an exploration as possible of the sensory space a particular food can occupy . For this reason, we rely on team members who are capable of dismantling the unnecessary division between science and craft, drawing on knowledge from natural sciences, the humanities and the vast world of diverse culinary traditions.
Diversity is both our starting point and our goal. It forms a loop of feedback mediated by ecology, necessity, and appetite. There is no single food that can nourish us on its own. The pursuit of good food runs parallel with the pursuit of the biological and cultural diversity upon which truly sustainable food systems rely. Yet infinite choice can be paralysing, and we find creative and investigative freedom in the geographical constraint of our base of our raw materials.
In order to create delicious food, it is useful to understand the principles for perception of food and the evaluation of goodness in a food. Creating a new dish or finding a new ingredient to use in our cuisine bears similarities to how we interact with other artefacts of human culture. Looking to theories of human affective response to designed objects or artefacts can thus provide a useful perspective on how similar processes play out in the kitchen and laboratory. Desmet and Hekkert  argue that the affective response to a product is a function of three components. First is the immediate perception through our senses, what have previously been termed as the aesthetic experience . Second is the experience of meaning that we ascribe through interpretation and association to assess the personal or symbolic significance of a product experience. The third component in our product experience is the emotional experience that arises from an evaluation of the significance that an experience has for the individual’s well-being.
We appreciate certain tastes from birth (sweet, fatty, and umami ) because they signal the presence of available energy. Appreciation of other sensory properties such crunchy  or creamy  is learned from positive consequences through conditioned learning and association . Some sensory properties are more dynamic, and their appreciation is a result of the sensory arc that occurs during ingestion, as we chew and swallow. The main purpose of chewing is to comminute, lubricate and subsequently form food into a bolus that can be swallowed without negative consequences, such as inhalation of small particles into the lower respiratory tract . The success of a food from an oral manipulation point of view depends on the efficiency of comminution, lubrication, and bolus formation. The trajectory of this process has been termed the philosophy of the breakdown path .
When we experience foods we implicitly learn some lawful relationship between different sensory properties. For example, we learn to associate the bright orange colour of sea buckthorn with its passion fruit-like aroma and its tangy sourness. After repeated exposures there is fluency in this learnt relationship, which generates intrinsic pleasure as a result of this faster perceptual processing . Gradually, as we become more experienced, our sensory systems can better discern small differences and nuances that in earlier exposures went unnoticed. Gibson  suggests that the perceptual development and learning are processes of distinguishing the features of an almost inexhaustibly rich input, hinting at the immense potential to continually develop our senses further. Experienced wine connoisseurs, for example, may be able to distinguish minuscule differences in sensory properties that allow them to correctly identify the vineyard, producer and vintage of a wine and to take great pleasure in analysing and dissecting these sensory inputs of a food.
The function of food from a physiological perspective should not be neglected, although it is something that is often taken for granted. Food needs to be safe to eat, i.e. not cause disease. A good food serves the purpose of providing nourishment, and indeed, the range of intake that provides a person with sufficient macro- and micronutrients is broad. And though nutritional recommendations should be seen as guidelines that can form the basis for nutrition policies, or formulation of diets and foods , they are not the be-all and end-all of the complex functionality of food in diets in practice.
In relation to food, the parallel to the reflective level or the meaning we ascribe to food is their creation — the production system that brings about the food, or the ideas behind a particular food or dish. A particularly good example of a food that is admired for its idea is Michel Bras’ ‘chocolat coulant’, or chocolate cake with a runny heart that the chef invented in the early 1980s, which for many years has been a signature dish in his restaurant. According to chefs, it is one of the most copied recipes in the world. The ingenuity that was necessary for Michel Bras to develop this particular cake, with a complex preparation that according to legend includes short pieces of a garden hose and freezing the dough before baking, has made it appreciated by his diners for decades, and admired by chefs all over the world. It has helped build Michel Bras’ reputation as one of the best chefs in the world (see for instance ). Similarly, the artist Olafur Eliasson expresses his admiration for René Redzepi’s dish ‘Milk skin with Grass’, where the grass and the garnishes all originate from the same pasture as the cow that made the milk, and upon which it grazed on, a representation of a particular place at a particular time .
A significant part of the appreciation for a food can stem from how it has been created. Several organisations have developed guidelines for goodness in the production system according to their principles. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has a set of four principles that form a base for interconnected ethical principles to guide the development of organic agriculture. The four principles are briefly put: health, ecology, fairness and care . The Slow Food movement has a similar succinct statement for their manifesto for good food: good, clean and fair [19, 20]. The principles for both these organisations can also be understood in terms of philosophy, ethics and sustainability, as indicated in Figure 1.
These three levels of interaction with a food—perceptual, functional, and creational—help us understand the underlying principles for delicious foods, and can offer explanations for why some foods are indeed delicious.
JE is the lead researcher at Nordic Food Lab, and has a background in the humanities. JE has worked extensively for the last years on food systems and sustainable agriculture. RF is the head chef at Nordic Food Lab. A trained chef, he has focussed in his career on building strong relationships between producers and chefs. JAP is a researcher and product developer at Nordic Food Lab, and has a background in food science, coupled with a longstanding interest in the culinary arts and the restaurant trade. MBF is the director for Nordic Food Lab and associate professor in Sensory Science at University of Copenhagen. He has a background in sensory science, and has worked extensively to connect science and culinary arts to the benefit of both.
This work has been funded by the following research and dissemination projects hosted at Nordic Food Lab: Smag for Livet (Taste for Life), a centre without walls that has focus on the taste of foods. (Smag for Livet is funded by the Nordea Foundation), and Discerning taste: creating the gastronomic argument for entomophagy, funded by the Velux Foundation.
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