Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Dans le Noir?

I'm walking in complete darkness into the unknown, my right hand on the shoulder of the stranger in front of me. I have no idea where I'm going, and am totally at the mercy of Cyril, my blind guide.

Twelve of us make up this strange human train. We keep calling out to each other for reassurance, scared by the prospect of both silence and darkness. I cling tightly to the shoulder in front. Cyril, at the head of the train, leads us slowly to our table, guiding our hands to our chairs.

I tentatively feel around me, comforted by the presence of the chair. It seems so solid in this world of uncertainty. Standing in the pitch black, I wait for instructions. I've never felt so vulnerable. Cyril tells us to sit down. I slowly feel my way around my chair and locate the table. It serves no purpose, but I keep my eyes open. It makes me feel safer.

The first few minutes are incredibly disconcerting. My natural reaction is one of mild panic. I want to be back in the safety of the light and wonder how I'll get through the next hour in the dark.

I'm at Dans le Noir? in Farringdon taking part in a blind tasting with a difference. A few days before I received a cryptic invite asking me to turn up at the restaurant at a certain time. All details were kept secret. Before we do the conga into the unknown, we’re given a talk about the five tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami; the elusive fifth taste.

Our sense of taste protects us from danger – newborn babies instinctively accept sweet liquids and spit out bitter ones as a safety mechanism, while salt drives the appetite, sugar gives us energy and umami protein.

Around 80% of our perception of flavour comes through our sense of smell. This is true in wine tasting, where it's an accepted fact that tasters get much more from a wine's bouquet than its flavour profile. So much so in fact, that aside from detecting body and tannins, you should be able to get a full picture of a wine’s character simply by smelling it.

Studies into how we taste are still surprisingly incomplete - there is currently no understanding of the mechanism for how tannin or metallic tastes are perceived. Our challenge tonight is to taste without the influence of vision, which has such a stronghold on perception. Vision begins the process of perception; it primes us. We can't help but be influenced by the way things look, and immediately attach our preconceived ideas onto them.

I've made it to the table and managed to sit down without injuring the tasters either side of me. I introduce myself in the dark - unsurprisingly, no hands are shaken. Cyril informs us we have six wines each – three reds and three whites. He asks us to locate them. I lunge my hand forward and knock one of the plastic glasses over, presumably all over my neighbour. I find it amusing that I can't see the spillage, and take to imagining a little river of wine cascading down the table.

I gently feel around the table and find my five remaining glasses. We're told to pick up the first and take a sip. It's simple, fresh and zippy – Sauvginon Blanc perhaps? I don't feel the darkness has widened my olfactory horizons, it just makes you focus on the wine more. The second white is far more interesting – it has a lovely complex nose and developed flavours. I think it might be Chardonnay.

On to the reds... The first is light, fresh and fruity - possibly a Tempranillo. As with the whites, they seem to move up in complexity, the second showing some lovely ripe fruit and vanilla sweetness, while the third is a full on vanilla bomb. Rich, rounded and creamy, with gorgeous black fruit, I'm pretty sure it's Syrah. It's absolutely delicious. Can you bring the bottle over? I joke to Cyril. The voices round the table seem to agree and soon the air is buzzing with superlatives.

After we've tried and rated the wines, we're presented with a bowl of food and are told to tuck in with our fingers. I feel my way around the edge of the bowl and dive in, greeted by an array of canapés. While the wines' aromas didn't seem particularly heightened, these appear the best canapés I've ever tasted. As I bite into each, my tongue rewards me with an explosion of flavour and texture. The cucumber is extra crunchy, the dill more dominant, the cheese more, well, cheesy. Dining in the dark certainly seems to bring out the best in the food. With nothing to distract you, all focus is on flavour.

With the experiment over, Cyril asks us to stand up. After an hour, I've got strangely used to the dark to the point where it feels like I can see. As humans, we seem to have a remarkable ability to adapt to almost any environment, but I'm relieved to be leaving the black hole.

My hour in the dark has given me a fresh perspective. It's the closest a seeing person will ever get to stepping into a blind man's shoes. The tables turn and it's the sighted people who have to rely on their blind guides, an experience I found truly humbling. Returning to the light, the six wines are unveiled. They're all Jacob's Creek – three Rieslings and three Shirazs. It turns out I have expense taste – my two favourites are the 2009 Steingarten Riesling and the 2004 Centenary Hill Shiraz.

I'm surprised to see the line up. Having all raved about the third red, with some guessing it was a top Rioja or Cal Cab, it's made me rethink my preconceptions about the brand, the old 'don't judge a book by it's cover' adage coming to mind. As clichéd as the saying is, there is truth in it. It's hard not to judge things by the way they look, just as it's hard not to judge a wine by the brand name on the label, but the more open-minded we can be, the more we will be continually surprised and impressed by what life flings at us. Nothing is ever as it seems.

No comments:

Post a Comment