The memory palace
Ned Palmer unpacks the emotional connections that can spark in a great pairing
Wednesday 15 September 2021
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The first really great glass of wine I had was a Muscadet. It’s not a fine wine, but give me a break, it was 1988, I was 16, and there wasn’t much interesting wine around in the UK back then. Until then, my experience of wine was limited to warm Chateau Garage Forecourt straight from the bottle on Putney Common.
It turns out that the late 80s were a good time to have your first try of Muscadet. Producers were trying out techniques more familiar to other types of wine like fermenting in oak and stirring the lees (the yeasts that settle to the bottom of a barrel or bottle during fermentation) to make this simple straightforward wine richer and more complex. Mind you I don’t think they needed to pull any of that fancy stuff with me. My friends and I were travelling in France on a college trip having the time of our lives. The weather was amazing, our teachers were exhibiting a fairly laissez-faire attitude, there was music with repetitive beats vibrating in the air, and plenty of booze. We arrived at the vineyard hungover, hot and a little subdued, and I can still experience with perfect recall that Muscadet, cold from the cellar, sharp, dry and slightly spritzy in its youth. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever drunk.
Twelve years later at Borough Market I had my first proper cheese: Gorwydd Caerphilly. I was there with its maker Todd Trethowan, having a go at selling it. I remember biting through the velvety grey rind to find a rich layer of breakdown (the creamy bit under the rind) and then the moist yet crumbly centre with its fresh citrussy burst of acidity. I don’t have any trouble remembering that moment because I became a cheesemonger as a result. But here’s the thing about flavour and memory: every time I eat a piece of Gorwydd – and that happens a lot – I am still transported to that moment of revelation.
One of my favourite cheese and wine matches of all time reminds me of one of my favourite sommeliers, the generous and talented Grant Hedley. He and I were researching a tasting - which involved drinking loads of wine and eating loads of cheese - when we stumbled on the pairing of Beenleigh Blue, a sweet blue sheep’s cheese with an element of tutti-frutti flavours, and Gonzalez Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado, an aged oxidised sherry heaving with darkness and burnt sugar. When consumed together, notes of hot metal, half smoked Cuban cigars, 1970s ice-cream and salted caramel mingle together. Now, whenever I have either Beenleigh or Apostoles, I enjoy the combination and I also think about Grant.
Cheese, Wine and Time Travel
A great piece of cheese or a smashing glass of wine can function as a time machine, using our memories of past moments to help us to recognise and label the flavours we are tasting now. Memories and the emotions tagged onto them can also help us to appreciate new and challenging experiences, and even overcome a previous aversion by laying down new happier memories over the old ones.
To explain how this works we’re going to have to do a little neuroscience, focusing on smell rather than taste. I’m sure you know our sense of taste only picks up sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami flavours. The really interesting stuff happens with aromatics. The great thing about smell is that while all the other senses are mediated by the hypothalamus, smell connects directly with an ancient and primitive area of our brain which is responsible for visceral reactions like ‘ewww that tastes of mould’ way before any rational stuff like ‘gee I’d better like this wine it cost me a fortune’.
For our purpose, two crucial structures in the brain are the hippocampus, which is involved in laying down episodic memories like my first glass of Muscadet, and the amygdala, which tags these memories with emotion. These structures evolved at a time when our ancestors only needed to think things like ‘sweet good, bitter bad’. Sadly they were not judging by whiffs of ammonia whether the Camembert had gone a bit over the top. These emotions were more like reactions, and tended to be simple and powerful - joy or disgust - hence our very powerful emotional reactions to memories of food and drink.
The other thing that makes our sense of smell so special is that it also connects directly to the newest and most sophisticated part of the brain, the neo cortex, an area that Gordon M. Shepherd, author of the dense yet rewarding Neurogastronomy, calls ‘the part of the brain that makes us human.’ My favourite function of the neo-cortex is its involvement in comprehending and producing language. This means, excitingly, that our apparatus for perceiving flavour is directly linked to the part of our brain we use to describe it.
“Your subconscious is much better at this than you are. Don’t get in its way.”
