Knives Make Cheese Salty: How Taste is Affected by our Other Senses
Here's a fascinating round-up of sensory research from Discover involving our favorite foodstuf:
Previous research has indicated that showing subjects "geometically sharp" objects before having them sample cheese contributed to the subject's perception of cheese as tasting sharp; a case of a sensory metaphor affecting actual sensory perception. Scientists at Oxford University wondered if the perception of sharpness could actually transfer to cheese to eating utensils, which, after all, are a sharp class of objects.
Interestingly, when they tested this theory on a pair of cheeses, cutlery shape didn't seem to have an affect on sharpness--subjects reported cheese was equally tangy, whether served from a spoon, fork, toothpick or knife. But cutlery did affect the flavor. In the specific case of the knife, it changed the apparent saltiness of the cheese. This was an unexpected result. After all, why would eating off a knife make cheese saltier?
They don't know yet, but they're looking into it; the researchers speculate that subjects might associate eating cheese from the knife with visiting a cheese shop, where the cheeses, on the whole, are older and therefore saltier. But that's just a guess, and one that may only apply to British folks with specific cultural experience. Which goes back to the original and fascinating premise that our sense of taste is culturally mediated, something both unsurprising but very subtle.
Another interesting wrinkle in the expectations department: test subjects who'd heard the term "sharp" applied to cheese before the experiment tended to value that quality. The tests were performed with two separate cheddars, a mild young cheese, and a sharper aged sample. The so-called experienced tasters tended to give the older cheese higher marks in sharpness and enjoy it more than the younger one--another example of how knowledge and expectations can shape flavor. Or as the immortal Anonymous wrote:
I eat my peas with honey;
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.