It was the jam that did it – the fabulous Ten-Minute Raspberry Jam that I was making with the haul of fresh raspberries I’d brought home from a gathering expedition when we were shooting the final episode of my TV series The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures.
I grabbed a spoonful to test without realising it was still very hot. Whammo – it was burn, burn, burning hot. Etiquette (and my thoughts for the clothes I was wearing) demanded I couldn’t just spit it out, so I badly scalded not just my tongue but the inside of my mouth.
Painful, yes, but worse was the fact that I couldn’t taste anything for over a week. My poor tastebuds were nuked, all 10,000 or so of them rendered inert. The pleasurable transactions that eating usually delivered to my brain were shut down, and I was cast into a world without flavour.
It’s not until you can’t taste anything that you realise how much pleasure all those little olfactory sensors deliver.
Earlier this year I was teaching a class in Amsterdam and a woman came along who suffers from the rare condition of ageusia. This is the complete inability to taste (the reduced ability to taste that I was suffering is known as hypogeusia). She had to rely completely on exact recipes in order to cook, and take whatever pleasure she could in the textures of different foods. She loved to cook and entertain, and had over the years come to accept the loss of this key sense and just get on with creating pleasure for other people. I could not imagine losing forever the pleasures of taste – my life is all about flavour.
For years we were taught that the tongue was a flavour map charting out the different tastes selectively with "sweet" registering on the tip of the tongue, "salt" taste buds on either side of the front, "sour" taste buds behind this and "bitter" way in the back. Where umami (savoury deliciousness) sat I was never quite sure. But now we know the entire tongue can sense all of these tastes more or less equally. Just try tasting salt on the tip or the back of your tongue – it’s salty wherever you put it.
As we get older we produce fewer taste buds and so start to lose our sense of taste – hence we seek more salt to enhance the flavour of foods. Children, on the other hand, are highly taste-sensitive with their virginal taste buds, and this is why they often like very plain food and are resistant to exotic or unusual flavours – it’s all too intense and overwhelming.
When you are a foodie you kind of expect your children will be adventurous eaters, but mine were absolutely not. I spent several years despairing when one of them only wanted plain boiled pasta, and the other mashed potato and chops or sausages. If I put anything green or unusual on the plate they would be under the table howling.
Luckily, somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14 both of them came right and turned into adventurous eaters with curious palates. And now we can explore the world of flavours together and take pleasure in the many different languages of food from other cultures. Hopefully without burning our tongues along the way!