You might remember my previous attempt at making hot ice-cream — the ice cream that you poach in hot water and then it melts as it cools to room temperature. It worked, technically, but I wasn’t happy with the flavour since it just tasted like cream cheese, which, you know, doesn’t taste like ice-cream (unless you have cream cheese ice-cream, I guess, but who has that? That’s right, no one. Well, some people, but they’re not the sort of people I want anything to do with).
So I went on the quest to develop a hot ice-cream recipe that tastes like normal vanilla icecream. And after some experimentation and various mishaps, ye gods, I think I’ve actually done it.
Jack at Homologous Legs happened to tweet about the old recipe at one stage, saying that he’d be all for it if the hot ice-cream was in iced chocolate, as opposed to the iced coffee I’d put it in to make the reverse affogato. And I thought yes, that’s a good point. So in this iteration of the recipe, I changed the lovely bath in which the hot ice-cream resides from iced coffee to a cinnamon chocolate frappé. Just because I can. (But methylcellulose also thickens at low temperatures as well as 50°C+ temperatures, so the frappé is going to cause the ice-cream to melt and then solidify again, which I pretend is all part of the thrilling and dynamic dining experience.)
So there you go. Hot ice-cream that melts as it cools. It’s kind of amazing and it defies the senses.
You know else is kind of amazing and defies the senses? (Behold the world’s most stunning segue.)
For those of you who have the unfortunate circumstances of not knowing about the mind-melting amazingness of synaesthesia, it is a condition in which perception of a stimulus in one modality is experienced in an additional modality. What does that mean?
Well, imagine that every time you heard a dog bark, your visual perception was spontaneously and involuntarily tinged with purple.
Or imagine that as you read this blog, you’re visually experiencing a relentless cavalcade of colours with each different letter you look at.
That happens to synaesthetes — they experience a vivid and completely involuntary cross-over between senses (and possibly cognitive systems). And there are different kinds of synaesthesia involving cross-over between different senses and cognitive processes such as language processing. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is the one where people experience a colour in association with different letters or numbers (e.g. the letter A conjures up the perception of red or is perceived as being inherently red). Sound-colour synaesthesia is the one where hearing a particular noise or even a particular note on a musical instrument causes the synaesthete to experience a particular colour. And studies have shown that these particular associations (such as A = red or dog barking = purple) generally remain steady over the synaesthete’s lifetime. So play a B-flat on a cello for a synaesthete and perhaps they see orange, then come back 25 years later and play that B-flat on a cello again and ask them what colour they experience — it’ll be orange.
But within the scope of the neuroscience of taste perception, one type of synaesthesia is just lobe-explodingly interesting: lexical-gustatory synaesthesia. When people with this synaesthesia hear or read or even think a particular word, they consequently experience a particular taste. Not just that, but words conjure up the sensation of taste and temperature and texture in the mouth (perhaps not surprising to those of you who remember when I discussed the primary taste cortex in this post and mentioned that some neurons in the primary taste cortex fire preferentially to particular food temperatures and textures as well as tastes).
It’s estimated that less than 0.2% of the population experiences this lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, so it’s pretty uncommon and it’s difficult to research when there are so few potential research participants (damn it, I find it hard to get research participants and all I need are right-handed males aged 18-40). But here are some of the word-taste associations that lexical-gustatory synaesthetes experience, according to the literature…
- “for synaesthete JIW, the word jail floods the mouth with the taste of bacon”
- “for SKM, the word dean evokes the precise and consistent notion of minced beef in gravy”
- “for synaesthete JG for example, the name Adrian tastes of lettuce coated with Caesar salad dressing, and for CS, part tastes of chicken noodle soup”
- “for JIW, the words message, college and edge all taste of pork-pie/sausage meat”
- “tambourine is very crumbly biscuit”
- “for synaesthete JIW, words containing /k/ tend to taste of egg/yolk, e.g. accept, York, chuck, fax“
- “for example, Alessandro tasted of ‘fried potatoes’ and gave the smell of ‘burnt wood’”.
- “for example, for JIW, the non-word spluk tastes of yoghurt, and so does its near-neighbour luck“
- “for LAS, for example, beef tastes of ‘horrible overcooked, dried-out beef’”
- “for JIW, the word this tastes of bread soaked in tomato soup, while the name Philip tastes of unripe oranges”
- “for participant GS, the word clue tastes of ‘cold, leftover potato scraps with congealing pot-roast gravy’”
Pretty specific, huh? And kind of, well, unpleasant in some cases. I’m in no hurry to taste congealing pot-roast gravy, never mind have it forced upon me by my brain every time I read Nancy Drew (I’ve never read Nancy Drew, but what if I wanted to? What if I wanted to?!).
You might have guessed from those little excerpts the direction in which lexical-gustatory synaesthesia research has headed — what are the specifics of a word that mean it’s associated with a taste? Are there generalisable trends within each synaesthete, e.g. do words that sound the same generate similar tastes? And what about made-up words — do they generate a taste? And if they do, why? More, tell me more!
