How science influences our taste buds

Tim Philip's palate cleansing Spring Bramble cocktail.

Tim Philip's palate cleansing Spring Bramble cocktail. Photo: Daniel Boud

You wouldn't think that somebody with the title of neurogastronomist would have anything to do with the delightful morsel that you've just put on your fork. But, just like that old adage that you can get to a man's heart through his stomach (and mine through the offering of cake), the brain and the stomach are far more connected than one might think. This is the sort of stuff that neurogastronomist Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University in the UK gets excited about.

As a consultant to famously adventurous chefs Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria Professor Spence has a passion for pushing our taste buds. One of the most important ways to do this, says Spence, is through palate cleansing. And in this molecular gastronomy times it takes more than a melon ball to really do our palates justice.

We asked Professor Spence, who is in Australia for a series of dinner collaborations between Tanqueray gin and Rockpool restaurant about how to master the art of palate cleansing. 

1. Why is palate cleansing so important? What does it do to our taste buds? 


While great ingredients, freshly sourced and beautifully prepared is clearly always going to be the essential starting point to a great meal, it turns out that our experience of food is also determined by many other factors, such as our mood, the lighting, the background music, the company we keep, the cutlery we use etc. 

Hence, in order to make sure that we enjoy a great meal as much as we possibly can, it is important that we are prepared both mentally and physically to get the most out of the dishes. It is in that context that palate cleansing is so important. In my remit as a neurogastronomist, I firmly believe in a multi-sensorial approach to palate cleanser, with the perfect palate cleanser cleaning not only our tongue obviously, but also resetting our nose, and getting our brains ready for the upcoming experience. 

If we're talking about the quintessential palate cleanser, then I believe that a Tanqueray and Tonic has many of the characteristics that one is looking for here. On the one hand the slice of lime will help to quickly clean the mouth, and is in fact already used as the key flavour in many a restaurant palate cleanser (think citrus sorbet) ... I believe that the effervescent carbonation that tingles on your tongue from the tonic also plays a role in cleansing the palate, and the signature botanicals of juniper berry, coriander seed, angelica root and liquorice help reset your nose. All in all then, I would say that the perfect palate cleanser needs to work with all of a diner’s senses.


2. What is the best way to cleanse your palate? 

Well, I would say that the best palate cleanser needs not only to cleanse your tongue, but it also needs to cleanse or reset your nose. It turns out that 80-95% of what we all think of as the flavour of food and drink actually comes from our nose and not from our mouth. Hence, making sure you reset your nose is likely going to be at least as important as cleansing your tongue ... 

Ultimately, though, it is important to note that we actually experience flavours in our brain, and hence being mentally prepared for a great tasting meal is just as important as making sure your tongue has been cleansed. 


3. What is the best way to approach a tasting menu, scientifically speaking? 

In order to ensure a really great tasting experience, as when faced with a tasting menu, I think it is really important to be in the right mood.

Denis Martin, one of the 2 Michelin starred chefs I work with in Switzerland, makes sure to make his guests laugh, and hence improve their mood before he brings out the first dish on his tasting menu. Getting the company right is also important – who, after all, ever had a great meal when fighting with their dinner date?

Lighting and music, cutlery and plateware, in fact pretty much everything else that our brain picks up on while we are eating can influence the experience whether we realize it or not. And normally the heavier the better, be it heavy cutlery, heavy plateware, or the reassuring feel of the weight.

For a lovely palate cleanser it's tricky to go past Tim Philip's (from Sydney's Bulletin Place) Spring Bramble, 

35ml Tanqueray London Dry gin (or gin of your choice)      

 2/2.5 fresh strawberries

15ml lemon juice

15ml sugar syrup

20ml soda water

Crushed ice

Sprig of mint (to garnish)

Icing sugar (to garnish) 


Place strawberries in base of heavy bottomed glass.

Softly crush strawberries to release juice but do not completely mush.

Add crushed ice on top and add all remaining ingredients

The strawberries should be bright and sit at the bottom of the cocktail, the drink should have enough crushed ice to have a “frappe” look.    

Use your spoon is for churning the cocktail to release the flavour of the berries, but also to scoop out the fruit after you have finished your cocktail


Garnish with a sprig of mint and dressing of icing sugar