TOURS, France -- Erotic eating is not exactly Jacques Puisais' line of work, but the French wine connoisseur is recognized as something of an expert on the subject.
He insists that everything affects the sensory pleasure of a meal, even the color of the wallpaper, the scenery through the window and the shape of a wine glass.
Not long ago he was drinking coffee while someone in the next room was cutting fabric. Puisais felt it necessary to put sugar in his coffee, which he rarely does. The aggravated sound of the scissors made his coffee taste bitter, he told a conference of food and wine sensualists here recently.
A chemist who analyzes Touraine wines for the French government, Puisais is vice president of the International Union of Oenologists (they study wine) and president of the equivalent French society. But he also is a founder of the 5-year-old French Institute of Taste, an organization of chefs, scientists, professors and gourmets devoted to improving the art of taste, and hence, gustatory pleasure.
They contend that what is eaten should both reflect and manipulate the environment in which it is served. That maximizes the esthetic enjoyment of sitting at the table, of it ignored, ruins it.
"We eat two meals every day -- why should they be dreary?" said the portly Puisais. "If the goal of life is to be comfortable and feel good, why waste the experience of a meal? That is why I say cuisine ought to be 'erotic'".
The French Institute of Taste conferees, nearly all of them men, probed their topic with due gravity. The Gallic gastronomes flinched at a research report that only 13 percent of the French have sensitive palates. The same scholar delivered the still worse news that 30 percent of the population -- presumably none present -- can hardly distinguish bitter from sweet.
Each individual has his own gustatory preferences, in the same way as he may choose rock and roll over Mozart or Reubens over Dali. Puisais calls taste the "undeveloped sense." Like art and music appreciation, it has to be learned and cultivated, he says.
A person may prefer bitter or salty or acidic or sugary foods, a characteristic Puisais contends is related to the overall personality. "If you like creamy dishes, you probably like leather and pillows or a soft shoulder to lean on," he said later, glancing inquisitively over his pince-nez.
"What tastes best is extremely person. Like the choice of slippers, to each his own."
Puisais' laboratory analyses for the French government have identified external influences on taste, such as geography, the time of day, the gustatory "cultivation" of the participants and what they intend to do after the meal. Some of this is common sense. Diplomats at lunch and lovers at dinner probably would not hope for the same sensual satisfaction from their choice of cuisine.
Other factors are more esoteric. Puisais, alas, says he cannot serve ordinary pot-au-feu (beef stew) in his Italian Renaissance dining room because the ornate decor and the simple peasant food would clash on his palate. b
In his sensory workshop here, Puisais and his colleagues test these theories on experienced tasters. They alter humidity, temperature, light, colors, china, crystal and linens. Green light for example, accentuates the taste and scent of white wines but has no effect on red wines, their studies show. White wines seem to smell stronger under red light but taste weaker under blue. Cigarette smoke diminishes the flavor of red wines and loud music turns everything unpleasant.
Puisais, who has written a book on wine tasting, applies the same rules to food.
He presents these findings to elementary school age children and adults in workshops. After a week at an Institute of Taste seminar, one man with awakened tastebuds repainted his kitchen. "I discovered that blue walls turned red meat bitter," he said earnestly. The new color is mellow yellow.
"A meal is a mise-en-scene," said Puisais, who cooks his own." The inspiration is artistic. The dishes are an expression of the person who prepares them like a painter who searches for what he wants to say on his canvas.You must experiment and you will fail. Eventually you will create the erotic in your eating."
A suitable "sensual" dinner for youths in jeans would center around a casserole dish which everyone helps prepare -- like cous-cous, Alsatian sauerkraut or paella. "Be sure to add a garlic clove, then lick your fingers," Puisais advises. "That's part of the fun."
Two women meeting in autumn to recount their summer excapades might begin a meal with a glass of port, followed by oysters and a bottle of dry Muscadet. "Oysters plunge you into the past," Puisais has decided.
Champagne, a beverage of detente, would nicely inaugurate a small dinner party of close friends, he said, Foie gras, "an expression precious and very sensual," with Sauterne; pot-au-feu and a "young, enticing" red wine and a blue cheese or roquefort with a sweet Anjou or sparkling Vouvray wine complete his suggeested menu.
Puisais, who has the luxury of walking home for lunch and shopping in tempting open-air markets where a cut of meat is sliced off the animal carcass in his presence, has a bland view of the level of culinary sensory appreciation in the United States. The enjoyment of food is "ruined by the fear of germs," indicated by the packaging of nearly everything, he insists. Further, mass production of food which has limited variety has drastically curtailed the potential sensory corncopia.
"You cannot develop your sense of taste if you eat cafeteria food prepared for 100 or 200 people," said Puisais, who has already announced he will fry a steak with shallots in the midst of three other "light" courses for lunch. Grabbing a hot dog or a sandwhich is "not even eating," he says. "They exist merely to avoid a cramp in the stomach."