by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Commented by Magnus Lindkvist
Table of Contents
What is Taste
Taste is the sense which communicates to us a knowledge of vapid bodies by means of the sensations which they excite.
Taste, which has as its excitement appetite, hunger and thirst, is the basis of many operations the result of which is that the individual believes, develops, preserves and repairs the losses occasioned by vital evaporation.
Organized bodies are not sustained in the same manner. The Author of creation, equally varied in causes and effects, has assigned them different modes of preservation.
Vegetables, which are the lowest in the scale of living things, are fed by roots, which, implanted in the native soil, select by the action of a peculiar mechanism, different subjects, which serve to increase and to nourish them.
As we ascend the scale we find bodies gifted with animal life and deprived of locomotion. They are produced in a medium which favors their existence, and have special and peculiar organs which extract all that is necessary to sustain the portion and duration of life allotted them. They do not seek food, which, on the contrary, comes to seek them.
Another mode has been appointed for animals endowed with locomotion, of which man is doubtless the most perfect. A peculiar instinct warns him of the necessity of food; he seeks and seizes the things which he knows are necessary to satisfy his wants; he eats, renovates himself, and thus during his life passes through the whole career assigned to him.
Taste may be considered in three relations.
In physical man it is the apparatus by means of which he appreciates flavors.
In moral man it is the sensation which the organ impressed by any savorous centre impresses on the common centre.
Considered as a material cause, taste is the property which a body has to impress the organ and to create a sensation.
Taste seems to have two chief uses:
1. It invites us by pleasure to repair the losses which result from the use of life.
2. It assists us to select from among the substances offered by nature, those which are alimentary.
In this choice taste is powerfully aided by the sense of smell, as we will see hereafter; as a general principle, it may be laid down that nutritious substances are repulsive neither to the taste nor to the smell.
It is difficult to say in exactly what the faculty of taste consists. It is more complicated than it appears.
The tongue certainly plays a prominent part in the mechanism of degustation — for, being endued with great muscular power, it enfolds, turns, presses and swallows food.
Also, by means of the more or less numerous pores which cover it, it becomes impregnated with the sapid and soluble portions of the bodies which it is placed in contact with. Yet all this does not suffice, for many adjacent parts unite in completing the sensation — viz: jaws, palate, and especially the nasal tube, to which physiologists have perhaps not paid attention enough.
The jaws furnish saliva, as necessary to mastication as to the formation of the digestible mass. They, like the palate, are gifted with a portion of the appreciative faculties; I do not know that, in certain cases, the nose does not participate, and if but for the odor which is felt in the back of the mouth, the sensation of taste would not be obtuse and imperfect.
Persons who have no tongue or who have lost it, yet preserve the sensation of taste. All the books mention the first case; the second was explained to me by an unfortunate man, whose tongue had been cut out by the Algerines for having, with several of his companions, formed a plot to escape from captivity.
I met this man at Amsterdam, where he was a kind of broker. He was a person of education, and by writing was perfectly able to make himself understood.
Observing that his whole tongue, to the very attachment, had been cut away, I asked him if he yet preserved any sense of taste when he ate, and if the sense of taste had survived the cruel operation he had undergone.
He told me his greatest annoyance was in swallowing, (which indeed was difficult;) that he had a full appreciation of tastes and flavors, but that acid and bitter substances produced intense pain.
He told me the abscission of the tongue was very common in the African kingdoms, and was made use of most frequently to punish those thought to be the leaders of any plot, and that they had peculiar instruments to affect it with. I wished him to describe them, but he showed such painful reluctance in this matter, that I did not insist.
I reflected on what he said, and ascending to the centuries of ignorance, when the tongues of blasphemers were cut and pierced, I came to the conclusion that these punishments were of Moorish origin, and were imported by the crusaders.
We have seen above, that the sensation of taste resided chiefly in the pores and feelers of the tongue. Anatomy tells us that all tongues are not exactly alike, there being three times as many feelers in some tongues as in others. This circumstance will explain why one of two guests, sitting at the same table, is delighted, while the other seems to eat from constraint; the latter has a tongue but slightly provided. These are recognized in the empire of the taste — both deaf and dumb.
Sensation of taste.
Five or six opinions have been advanced as to the modus operandi of the sensation of taste. I have mine, viz:
The sensation of taste is a chemical operation, produced by humidity. That is to say, the savorous particles must be dissolved in some fluid, so as to be subsequently absorbed by the nervous tubes, feelers, or tendrils, which cover the interior of the gustatory apparatus.
This system, whether true or not, is sustained by physical and almost palpable proofs.
Pure water creates no sensation, because it contains no sapid particle. Dissolve, however, a grain of salt, or infuse a few drops of vinegar, and there will be sensation.
Other drinks, on the contrary, create sensation because they are neither more nor less than liquids filled with appreciable particles.
