Philosopher of taste

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 7, 2009

CHINON, FRANCE -- France has always been a nation of philosophers. Descartes contributed rigorous thinking. Montesquieu and Voltaire inspired democracy, and Sartre made it cool to despair. It was inevitable, sooner or later, that along would come Jacques Puisais, philosopher of taste.

When Puisais philosophizes about taste, as he has been doing for decades, he does not mean a red tie goes with a gray suit. He means the magic that happens when the right wine is married with the right food, when lamb chops are grilled over smoldering grape vines and baked apples are caramelized just so for lunch with friends and family.

But one should not misunderstand. The philosophy of taste as practiced by Puisais is not the windy lyricism of restaurant reviews or wine labels. It is an effort by a trained scientist and irrepressible epicurean to document what happens when people experience food and wine and to educate them about how to make it a more authentic experience that reinforces their human bonds.

The precise moment when a 27-year-old Chinon red splashes over the taste buds in a warm wave following on a pink chunk of lamb just lifted out of the fireplace, Puisais notes, will never be reproduced. The ambient air will never be quite the same, he points out as he served a meal at his home here, not to mention the aging process of the wine. Nor will the disposition of the diners around the table on a gloomy fall afternoon in this easy-living provincial town 150 miles southwest of Paris.

But the memory of the moment will live on, coloring perhaps forever the idea of fellowship around such a Chinon wine or the odor of those lamb chops, Puisais says, and creating a mental framework for the next such experience. The analysis helps explain why people yearn to recapture the comforting taste of grandmother's rabbit stew or relive the raspy passage of a cold rosé drunk on a romantic afternoon.

"You can't sell taste," said Puisais, 82, who nevertheless makes a living giving speeches, organizing conferences and writing books about the phenomenon of taste. His latest work is titled, with no apology to Descartes, "I Taste, Therefore I Am."

"He who eats a radish, for instance, will he be in a good mood?" he continued, stoking his fireplace. "Will he eat it correctly, with a little butter from Charente to counteract the sting? I can't know that. But once we've eaten the radish, we can talk about it. And when we do, we can know one another. And once we know one another, we can appreciate one another, even love one another."

Puisais, the son of a wine merchant and a chemist who earned a doctorate in science, for three decades ran the local government laboratory that analyzes water, food and soil to guarantee against health hazards and support vineyards in the Loire region. But early on, he said, he began to understand that, although he could measure nutritional value and hygiene, chemistry was only one factor in the many things that made up taste. So he started his own lab within the lab, where he experimented with the ingredients of taste and began his long campaign to awaken French people -- particularly children -- to the importance of how things taste.

Rather than having pupils look in the dictionary to see what "fibrous" means, he sought to have them bite down on a boiled leek to experience the texture and taste for themselves. A book, "Taste In Children," led to the writing of a curriculum for classes in the local school system designed to awaken sensorial awareness among the young.

During the early 1990s, experimental classes in the philosophy of taste were undertaken in the national school system largely based on Puisais' guidelines. But the interest was temporary, and Puisais has been preaching his philosophy since then mainly to adults.

In 1999 he co-founded the Taste Institute, dedicated to research on sensory perceptions and eating habits.

In recent years, many of those who come to learn at Puisais' feet are from the United States, Japan and China. Alice Waters of the celebrated Chez Panisse in Berkeley has made the pilgrimage to Puisais' cosseted Chinon mansion. More recently, he was in Louisiana, where he made contact with a food impresario seeking help in setting up a "jazz menu" to combine Cajun style eating and listening.

In dealing with foreigners, Puisais has encountered difficulty in explaining an essential ingredient of wine, which French people call "terroir." It is a term that evokes the wine's attachment to the place it comes from and the traditions of the people who make it but which is not easily transferable to other cultures.

"In a glass of wine, there is as much air as earth. So terroir, it is the relationship between the two," Puisais said. "But you can't get it into English."

In France, among Puisais' students have been wine stewards who came to him to learn the art of matching wine and food. Some of France's most famous chefs, including Alain Senderens and members of the Troisgros family, turned to him for advice early in their careers. Puisais recalled sitting in Senderens' first successful restaurant, l'Archestrate in Paris, with a collection of two dozen wine bottles at his table, patiently marrying dishes and wines for a wine-focused menu.

"When I order for myself in a restaurant, I frequently choose the wine first," Puisais said, "then I choose food to go with it. And I insist that the garnish be separated from the main dish. Otherwise you are distracted by the mixing of tastes."

With his grilled lamb chops, however, Puisais happily served little lima beans, picked from his own garden and prepared by his wife, Suze. Whatever distraction he suffered seemed overwhelmed by the homey taste as he hummed appreciation across the table to Suze and chewed away. He smiled: "Aren't we content here like this?"

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