Revelations from a blind dinner

Sight and taste historically dominate in the kitchen. But the underestimated potential of smell, touch and hearing must be explored. Notes from a blind tasting at I Tigli in San Bonifacio

Pizza chef Simone Padoan and blind communicator Sa

Pizza chef Simone Padoan and blind communicator Salvatore Vaccaro, the protagonists of a formidable 'eyes closed' dinner at I Tigli in San Bonifacio (Verona) on the 6th of December

The history of cuisine and the five senses, what a changing and fascinating relationship. Summarising the subject - which deserves much more in-depth study - we could agree that, for almost all of the 20th century, the culinary aesthetic experience focused mainly on two senses, taste and sight.

In the priorities of every chef, palatability is naturally the conditio sine qua non. But in the cuisine of the last century, the appreciation of a dish is first a matter of sight and then of taste. Georges Auguste Escoffier, the theoretician of the classical school, knew this well: for him, beauty was a necessary premise of goodness. Indeed, the preparations in his recipe books contained ingredients that fitted together well first of all chromatically - think of the famous Peach Melba, a succession of colours from the pale yellow of a vanilla ice cream to the bright red of a raspberry coulis. And they were arranged on the plate in an orderly, geometric, harmonious manner. Beauty was a prerequisite for every tasting.

At the beginning of this millennium, Catalan Ferran Adria, in point ten of Bulli's manifesto, invited cooks to go beyond the tyranny of sight and taste. He asked them to focus equally on three historically neglected senses: smell, touch and hearing. Except for a few timid attempts in the early days, the invitation has remained virtually unheeded: objectively speaking, very few chefs today think about making inroads into the nose, fingertips and ears of those sitting at the table. But the challenge could open up interesting horizons and possibilities, not only for the kitchen.

We realised this on Tuesday 6th December, during an extraordinary eyes-closed dinner orchestrated at I Tigli in San Bonifacio by host Simone Padoan and Salvatore Vaccaro, press office for important chefs and pizzaioli in Rome like Gabriele Bonci, Gianfranco Pascucci and Pierdaniele Seu. Originally from Crotone, Vaccaro has been blind since birth. He organises these blind events to raise awareness of a disability that is still talked about too little and to bring together people held back by hard-to-die taboos. A professional with a rare intelligence and irony. We will return to this after the chronicle of the evening.

Before the service, Padoan and Vaccaro darkened the restaurant's large windows with black curtains and switched off all the lights in the dining room and kitchen, creating almost total darkness. This was the prologue to an enlightening dinner in the half-light, punctuated by a series of 'pizza' tastings (in inverted commas because this is not just any pizza, but slices of that revolution with which the Veronese chef/pizzaiolo, more than two decades ago, extended the genre's attention far beyond Neapolitan horizons). In order to guess the flavours, it was necessary to sharpen senses that we normally neglect: touch, hearing and smell. Ironically, taste too, which we realised is also a victim of the tyranny of sight. We have collected a series of notes, which may serve as the start of much more complex reflections.
 - Sitting at the table in the darkness, the first sense to guide us was touch. Where is the napkin? Is the plate a plate or a saucer? Is it a soup plate or is it flat? Is there a tumbler or a goblet behind it? What cutlery have they placed? In our initial bewilderment we were comforted by the voice of Vaccaro, the evening's special guide. ‘Try to guess what you will taste,' he explained, 'and don't worry if you can't. Whoever makes it wins a car trip with me. I'll drive.’ Jokes that played down and soothed the understandable bewilderment. Next to Salvatore, Simone Padoan nodded, for once a customer of himself: ‘I haven't sat in my own restaurant for decades,’ he explained excitedly.
 - That evening at I Tigli there were no knife and fork: if you eliminate the tool separating taster from food, you encourage a more direct tactile experience, free of intermediaries. And you raise an anthropological question: does the presence of cutlery, the intermediary between you and the taster, promote or depress the overall enjoyment of food? In the case of pizza, it depresses it because squeezing, palpating or crumpling a slice with your fingers is undoubtedly an accelerator of enjoyment (and after all, it is the hidden secret of every street food speciality).
 - The first service was water and wine. We thought: how will the waiters pour into the glass without splashing? And serve the right amount? The brigade led by Eva Gallo was as if remote-controlled by invisible directions: no smearing, despite the fact that they were operating for the first time under those conditions. Over the course of the evening we tasted three wines: Sassaia 2016 (Garganega grapes), So San 2012 (Tai Rosso) and Recioto di Resto, all natural wines from Angiolino Maule's La Biancara. How many did we guess? None.
 - The first slices arrived. You instinctively sniffed and thought that you were so unaccustomed to doing so that the scents in your nose only returned a generic information: 'fish cooked in some way'. Thank goodness, but which one? Sea bass perhaps. Cod? 'Monkfish', someone dared from another table (who knows which one). It actually looked quite fat. The correct answer was soaso, i.e. smooth turbot from the Adriatic. Impossible to guess in the dark. But next time it will be easier.
 - It couldn't have been just fish on that slice. To understand better, you began to violate the rules of bon ton: you sniffed the topping with your nose, licked the surface, palpated and squeezed the contents. Gestures you would never do in broad daylight: manners, we thought, are also a product of our video-centric culture.