It would be in vain for the mouth to fill itself with the divided particles of an insoluble body. The tongue would feel by touch the sensation of their presence, but not that of taste.
In relation to solid and savorous bodies, it is necessary in the first place for the teeth to divide them, that the saliva and other tasting fluids to imbibe them, and that the tongue press them against the palate, so as to express a juice, which, when sufficiently saturated by the degastory tendrils, deliver to the substance the passport it requires for admission into the stomach.
This system, which will yet receive other developments, replies without effort to the principal questions which may present themselves.
If we demand what is understood by sapid bodies, we reply that it is every thing that has flavor, which is soluble, and fit to be absorbed by the organ of taste.
If asked how a sapid body acts, we reply that it acts when it is reduced to such a state of dissolution that it enters the cavities made to receive it.
In a word, nothing is sapid but what is already or nearly dissolved.
The number of flavors is infinite, for every soluble body has a peculiar flavor, like none other.
Flavors are also modified by their simple, double, or multiple aggregation. It is impossible to make any description, either of the most pleasant or of the most unpleasant, of the raspberry or of colocynth. All who have tried to do so have failed.
This result should not amaze us, for being gifted with an infinite variety of simple flavors, which mixture modifies to such a number and to such a quantity, a new language would he needed to express their effects, and mountains of folios to describe them. Numerical character alone could label them.
Now, as yet, no flavor has ever been appreciated with rigorous exactness, we have been forced to be satisfied with a limited number of expressions such as SWEET, SUGARY, ACID, BITTER, and similar ones, which, when ultimately analyzed, are expressed by the two following AGREEABLE and DISAGREEABLE, which suffice to make us understood, and indicate the flavor of the sapid substances referred to.
Those who come after us will know more, for doubtless chemistry will reveal the causes or primitive elements of flavors.
Influence of Smelling on the Taste
The order I marked out for myself has insensibly led me to the moment to render to smell the rights which belong to it, and to recognise the important services it renders to taste and the application of flavors. Among the authors I have met with, I recognise none as having done full justice to it.
For my own part, I am not only persuaded that without the interposition of the organs of smell, there would be no complete degustation, and that the taste and the sense of smell form but one sense, of which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose the chimney; or to speak more exactly, that one tastes tactile substances, and the other exhalations.
This may be vigorously defended; yet as I do not wish to establish a school, I venture on it only to give my readers a subject of thought, and to show that I have carefully looked over the subject of which I write. Now I continue my demonstration of the importance of the sense of smell, if not as a constituent portion of taste, at least as a necessary adjunct.
All sapid bodies are necessarily odorous, and therefore belong as well to the empire of the one as of the other sense.
We eat nothing without seeing this, more or less plainly. The nose plays the part of sentinel, and always cries “WHO GOES THERE?” Close the nose, and the taste is paralyzed; a thing proved by three experiments any one can make:
1. When the nasal membrane is irritated by a violent coryza (cold in the head) the taste is entirely obliterated. There is no taste in anything we swallow, yet the tongue is in its normal state.
2. If we close the nose when we eat, we are amazed to see how obscure and imperfect the sense of touch is. The most disgusting medicines thus are swallowed almost without taste.
3. The same effect is observed if, as soon as we have swallowed, instead of restoring the tongue to its usual place, it be kept detached from the palate. Thus the circulation of the air is intercepted, the organs of smell are not touched, and there is no taste.
These effects have the same cause, from the fact that the sense of smell does not co-operate with the taste. The sapid body is appreciated only on account of the juice, and not for the odorous gas which emanates from it.
Analysis of the Sensation of Taste
Principles being thus determined, I look on it as certain that taste has given place to sensations of three different orders, viz: DIRECT, COMPLETE and REFLECTED.
Direct sensation is the first perception emanating from the intermediate organs of the mouth, during the time that the sapid body rests on the tongue.
Complete sensation is that composed of the first impression which is created when the food abandons this first position, passes into the back of the mouth, and impresses all the organ with both taste and perfume.
Reflected sensation is the judgment which conveys to the soul the impressions transmitted to it by the organ.
Let us put this system in action by observing what takes place when a man either eats or drinks. Let a man, for instance, eat a peach, and he will first be agreeably impressed by the odor which emanates from it. He places it in his mouth, and acid and fresh flavors induce him to continue. Not, though, until he has swallowed it, does the perfume reveal itself, nor does he till then discover the peculiar flavor of every variety. Some time is necessary for any gourmet * to say, “It is good, passable, or bad. It is Chambertin, or something else.” [* Any gentleman or lady, who may please, is at perfect liberty to translate the word gourmet into any other tongue. I cannot. As much may be said of gourmand.– –TRANSLATOR.] It may then be seen that in obedience to principles and practice well understood, true amateurs sip their wine. Every mouthful thus gives them the sum total of pleasure which they would not have enjoyed had they swallowed it at once.
