Guardian Weekend – Part of a series of 6 articles on taste and cooking with co-author Peter Barham
There is a world where sugar is orange, honey is yellow and saccharine is a violent shade of pink.
That world is the one inhabited by sufferers of synesthia – those few people whose neuronal connections between the tongue and the brain have become miswired, so that they experience taste as something quite different from the way in which most of us experience it. Some may experience taste as colour. One sufferer, an American art teacher, perceives tastes as shapes. When he eats a chocolate mint pie, it generates in his mind a set of smooth cylindrical columns that he can fondle voluptuously as he eats.
The closest that most of us get to fondling our food, though, is licking the mixing bowl. The very act reflects the fondness for sweet things that we were born with. Mother’s milk is loaded with lactose, a sweet sugar, and we never lose the taste.
In former times, sweet things were believed to have special powers. Traditional love potions, such as marzipan with rosewater, almonds and honey, or cinnamon, ginger and vanilla buds in rhubarb juice, had sweetness as one of their virtues. They certainly sound better than raw snails’ necks, another popular mediaeval aphrodisiac.
Sugar, now the most commonly used food sweetener by far, was a precious possession in the middle ages. It was thought to have such healing powers that only apothecaries were allowed to sell it (by the ounce!), and someone who lacked the necessities of life was described as an apothecary without sugar.
There is still some belief in the restorative powers of sugar, as in the joke card that reads “If found depressed, please administer chocolate.” For a quick energy burst, there’s nothing to beat sugar. It may have only half the energy content of fat, but it is a lot more pleasant to eat in bulk, and the sugar enters the bloodstream more quickly and makes its energy available more quickly.
Sugar, though, has developed a bad reputation. The calories that it gives are “empty”, we are told. That’s a fair enough criticism if we are using sugar for most of our energy, and not otherwise eating a balanced diet, but a good chef will surely have provided a balance of essential nutrients with the previous courses. The sweet course, the one that takes us back to our childhoods, is, as it were, the icing on the cake.
Many people now look to fruit sugars, milk sugars, malt sugars and honey to provide the sweetness. These are often perceived to be more “natural”, but it’s hard to see why. Beet and cane, sources of most of the world’s sugar, are simply plants, after all, even if their sugar has been well purified. All of the sugars are actually very similar in chemical structure and energy content, although they don’t all have the same degree or quality of sweetness. Artificial sweeteners are very much sweeter and less fattening, but don’t have the same qualities for cooking.
When sugar is heated in cooking, funny things can happen, even in such a simple dish as the humble meringue. This contains no more than egg white (a protein solution) and sugar, but when the whipped mixture is heated the outside develops a brown colour. What’s going on is the Maillard reaction, a very complex reaction between sugars and proteins that produces thousands of different new chemicals with different flavours. After that, the type of sugar used originally hardly seems to matter at all.
Most of the original sugar is still there, though, and still conveying the original sweetness. It does so by attaching to receptors on the tongue that recognise the shape of the individual sugar molecules. Once a molecule is attached, the receptor sends a message to the brain that lets it know what’s going on. As with the other tastes, it’s the brain that eventually does the tasting.
Sweetness isn’t the only property that sugar can give to a food. At high concentrations, as in jams and honeys (not to mention meringues) it acts as a preservative, tying up any water so that it is unavailable for bacterial growth. To a bacterium, a pot of jam is a desert rather than a dessert.
To us, though, sweetness is the primary objective. But can you get it without adding ever more sugar? Here’s a demonstration suggested by Shirley Corriher, doyen of American food writers, at a recent meeting of scientists and chefs. Next time you are making cakes or a batch of sweet scones, do your cooking in two batches, one of which has a pinch of salt added to it. You won’t taste the salt, but the sweet taste of the sugar will be remarkably enhanced in the batch that contains it. Try it on your friends and see the sweetness!
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