How to make Christmas taste absolutely first class by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University

Oxford Mail: Prof Charles Spence says a study shows people eat more mince pies in a room that smells, looks and sounds like Christmas Prof Charles Spence says a study shows people eat more mince pies in a room that smells, looks and sounds like Christmas

Wishing you a multisensory Christmas! Given that Christmas is almost upon us, many of my colleagues want to know whether my research on the topic of neurogastromony – applying brain science to the kitchen – is of any help when it comes to preparing the perfect Christmas dinner.

Now, while the heart of any great meal has always got to involve the best seasonal ingredients beautifully prepared, I believe it is the ‘everything else’ that really makes all the difference to how enjoyable that festive meal will be.

Our mood exerts a surprisingly large influence on our enjoyment of what we eat and drink – thus, making sure your guests are in jovial spirits may be one of the easiest ways of improving the taste of the food you serve.

Research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory here at Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology has shown how everything from the glass we drink from to the colour and shape of the plate we eat off can influence what we think about whatever we happen to be consuming.

Did you know, for example, that serving a dessert on a round white plate will make it taste 10 per cent sweeter than exactly the same food served on a square black plate?

The cutlery we choose to eat with also plays a surprisingly large role – generally speaking, the heavier the cutlery the better the food tastes.

While the material properties of the cutlery can also impart a subtle taste, it is really the perceived weight that has the biggest impact on our food judgments.

Beyond the plateware and cutlery, the atmosphere of the environment in which we eat and drink will also impact our judgments.

A Riesling wine will be rated as tasting sweeter under red lighting than under normal white light – as well as significantly more expensive.

It is the background music, though, that is the easiest aspect of the atmosphere to control – and it is also the one that exerts the largest impact on our experience of food and drink.

Foods are rated as tasting a lot more Christmassy if Jingle Bells or some other festive number is played in the background at mealtime.

Anyone who is watching their waistline should look out though – a few years ago we showed that people eat significantly more mince pies in a room that smells, looks and sounds like Christmas than in one that doesn’t. You have been warned!

There is also a world of synaesthetic music-wine matching to help entertain your guests this Yuletide.

For example, we recently conducted a series of music-wine pairing events with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Antique Wine Company in London.

We showed that people rated a Bordeaux wine as tasting significantly more enjoyable when paired with a heavy string quartet – something like Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 1 in D major, K285 – while a white wine such as Pouilly Fumé was more enjoyable when listening to Mozart’s Flute Quartet.

Many people will, of course, be tempted to bring out the bubbly to celebrate over the coming week or so.

The good news here, from our latest research on sparkling wine, is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a great-tasting glass of fizz.

In fact, when we subjected a group of experts to a blind taste test of seven sparkling wines – including six champagnes – varying in price from £18 to £400 a bottle, the experts preferred the taste of the £40 champagne to the one coming in at £400.

However, it is worth noting that there is a correlation between the weight of the wine bottle and the price paid for it.

Taking the selection of more than 600 bottles on offer at The Oxford Wine Company on Botley Road as an example, we found that you will, on average, get an extra 8g of glass for every extra pound you pay.

Thus encouraging your guests to serve themselves wine from the heaviest bottles you can find is probably the best way to improve their Christmas drinking experience.


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