 - And the dough? Light as can be. Orthodox, say, or with barley or corn. The latter, crunchy, was quite clear, also because we know Padoan's passion for the genre so it doesn't count. In the meantime, an interesting thought came to mind: in the darkness, you focus again on the toppings of a pizza, much less on the dough. Exactly the opposite of the analytical trend of the last decade, which has imposed a great deal of attention on the air bubbles, the degree of cooking of the dough. Which world do we prefer? The first of the two.
 - Another important note was related to the crunchiness of the dough: hearing has a big impact on the overall enjoyment of a tasting. This is well known by those who engineer industrial potato crisp packets, which are already crispy to the touch. How many chefs recognise and apply this principle?

 - The second slice served was a Pan bagnà which, we later discovered, carried clams, cabbage and bottarga (that there were muscles appeared quite clear to the taste, the rest was not). 'Under normal conditions,' Padoan explained, 'I wouldn't serve a wet dough because people wouldn't like it. In the darkness, on the other hand, yes'. Darkness is more tolerant than light.
 - Darkness also greatly encourages complicity between unfamiliar diners: people talk to each other without barriers between tables. Does disorientation encourage socialisation? Or is it the sight that sows shame and generates distance? Questions still unanswered but interesting.

 - The lacquered eel over the next slice was blatant even to us. Not so was the mustard salad it came with. Here is a theme, the indecipherability of vegetables in the dark: it is not only the cooks who are untrained to appreciate the food genre of the future, but also the tasters. Who often do not distinguish in the dark between a savoy cabbage and a kale but discern very well chicken from duck because our diet is based on animal protein, the undisputed queen of the table. For how much longer?

 - The next pizza is Dall'Orto, and we discover now that we are clutching the menu in our hands, included ribs, radicchio (the only one detectable by its self-evident bitterness), pumpkin and onion. Unbelievably, the latter two were not anyone's guess. The onions were very delicate and so was the pumpkin. In the light, the pumpkin would stand out for its colour, orienting the very contents of the tasting. Once again, sight directing taste.
 - Next up: Pigeon with broccoli fiolaro. That this was the fine dining iconic bird was clear from the smell, the tactile inspection and the fact that I was sharing the table with pigeon-expert Gianluca Biscalchin. Caught up in the enthusiasm of having guessed, I took a bite of the thigh part with the bone: cooks in the dark, 'watch out' not to serve inedible parts, you might get salty dentist's bills.
 - Conclusion. We are a video-centric race: that is, light is a prerequisite for knowledge in Western culture, and the dining experience is no exception. The importance we assign to sight, however, generates glares so strong that they overshadow the explorations of the other senses, which are depressed by their lack of use. Temporarily depriving oneself of light imposes forgotten attentions, awakens faculties and knowledge that evolution has shrunk.

‘At the beginning of the experience,’ Vaccaro explained at the start, to much applause, ‘everyone is rather bewildered and some even panic at the darkness. But at the end of the meal they often tell me that they feel like better people’. This is our case. Is this a possible way of innovation in the kitchen? We ask ourselves as we wash our hands before leaving. They are so dirty that it is as if we had come out of a garage.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

Zanattamente buono

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Gabriele Zanatta

born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since 2007, he is a contributor for several magazines and teaches History of gastronomy and Culinary global trends into universities and institutes. 
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