The Periphery of Taste

During my years in Belgium, four artists and I were invited by Joëlle Tuerlinckx to take part in a week-long symposium she initiated. One of the invited artists was the Belgian painter Filip Francis. He is especially known for his work in the 70’s and 80’s in which he mostly focused on thoughts and experiments based on the peripheral perception.

His practical approach to the topic is taken by painting a motive while looking at only one small fraction of the motive. He may paint the portrait of a woman, but may only look at her left hand. Viewing the finished work there will be a perfectly painted left hand, perfectly placed light, perfect lines and contrast, but only for the left hand. The more you look away from the hand, the more everything gets unfocused and distorted. A gradual progression from perfection up to distortion will take place in one single painting, based on his ability or disability to perceive the complete picture without looking at all of it. This procedure does not only show the aesthetics of such a spectrum, but it critically addresses visual limitations. It asks, not how far, but how wide we are able to perceive. Needless to say, one may simply enjoy looking at the abilities of the painter and admire the way he transports this idea into the canvas, but I find it much more challenging and important to consider our ability to see as much of what is in front of us and to exercise the widening of our periphery, and with that our horizon.

A widening of the periphery is possible through eye exercises, training the eye muscles while stretching them and thus achieving more horizontal clarity. In other words, the wider a plain in front of us stays sharp, the better and clearer we are capable of visually understanding places where we find ourselves. Peripheral widening of the vision increases our ability to be attentive, and attentiveness is one thing we truly need.

Here taste happens - the mouth's roof
Here taste happens – the mouth’s roof

It is solely our decision to stay satisfied with the taste of the strawberries we know well, with the type of asparagus we have already tasted, with the olive oil we have bought for many years, or to widen our palate experience. Many believe strongly in purism, something that attracts me often as well and at times imprisons me. It is however my believe that purism is much more the viewing or the remembrance of something proven and known to us, something subjective and of biographical origin, and not something truly pure and whole in taste. Our periphery of taste is usually at the mercy of our memories and of the disgust, compulsion or consistency connected to them. In this case I am not referring to the periphery due to alchemy and expansion through composition, but to periphery of a single picture, within the taste spectrum of a single fruit. I mean the openness I may be missing myself, when I visit a friend or a coffeehouse and my palate might be too fixed on that what it daily experiences and has learned to love, and thus unable to appreciate the momentary taste. A “Yuck!” means mostly the surprise reaction to a new taste and much less a true and objective unpleasant one.

Each picture – be it on a canvas or on the horizon – has a frame and all edibles provide a frame of taste. These frames are not necessarily given, they are not set to be equally readable by everyone, but each individual perceives them according to his very own capabilities. Experiencing an espresso in the mouth as an oil or essence for several minutes means to experience richness in the realm of small things. These are however not small things at all, for the frame could widely vary depending on our ability and willingness to be open for it.

coffee in the mortar

After testing various coffees and preparation systems, and after having dealt with the adjustment of the palate to the different tastes, is it fair to say that a bad coffee truly exists? A common filter system (like Melitta) is certainly not something I wish to call “good quality” coffee, but I do ask myself if “getting to know” a coffee taste in limited frames has anything to do at all with “knowing”, and if a constant widening of the periphery of the taste buds allows a term like “bad coffee”, or does it merely give room for recognizing ones preferred taste? To this I may answer that the more coffees I openly try, the more my array of taste combinations increase and the more I learn about the wide taste frame. The good and the bad tastes become simply various possibilities – increasingly so.

Science tells us that when we are looking at a large object, the muscles and the motion of the eyes are constantly scanning the object. The same occurs when we are looking at a landscape and with each move all eye muscles move simultaneously. Most important for these movements is the steering coming from the brain through regular impulses. This means that the eyes are not only scanning what is physically there but also what the brain thinks to see or wishes to see, according to its previously gathered information. What is there and what it being seen may not necessarily be the same. The brain may send information based on a reduced (or extended) perception of the physical object. Our lungs are as small as we use them while inhaling; our memory is as deep and long as we nurture it and wish to dwell upon it. If desired, one could drink an espresso out of a top of the line espresso machine. On the next day one may prepare a mocca, on the next a filter coffee, not at all to learn to appreciate lesser coffee quality and force them into our realm of acceptance, but to learn about the various possibilities in coffee and expand on these. It may be a gain, also a loss of time, in case repeatedly only a “yuck” were to take place.

An expansion of the periphery of taste has indeed taken place in our societies. Better said, we have discovered or recognized it. During the 17th and 18th centuries and up until the middle of this last century, it seems as though coffee had been only perceived as coffee, as long as it was not a substitute. Today this has changed. Not only do we have at times the possibility of choosing between two, three or more preparation systems in one singular coffeehouse, not only are we informed about specialty coffees like Jamaica Blue Mountain, Yirga, Kopi Luwak, Vilcabamba and many more, but the number of coffee sommeliers grows regularly. Coffeehouses increasingly offer fine Nuances to choose from and some customers know what to expect from a  “Yauco” (Puerto Rico), Turquino (Cuba), Shade Grown Colombia Nariño, Yrga (Ethiopia), while the Baristi offer to brew your coffee with 98° or with 95° to let you taste the difference the temperature makes. This is about increasing the possibilities of capitalizing on product quality and about the perception of the palate, making the taste periphery of coffee more conscious. We ought to know more about the diversity of coffee within our palate, learn to widen this frame and to challenge our tongues through tasting.

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