So let us look at what our brains can do for us as we try some wine and struggle to look cool and sophisticated in front of our friends by describing the flavours literally on the tip of our tongue. With a bit of practice you can consciously use those connections between memory, emotion and language to pick out and describe new flavours. Go into that VR world of your memory and take some time to see what that elusive aroma calls up. Are you at a gig in the Roundhouse with a pint of snakebite and black? Are you reminded of those heady, dramatic perfumes people used to wear in the 90s? When you’ve identified what you can smell, you’ve got to say it out loud straight away. Don’t be shy about saying something seemingly nonsensical like ‘wowee this wine tastes of punk-sweat, overripe apples and Opium!’ As one of my favourite cheese mentors, dairying teacher Jayne Hickinbotham used to say: “Your subconscious is much better at this than you are. Don’t get in its way.”
Making Better Memories
In 1999 I was preparing for the millennium celebrations on my friend Ed Donaldson’s vineyard near Christchurch in New Zealand. The vineyard, Pegasus Bay, is famous for its late bottled sweet Riesling called Aria. This was a problem for me because as a result of early experiences with cheap wine - nothing but tooth aching sweetness and a bouquet of anti-freeze - I was massively averse to anything remotely off-dry.
Thankfully, Ed is a very nice man with the patience of a saint and the palate of an angel, and what he did was to open a bottle of Aria, and talk me through what flavours to expect and why they were there. He told me about the mineral rich soil under Pegasus Bay and the combination of warm days and cool nights that lengthen the ripening period, building a backbone of acidity in the Aria which acts as a foil to that sweetness I used to find so challenging. The riesling grapes stay on the vine until they have developed botrytis, the noble rot fungus that adds richness, mustiness and honeyed complexity to dessert wines, and the grapes are pressed gently and allowed to ferment slowly so that they can express themselves fully. Ed set up my palate by telling me about all the aromatics, on top of sweetness, that I could expect from his wine, including but not limited to limes, peaches, even a bit of spicy ginger. I loved it. All it took was a bit of knowledge and care for me to change my mind and replace those bad memories with good ones.
It’s nice to think that when you’re having a glass of wine or an excellent cheeseboard with your friends you are laying down some vivid, easily recallable joyful memories. You can encourage this to happen. While you’re enjoying yourself, look around for a moment, using your other senses to register the sights and sounds, taking in the place you’re in and the people around you, laying down a good solid foundation for those memories and their associated flavours so that you can recognise them when they turn up again.
You could also do this when you’re about to encounter something you didn’t like before, as a way of soothing your apprehensive amygdala, in the same way that therapists encourage the practice of mindfulness in someone who is re-living past trauma. Ok, I’m not suggesting that a negative experience with a sweet wine or a washed rind cheese is all that traumatic, but every little bit of mindfulness helps as we reach towards a more joyful and fulfilling existence.
There is an old saying among neuroscientists: “neurons that fire together wire together”, which is to say that networks that get stimulated at the same time will tend to become more connected. So whenever you’re tasting something, thinking hard about what it reminds you of and, crucially, talking about this with your friends, you’re reinforcing the mental connections and ultimately becoming better at it. I’m quite good at picking out and describing flavours but I’m not special or clever, and I certainly don’t think I’m a super-taster. I’ve just been doing it for more than twenty years, and all those bits in my brain are now much more used to being connected.
Obviously having a couple of decades worth of wine and cheese memories is invaluable when it comes to picking out flavours, and I’m making more all the time. I’ve also made a lot of cheese over the years, and understanding the process and the science has definitely enriched my experience of eating it. Now you don’t have to become a cheesemonger or a sommelier to really appreciate cheese, wine and the pairing of both. The Academy of Cheese and the Wines and Spirits Education Trust offer really great courses, and you could even make some of your own. For that I would recommend Paul Thomas’s magisterial Homemade Cheese, and The River Cottage Booze Handbook. But whatever else you plan to do, here are four simple things you can start on straight away: eat a lot of cheese, drink a lot of wine, talk to your friends, lay down some happy memories.
Ned Palmer is a freelance cheesemonger, owner of The Cheese Tasting Company and author of A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, published by Profile Books and available now in paperback.
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