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Tanqueray Tasteology at Rockpool, Sydney

Charles Spence wants to engage your biggest sense organ, and he wants to do it with a gin and tonic. The brain, he argues, is where flavour happens, and not the mouth, and it's the result of a mingling of information from not just the senses of taste and scent but also sight, sound and touch.

Professor Spence is an experimental psychologist and the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford, and he was discussing neurogastronomy at a dinner given by Tanqueray at Rockpool in Sydney on Wednesday night.

Tanqueray is promoting the idea that a well-made gin and tonic is the perfect multisensory palate-cleanser, an idea that Professor Spence said chimes with his research. The mouth brings us less than 10 per cent of the information we end up perceiving as flavour, he said, and while the nose does most of the heavy lifting in terms of sensory perception with food and drink, the other senses play their part.

To take the example of our well-made G & T, he said, the weight of a good glass in the hand suggests quality before we've even brought it all the way to our lips. The tinkle of nice big ice cubes in that glass may make us perceive it to be cooler than it really is. Done right, it should cleanse not just the mouth but also the nose and, perhaps more crucially, the mind, priming it for the courses to come.

Lighting, music, temperature and a host of other environmental factors, according to Professor Spence, all skew our perception of flavour. "The colour red, for instance, makes things seem sweeter to us." Perhaps the best known example of how this can be manipulated in a restaurant setting is the Sounds of the Sea, the seafood dish served with an accompanying seaside soundtrack at The Fat Duck in the UK, and Spence was one of the experts that chef Heston Blumenthal turned to when he was developing it. "Sound is the forgotten food sense," said the professor. "It's like a calorie-free seasoning."

The take-home message, he said, was to understand that we taste food and drink with our minds rather than our mouths, and that enterprising chefs and drink-makers can use this information to enrich our eating and drinking.

Thoroughly primed by a meal of Rockpool classics reinterpreted by chef Phil Wood, it was an idea the crowd seemed all too ready to embrace - as crossmodally as possible.

We ate Rockpool dishes new and old; standouts included Wood's palate-cleanser, a beetroot-spiked take on the gin Salty Dog cocktail, and his reworking of Rockpool's Burgundian chicken, which brought prawns and a liquorice split-butter sauce into play with devastating effect.

We drank Tanqueray and tonic, naturally. The house version of the quintessential palate-cleanser calls for 30ml of Tanqueray poured into a glass filled two-thirds of the way with ice cubes, topped with tonic (Capi in this case), rimmed and garnished with a wedge of lime.

We loved Hearing discussion of the orbitofrontal cortex and oral referral in the same breath as Dirty Martinis and jelly.

Catch Professor Charles Spence talking about neurogastronomy and Tanqueray at the Rockpool Classics pop-up at Rosetta in Melbourne on 19 November.

 

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