Well, to start with, one thing is pretty straight forward — if something has a taste, the word for that something will generally taste like that something. So the word asparagus conjures up the taste of asparagus. It might be the taste of over-cooked asparagus for one synaesthete and raw asparagus with freshly ground pepper for another, but generally there is a pretty blatant link between food words and their respective food tastes.
Another of the most clear-cut findings is that sometimes there are obvious associations between parts of words and the name of what they taste like. For example, “cinema tastes of ‘cinnamon rolls’ (JG), Jackson tastes of ‘Cracker Jacks’ (both MZ and CS), village tastes of ‘vanilla slice’ (SKM), and dogma tastes of ‘hotdogs’ (DMS).” So there’s some sort of word-association going on here based on key sounds and letter groups within a word.
It also seems like particular sounds within words might be the point that the taste association clings to. That’s why message, college and edge taste of sausage meat (the /dzj/ sound in all of them and in sausage) and things with a /k/ sound taste of egg yolk to JIW.
This all kind of makes sense, but what would you predict would happen with made-up words, non-words? These do generate tastes in the synaesthete, even if the synaesthete has never encountered them before. It looks like non-words associate with a taste based on how similar they are to real words. For example, if presented with the non-word keach, a lexical-gustatory synaesthete might experience the taste that’s usually associated with beach or teach. Even non-synaesthetes can see the similarity between those words, but synaesthetes might have a broadened sense of word similarity, in that a word like spluk results in the taste that’s usually associated with luck, even though spluk and luck are technically very different words.
Despite there being very few individuals with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia to study, there are a few papers out there on the topic that suggest some very interesting theoretical underpinnings for this type of synaesthesia, and some incredibly nifty experiments have gone down. I will, however, go into that another time (well, in my next post).
In the mean time, just reflect on the fact that you are not currently tasting lumpy gravy or cold potato skins or oily salad dressing while reading this. If you were anything like the synaesthete JIW, you would be experiencing tastes in response to 56% of words from your own speech, the speech of others, inner speech and reading. An almost constant parade of tastes…
Personally, my strategy would be that I’d memorise a list of all the words that don’t generate a taste, then try to speak and think exclusively in those words, just for a little respite. Think of it as being like that guy who wrote a story that didn’t contain the letter E. So… difficult… I think… hi… how do you do today… do you… want to… stuff into your mouth… hot rich dairy product? Look down for… instructions…
Read on for the recipe for hot vanilla ice-cream in cinnamon chocolate frappé.
Hot vanilla ice-cream
1 tsp vanilla paste (or extract)
pinch of salt
25g Texturas Metil methylcellulose
Note: If you use a methylcellulose other than Metil you may have to experiment a bit with the percentages as the ratio of methylcellulose to liquid in order to set as a gel might be different. For example, Methocel apparently has to make up 2% of the overall mix for setting, but I’ve found Metil has to be at least 5% of the overall mix, perhaps due to having a “methylcellulose base”, which I guess implies that there is less methylcellulose in Metil than in Methocel. Also be aware of varying temperatures at which the methylcellulose enables setting — Metil and Methocel are around 50-55°C whereas others are above 60°C.
Blend mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and salt in food processor. Put water in a small saucepan, bring almost to the boil, and whisk in the methylcellulose until dissolved and the liquid goes cloudy. Add to the food processor and blend with the mascarpone mixture. (Don’t over-blend or you will aerate the mixture too much and it will break apart during cooking.) Pour into a bowl, cover in cling wrap, then place in the freezer for 10 minutes. Transfer to fridge and leave overnight for the methylcellulose to soak.
Bring a medium-sized saucepan 3/4 full of water to the boil over high heat. Scoop the mascarpone mixture with a spoon, trying to make a ball the size and shape of a scoop of ice cream. Place this carefully in a large plastic ladle. Reduce the heat to low and carefully submerge the mascarpone scoop in the water. Keep it submerged for 3 minutes. After the first minute, it will detach from the ladle (if it doesn’t, jiggle the ladle it a little so that it does). Make sure the heat is low enough so that the convection currents don’t move the scoop about too much. Once the 3 minutes are up, remove the scoop with a slotted spoon, drain as well as you can, and place it on a plate. Have the frappé mixture below in bowls ready to go (you might want to make the frappé mixture just before you start poaching the ice cream and then keep the frappé mixture in the freezer until the poaching is finished).
Cinnamon chocolate frappé
70g dark chocolate
1/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups ice
Break the chocolate into pieces and put it with the milk in a bowl. Microwave on high for 20 seconds, stir with a fork for a minute or two, microwave again on high for 15 seconds, then stir again until completely smooth. Leave for 15 minutes to cool a bit.
Place all the ingredients in a blender and pulse until the ice is broken down and you get, well, a frappé consistency.
Distribute the frappé between two bowls. Put a scoop of hot, freshly poached ice cream into each bowl and serve.
Simner, J. & Haywood, S.L. (2009). Tasty non-words and neighbours: the cognitive roots of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia. Cognition, 110, 171-181.
Simner, J. & Logie, R.H. (2007). Synaesthetic consistency spans decades in a lexical-gustatory synaesthete. Neurocase, 13(5), 358-365.
Ward, J., Simner, J. & Auyeung, V. (2005). A comparison of lexical-gustatory and grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22(1), 28-41.