Sunday, June 11, 2023

Book Review: How To Taste by Mandy Naglich

I saw a television programme about chocolate tasters when I was a kid. It was a revelation for me that instead of going to an office or shop or doing farming, a person can sit and eat chocolates for the whole day and get paid for doing it. As teenagers, we used to make jokes about the lives of wine and whisky tasters. We used to imagine them in a state of perpetual inebriation. Some years ago, the documentary on wine tasting certification titled Somm rekindled my interest in tasters. I was enamoured by the participants descriptions of the notes of different wines in poetic terms. At the same time, I had this notion in the back of my head that all these claims of identifying the taste of polished leather or the vineyard that made the wine were global frauds and part of a branding attempt. But reading the upcoming book How to Taste has dispelled my notions to a large extent.

How To Taste, the book by Mandy Naglich, who is an advanced Cicerone (a certification for beer tasters) and a certified tester, comes with the tagline "a guide to discovering flavour and savouring life" and is an attempt to demystify the art of tasting for the layperson. The book tries to differentiate between eating something and tasting it. It has to be similar to the difference between seeing something and watching it. When I was a kid, there was an exhibition of medicinal plants at my school. One of the plants was called Chakkarakkolli (Gymnema sylvestre or Madhunasini), and eating it would make us unable to taste sweetness. I, along with a friend, ate its leaves and then tasted a candy. We were terrified, as the sweetness was totally missing from the candy. We drank plain soda to remove the effects and then, much to our relief, gained back our taste. Though we ate the candy, we weren't able to taste it. So there is a difference.

The first part of the book explains the mechanics of tasting. Taste is a sensation, and like other sensations, it is the work of our nervous system to make us experience it after collecting the necessary stimuli through our taste buds. This part provides a step-by-step description of the process. It also illuminates how other sensations like smell, sight, and sound influence our tasting and how the process itself is a symphony that, when rightly done, can provide an experience to cherish for a lifetime. Like in the case of any other sensation, there are people with different capacities for tasting, like supertasters, who are capable of identifying minute nuances of flavour in foods and drinks.

The second chapter lists the best way to extract the full benefit of the tasting experience by using seven steps. There are tips to enhance and complement the visual, auditory, and, most importantly, olfactory elements of tasting. There are important roles that temperature, wall colour, ambient sounds, and smell play in tasting. For example, a red wall can enhance the sweetness of your ice cream, or gently warming your olive oil can enrich its texture and aroma. We come to know the significance of swirling the wine or sniffing the cheese, practises that we have seen countless times performed and parodied on social media.

Part three of the book provides the reader with an introduction to the tasting profession, including certifications, competition, awards, and grading systems that hone the skills of professional tasters, help entrepreneurs upgrade their products, and establish and update new skills in the culinary world. There is a chapter on food pairing and another that helps to describe the sensual and emotional experience of flavours in precise words. In Part 4, the author writes more about how skills acquired as a taster can improve general experiences of life. Travelling to a strange destination can be used to acquire new additions to the flavour collection. Flavours trigger memories and connect the taster to the past. So new flavours can be used to imprint long-lasting memories in the brain.

How to Taste is a book that can help a reader start tasting instead of simply eating. It is an information-filled journey that the reader will find useful to implement practically in life. Personally, I found the writing in certain portions a bit too technical and jargon-filled for my liking. As an Indian with minimal exposure to global specialty cuisine and fine dining culture, there are many descriptions that I cannot relate to. But the practical tips, the many dos and don'ts of tasting, and the expertise and experience of the writer that translate into her writing made reading this book worth it.

Inexcusable are the numerous typos, insertions of wrong words, and instances of weird sentence formation in the text. I agree that what I received was an ARC, and the final book may be released with corrected text, but all these faults seriously impaired the overall experience.

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