The same thing takes place, with however much more energy, when the taste is disagreeably affected.
Just look at the patient of some doctor who prescribes immense doses of black medicine, such as were given during the reign of Louis XIV.
The sense of smell, like a faithful counsellor, foretells its character. The eyes expand as they do at the approach of danger; disgust is on the lips and the stomach at once rebells. He is however besought to take courage, gurgles his throat with brandy, closes his nose and swallows.
As long as the odious compound fills the mouth and stuns the organ it is tolerable, but when it has been swallowed the after drops develop themselves, nauseous odors arise, and every feature of the patient expresses horror and disgust, which the fear of death alone could induce him to bear.
If the draught be on the contrary merely insipid, as for instance a glass of water, there is neither taste nor after taste.
Nothing is felt, nothing is experienced, it is swallowed, and all is over.
Order of the Impressions of Taste
Taste is not so richly endowed as the hearing; the latter can appreciate and compare many sounds at once; the taste on the contrary is simple in its action; that is to say it cannot be sensible to two flavors at once.
It may though be doubled and multipled by succession, that is to say that in the act of swallowing there may be a second and even a third sensation, each of which gradually grows weaker and weaker and which are designated by the words AFTER–TASTE, perfume or fragrance. Thus when a chord is struck, one ear exercises and discharges many series of consonances, the number of which is not as yet perfectly known.
Those who eat quickly and without attention, do not discern impressions of the second degree. They belong only to a certain number of the elect, and by the means of these second sensations only can be classed the different substances submitted to their examination.
These fugitive shadows for a long time vibrate in the organ of taste. The professors, beyond doubt, always assume an appropriate position, and when they give their opinions they always do so with expanded nostrils, and with their necks protruded far as they can go.
Enjoyments Due to the Taste
Let us now look philosophically at the pleasure and pain occasioned by taste.
The first thing we become convinced of is that man is organized so as to be far more sensible of pain than of pleasure.
In fact the imbibing of acid or bitter substances subjects us to sensations more or less painful, according to their degree. It is said that the cause of the rapid effects of hydrocyanic acid is that the pain is so great as to be unbearable by the powers of vitality.
The scale of agreeable sensations on the other hand is very limited, and if there, be a sensible difference between the insipid and that which flatters the taste, the interval is not so great between the good and the excellent. The following example proves this:— FIRST TERM a Bouilli dry and hard. SECOND TERM a piece of veal. THIRD TERM a pheasant done to a turn.
Of all the senses though with which we have been endowed by nature, the taste is the one, which all things considered, procures us the most enjoyments.
1. Because the pleasure of eating is the only one, when moderately enjoyed, not followed, by fatigue.
2. It belongs to all aeras, ages and ranks.
3. Because it necessarily returns once a day, and may without inconvenience be twice or thrice repeated in the same day.
4. It mingles with all other pleasures, and even consoles us for their absence.
5. Because the impressions it receives are durable and dependant on, our will.
6. Because when we eat we receive a certain indefinable and peculiar impression of happiness originating in instinctive conscience. When we eat too, we repair our losses and prolong our lives.
This will be more carefully explained in the chapter we devote to the pleasures of the table, considered as it has been advanced by civilization.
Supremacy of Man
We were educated in the pleasant faith that of all things that walk, swim, crawl, or fly, man has the most perfect taste.
This faith is liable to be shaken.
Dr. Gall, relying on I know not what examinations, says there are many animals with the gustatory apparatus more developed and extended than man’s.
This does not sound well and looks like heresy. Man, jure divino, king of all nature, for the benefit of whom the world was peopled, must necessarily be supplied with an organ which places him in relation to all that is sapid in his subjects.
The tongue of animals does not exceed their intelligence; in fishes the tongue is but a movable bone, in birds it is usually a membranous cartilage, and in quadrupeds it is often covered with scales and asperities, and has no circumflex motion.
The tongue of man on the contrary, from the delicacy of its texture and the different membranes by which it is surrounded and which are near to it announces the sublimity of the operations to which it is destined.
I have, at least, discovered three movements unknown to animals, which I call SPICATION, ROTATION and VERRATION (from the Latin verb verro, I sweep). The first is when the tongue, like a PIKE, comes beyond the lips which repress it. The second is when the tongue rotates around all the space between the interior of the jaws and the palate. The third is when the tongue moves up and down and gathers the particles which remain in the half circular canal formed by the lips and gums.
Animals are limited in their taste; some live only on vegetables, others on flesh; others feed altogether on grain; none know anything of composite flavors.
Man is omnivorous. All that is edible is subjected to his vast appetite, a thing which causes gustatory powers proportionate to the use he has to make of them. The apparatus of taste is a rare perfection of man and we have only to see him use it to be satisfied of it.
