When it comes to creativity, it's important to have a constant stream of inspiration to draw from. If we choose to pay attention to them, our senses can offer bucket loads of material as we move through each day hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Paying attention to our senses helps us live in the moment, excites our curiosity, and can make us more in tune with our natural impulses. However, so many of us—myself included—go through our days without really feeling much of anything. To deepen my own awareness, my plan is to write a post on each of our senses, explaining some ways that we can focus more intently on that sense and wake ourselves up to the variety of experiences around us. Hopefully they'll help you too.
What are some of your favourite tastes? When you eat them, do you power through like it's your first meal in months, or do you sit and quietly savour the flavours and textures? Do you chew carefully or do you swallow big bites nearly whole? Thich Nhat Hanh recommends chewing your food until it gently slides down your throat in an effort to be more mindful. It sounds gross to chew that much, but when I tried it even a simple hamburger became a thrill to eat. Tasting can be an art of its own and it's easy to lose yourself in all the amazing flavours of wine, cheese, coffee, or chocolate. Are you willing to let yourself get lost?
I worked in a high end chocolate store for a few years, and part of our job was tasting the competitors' chocolate and comparing it with our own. We learned how to do a proper chocolate tasting to get the most out of the fine ingredients and I still love finding and trying new brands and giving in to the sensory experience. Here are some steps you can use to try it yourself:
- Choose your chocolate. I prefer dark chocolate—70% and up—but you can choose any chocolate you want! I especially love single origin, which means that all the cocoa in the bar comes from a single country, or even from a single plantation, because I find that the flavours are more intricate and interesting. Valhrona makes amazing single origin bars, though they're pretty costly. For something more middle of the road, I really like Green and Blacks organic chocolate. Whatever you choose, make sure it's at room temperature because cold will mask the flavour.
- Clear away distractions and get comfortable. Trust me, you don't want to be interrupted while you do this! Turn off your phone, shut the door, cozy up with a soft blanket and keep the music turned off as well. You want your sense of taste to take centre stage here (thought we will actually be using all our senses to appreciate the chocolate).
- Take a piece of chocolate and break it in two. What sort of sound does it make? A crisp, clean snap is one of the indicators of quality. Smell the chocolate. What does the smell remind you of? Look at the colour of it. What colours can you see? Is it pure black? Does it have a red tinge?
- Bite a small piece off and let it melt in your mouth. Without chewing it, smush it all around your mouth so that it touches different parts of your tongue. What do you notice? Is it sweet or bitter? What kind of texture does it have? The more cocoa butter it has the easier it melts, which is much nicer than a dry chunk that just sits there. See if you can identify any general flavours. Is it fruity or more like caramel? Smoky or tangy? Then see if you can identify specific flavours. This takes a lot of practice and I'm still not that good at it, though I like to pretend I can. Is that hint of fruit more like a raisin or a cherry? Is there a hint of coffee in there?
- If you really want to get creative (and of course you do!) eat a small piece of chocolate with your eyes closed and see what images come to mind. This is especially fun if you're trying different varieties in one sitting. I did a tasting session on my own once where one of the bars made me think of a large man in a tweed suit with a cigar, while the other evoked the image of a red skirt twirling against a blue sky. Take those images and write a story or draw a picture inspired by them. At the very least, write down everything that you've noticed so you can compare it with other kinds.
Once you start tasting chocolate this way you won't want to do it any other way. It turns something simple into a decadent experience.
I've become super detached from my food lately, shovelling it in without paying much attention to what it is or how much of it I'm eating. In an attempt to eat a more reasonable amount of food and be more mindful about it, I'm trying not to watch TV or read while I'm eating. I realized that I basically never eat without either a TV or book in front of my face and it's an incredibly hard habit to break. But, I definitely eat less, and I can better appreciate the scents, textures, and flavours of what I'm eating. This won't be a permanent habit, but it's worth trying! I've found a few foods are especially fun to devote your full attention to: oranges, for the bursts of citrus that hit your nose as you peel them and bite into the juicy flesh; pomegranates for the vibrant colour, the careful way you have to pick each jewelled aril out of its nest, and the pop of tangy juice; and fried chicken for the crispy skin, tender meat, and all the nooks and crannies you can explore.
Need more ideas for exploring taste? Think about some of your most memorable meals. Are there any specific flavours that stand out? Most of my food memories are associated with travel: the first time I had chocolate mole sauce at a restaurant in the Southwest US, the nutty, peppery dish called Aji de Gallina and the sharp bite of ceviche in Peru, learning the different between sweet and smoky whisky in Edinburgh... I could spend hours in these memories. Think about your own food memories and give yourself permission to be overwhelmed by them.
If you live in a foody-friendly city, organize a taste-testing tour. We did a walking tour of Portland that stopped at a huge variety of places like a Korean food truck, a spice store (where we tried 5 different kinds of salt), a restaurant devoted to oysters, and a brewery. Here in Edmonton, a local organization recently organized a coffee tour and when I was visiting a friend in Montreal, she took me to try all her favourite chocolatiers. Gather some friends an go explore an ethnic neighbourhood, or order small plates at a variety of restaurants.
What are your favourite flavours? Do you have any rituals for helping you to savour them? Leave a comment below!