One of Slow Food’s aims is to promote and develop teaching activities on sensory education and food culture. Over the years, it has offered a significant response to the growing demand for attention towards quality agroindustrial products and helped to disseminate knowledge about food-related issues.
Since 1993, Slow Food has collaborated with teachers in schools to educate children and youngsters to use their senses as an instrument of knowledge, and to convey to them the importance of food and eating. Hence the concept of taste as culture.
When we say a person has ‘good taste’, it’s a way of acknowledging their way of dressing, their way of behaving – in short, their way of being. ‘Good taste’ manifests itself in daily choices, from the most complex to the most simple. But isn’t it odd that we should speak about ‘taste’? The word is obviously intended to sum up all our various capacities for perceiving the world.
In the collective imagination, taste is the most important sense. But if we analyze the senses we actually use to make choices and formulate judgments in the food and wine field, we see that this is not the case at all. If we go to the supermarket to buy a mint-flavored syrup, many of us would tend to opt for a bottle of green-colored liquid. Yet if we stop and think about how the stuff is prepared, we realize that the green color can only come from a food coloring agent – the syrup is really transparent in origin. In our choice, sight thus surpasses the senses.
We often try the following experiment/game in elementary schools. We take a few jars of yogurt and a few harmless, tasteless food coloring agents (yellow and green, for example). We thus have three samples for tasting: one natural white, one yellow and one green. The child has to taste the three samples, using his or her senses (sight, smell and taste) to describe and assess them.
The results can be curious. Some children perceive different flavors and smells. They tend to associate the color yellow with citrus fruit flavors (lemon, orange) and green with minty scents. Hardly anyone agrees about the degree of sweetness, which they find different in each single sample. Very few children say that the three samples are identical and the ones who do get their legs pulled by their companions. All are invariably amazed when we explain that the only difference is in the color – that flavor and smell are absolutely identical. Here we have proof of the fact that, since it’s almost always sight prevails, it is necessary to educate people to use their other senses consciously and learn to formulate proper judgments.
Only by stimulating the use of all five senses can consumers learn to be critical, attentive and curious, capable of distinguishing between products worth buying and products thatare best left on the counter.
This is the purpose of the taste education Slow Food promotes through its tried and tested Taste Workshops (present at virtually all its major events), the tasting sessions on the Master of Food courses (which envisage a syllabus of lectures on 20 different food and wine-related subjects) and the initiatives in schools like the one described above.
Alberto Arossa is a coordinator of the Slow Food Master of Food courses