As soon as any esculent body is introduced into the mouth it is confiscated hopelessly, gas, juice and all.
The lips prevent its retrogression. The teeth take possession of it and crush it. The salva imbibes it; the tongue turns it over and over, an aspiration forces it to the thorax; the tongue lifts it up to suffer it to pass. The sense of smell perceives it en route, and it is precipitated into the stomach to undergo ulterior transformations, without the most minute fragment during the whole of this escaping. Every drop every atom has been appreciated.
In consequence of this perfection, gourmandise is the exclusive apanage of man.
This gourmandise is even contagious, and we impart it without difficulty to the animals we have appropriated to our use, and which in a manner associate with us, such as elephants, dogs, cats, and parrots even.
Besides taste requiring to be estimated only by the value of the sensation it communicates to the common centre, the impression received by the animal cannot be compared to that imparted to man. The latter is more precise and clear, and necessarily supposes a superior quality in the organ which transmits it.
In fine, what can we desire in a faculty susceptible of such perfection that the gourmands of Rome were able to distinguish the flavors of fish taken above and below the bridge? Have we not seen in our own time, that gourmands can distinguish the flavor of the thigh on which the partridge lies down from the other? Are we not surrounded by gourmets who can tell the latitude in which any wine ripened as surely as one of Biot’s or Arago’s disciples can foretell an eclipse? The consequence then is that we must render to Caesar the things which are Caesar ’s and proclaim man the great GOURMAND OF NATURE, and not be surprised if the good Doctor does sometimes as Homer did:—”Much zumeilen ichlafert der gute.”
Method of the Author
As yet we have treated the taste only from the physical point of view, and in some anatomical details which none will regret, we have remained pari passu with science. This does not however conclude the task we have imposed on ourselves, for from its usual attributes especially does this reparatory sense derive its importance.
We have then arranged in analytical order the theories and facts which compose the ensemble of this history, so that instruction without fatigue will result from it.
Thus in the following chapters, we will often show how sensations by repetition and reflection have perfected the organs and extended the sphere of our powers. How the want of food, once a mere instinct, has become a passion which has assumed a marked ascendency of all that belongs to society We will also say, how all sciences which have to do with the composition of substances, have agreed to place in a separate category all those appreciable to the taste; and how travellers have followed in the same pathway when they placed before us substances nature apparently never meant us to see.
We will follow chemistry to the very moment when it penetrated our subterraneous laboratories to enlighten our PREPARERS, to establish principles, to create methods and to unveil causes which had remained occult.
In fine we will see by the combined power of time and experience that a new science has all at once appeared, which feeds, nourishes, restores, preserves, persuades, consoles, and not content with strewing handsfull of flowers over the individual, contributes much to the power and prosperity of empires.
If, amid the grave lucubrations, a piquante anecdote, or an agreeable reminiscence of a stormy life drips from my pen, we will let it remain to enable the attention to rest for a moment, so that our readers, the number of whom does not alarm us, may have time to breathe. We would like to chat with them. If they be men we know they are indulgent as they are well informed. If women they must be charming. * [* Here the Professor, full of his subject, suffers his hand to fall and rises to the seventh heaven. He ascends the torrent of ages, and takes from their cradle all sciences, the object of which is the gratification of taste. He follows their progress through the night of time and seeing that in the pleasures they procure us, early centuries were not so great as those which followed them: he takes his lyre and sings in the Dorian style the elegy which will be found among the varieties at the end of the volume.]
This Second Meditation is one of the most famous of Brillat Savarin and, definetely, crucial for us Cognac lovers.
Savarin meditates or, if you prefer, considers the subject of taste in depth, with the intellect alert and all the power of the mind in tension. Few timea has a writer gone so far "amid the grave lucubrations" to reflect upon our senses and their interaction with the mind. In the Meditation IX On Drinks we Cognac lovers can have plenty of food for thought, but Savarin hover mostly on a psysical, merely phisiological plane, while here he hints at much more complex considerations.
I think that to comment on Meditation II I'd need more space than the one below Savarin's text, unless the web page becomes some sort of unending medieval roll. That's why I'll produce a particular separate page in whicch I can deal not only with the analysis of Savarin's text but also some "grave lucubrations" about today's world of gastronomy and the gourmets of the 21st Century.
And then, focus on what is happening in the world of Cognac today. Beyond E-commerce, beyond brands, XO vs Extra, fantasies about Borderies, fairy tales of Napoleon, marketing, phony tasting, counterfeit Cognacs and emerging country brandies. Beyond the market, beyond the consumer, there are persons, men and women who challenge their senses to enter a journey of the mind, the merciful experience of the own body through the senses. That's my world of Cognac.
I'l put the link here in a couple of days.
Until then, cheers to you all.
Cheers with this unbelievable Delamain Vesper, the essence of time.