To taste the real flavour of your home cooking, savour your dining rituals
Make your dining experience, wherever you are, a beautiful one with a nicely set table, candles and gleaming glasses
Even the simple ritual of setting a table enables us to taste food better and focus more on taste. Photograph: Getty Images
There is an old rule in restaurants that says: “Make it beautiful.”
Of course, while this rule applies primarily to the food on the plate, a good restaurant will make it a reality in every aspect of its work. And it’s all done with very good reason: it makes going to a restaurant a theatrical experience, lifting it out of the ordinary.
Our reaction to beauty in this sort of situation is simple: it slows us down, it makes us pause, it makes us consider, it helps us to appreciate. You don’t rush through a museum, nor do you rush through the food courses in a good restaurant.
Beauty means that we take our time, aware of where we are and what we are doing. It maximises our pleasure.
I think the “Make it beautiful” rule needs to be brought into the domestic kitchen.
How many of us, however, have the time or energy to set the table nicely, to light a tea light, to make sure the glasses are gleaming? Try doing all that with tired children and ravenous teenagers bearing down on you, mad with hunger, after you have had a long, hard day at work.
A simple ritual
But new research shows that if we can advert to even the simplest ritual when we eat, we actually gain a great deal from it. What we eat tastes better, and we have more of a focus on what is on our plates, on what we are eating.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota and at Harvard University found that even breaking a chocolate bar in half, then unwrapping the first half and eating it, followed by unwrapping the second half and eating it, made the chocolate taste better.
That sounds bonkers, doesn’t it? Except when you consider that the simple act of breaking rthe chocolate into two pieces and eating them separately, rather than as one piece, is the key to two powerful things: ritual and delayed gratification.
And consider that the next time you are watching a television advert for chocolate or for ice cream. Watch how slowly the action moves, and how they play up the ritual of peeling the chocolate paper or the ice-cream wrapper.
Just think of the rituals you do in your own eating to give more pleasure.
My kids dunk their biscuits into their tea, playing “chicken” as they leave the biscuit in the hot liquid for as long as they dare before it disintegrates.
I drink coffee from white cups, and I don’t like coffee from dark cups. Do you eat cheese before dessert, or do you eat cheese after dessert?
I pour gin onto ice cubes to make a G and T, and don’t enjoy the drink as much if the gin is poured into an empty glass, with the ice cubes added afterwards, before the tonic goes in.
Centuries ago, the German scientist GC Lichtenberg put it like this: “How much depends upon the way things are presented in this world can be seen from the very fact that coffee drunk out of wine glasses is really miserable stuff.”
Unless, of course, that coffee in a wine glass has a shot of whiskey in it, and a collar of cream on top. Are you ready for an Irish coffee? You certainly are.
I think the smartest assessment of the power of ritual to increase the pleasure we find in food came from the great Cork vegetarian chef, Denis Cotter, of Café Paradiso. Many years ago Cotter wrote to me that: “Awareness, paying attention, noticing, is the first and most, most important step to enjoying food.”
So, savour your food rituals, no matter how barmy your family or friends consider them. When I see my children dunking a dry Weetabix into cold milk, when the rest of the cereal is submerged, I think they are crazy. And they don’t care what I think. They are just in that happy, enjoyable moment. That’s the way they do it, and it makes it all beautiful.
John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide.