Dining in the dark

Pól Ó Conghaile tries a sample of Italian Cicchetti or canapés at the blind tasting event at Pacino's.

So just how much does eyesight determine the flavour of food? Pól Ó Conghaile pulls on a blindfold for a tasting menu with a difference.

NIGELLA Lawson is back. After her controversial court appearances, she’s back on her screens in The Taste, a show that proves just how much we eat with our eyes.

The realisation dawns as I follow in her footsteps and sit blindfolded in a Dublin restaurant. I fumble with a small piece of bread at the centre of my plate, gauging the shape and texture of a cool, mousse-like topping. I pick it up cautiously, noting a sliver of wet fruit as a garnish.

My first impulse is to smell. Deprived of sight, I’d thought my taste buds would be in overdrive. Instead, I feel compelled to touch and sniff. I absorb the lumpy graininess of the bread, the fishy whiff of the topping, the sweet slitheriness of the fruit. Touch seems to capture the sensation of the food. It orients me.

I take a tentative bite. There’s the unmistakable flavour of smoked salmon. Another bite takes my teeth through the fruit. It’s got to be strawberry, playing against the velvety notes of the salmon.

Pretty sure of my diagnosis, I write it down (illegibly) on a piece of paper.

“Everybody finished? Ok, take your blindfolds off!”

A whack of brightness hits my pupils. Around me, dozens of diners are doing the same, raising their blindfolds, regaining their bearings, re-acquainting themselves with eye contact — the way you might if a light was switched on in a darkened room.

The chatter goes up a gear. Able to see one another again, to sense body language, we’re free to share our thoughts on what passed our lips, how it made us feel.

“That was brown bread with organic smoked salmon and strawberry,” announces Luca Mazza, head chef at Pacino’s. He outlines the five basic components of taste (sweet, salt, sour, bitter and savoury). Deprived of sight, he says, we’ll become much more aware of each. “That’s the easy bit over,” he adds. “It’s getting more complicated from here.”

The next dish tastes almost like a mushroom tapenade. There’s something strangely chocolatey between the topping and the cracker, however. I’m stumped, until someone at the next table squeals: “Nutella!” Of course! But I still can’t place the mushroom.

That’s because it isn’t mushroom. “It was actually aubergine,” Mazza says. “In Italy, we even make ice cream with aubergine.”

I’m embarrassed. Aubergine is one of my favourite vegetables, but I was way off. Without the visual cue of that distinctive purple skin, I’ve been completely fooled.

I’m reminded of a classic study from the early noughties, when researchers from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) used an odourless dye to turn white wine red. They then asked 54 wine experts to describe the smell of the altered wine.

Remarkably, all described the wine as red (using descriptors like chicory, blackberry and clove), suggesting that visual information plays an enormous role in smell and taste.

“This is something we haven’t seen in Dublin before,” says Emily Cunnane of Yelp Dublin, the online city guide. She devised the blind tasting event together with Pacino’s and The Makers, a community management agency, with the aim of getting Yelpers out exploring. “Each event we do is dreamt up to show off the best of the business that hosts it,” she says. !”

It’s not the first of its kind (The Dylan Hotel holds Dine in the Dark events for the Irish Guide Dogs charity, and the Club House Hotel staged a similar “sensory dining” evening as part of the recent Savour Kilkenny food festival). But it is certainly different. And what’s more, it’s free.

Cunnane’s other events have included a sushi masterclass at J2 Grill & Sushi, a backyard bizarre at The Bernard Shaw, and cocktail and manicures at Tropical Popical. I like that they’re taking Yelp into real life, coaxing users beyond their comfort zones to discover cool local businesses.

Pacino’s is hopping. I arrive to find food bloggers, Yelpers and random guests chatting excitedly against a backdrop of rustic brick, a busy bar and vibrant photos from Italy.

After an ice-breaking aperitif, we take our places. Blindfolds will be worn for each of six courses, (though we can remove them between courses). Food will be served on crackers, minimising the chance of mayhem, and pens are provided to write down our thoughts.

“The idea is that the removal of one sense will help to heighten the rest,” explains Ann Lowney of The Makers. With that, the sensory shenanigans begin.

The transformation is profound. It’s not just that the room has gone black. Deprived of the ability to see, I feel surprisingly insecure. I’ve lost my bearings. I worry about knocking over glasses.

It’s extraordinary how much communication relies on eye contact and body language. I can’t see, but it feels as if I’ve lost some of my hearing ability too. I strain to take in what people are saying, even when they address me directly (and loudly). All nuances have vanished. “The interesting thing was how hard it was to have a conversation with the people around me,” says a fellow diner, Laura McDonnell of The Dublin Diary (thedublindiary.blogspot.com).

“We could normally chat for Ireland, but with our eyes closed it was all silence,” she continues. “Never underestimate body language! Also, it’s odd, but there’s something weirdly intimate about talking to someone with your eyes closed! Or maybe I’m just freaky!”

The next dish comes with a warning: “Don’t smell it.” I understand why when I smell it (the urge to cheat is irresistible). It’s a honking cheese, oozing all over the cracker.

But what kind of cheese? Again, I’m stumped. The pong reminds me of Milleen’s, a washed-rind cheese made from cow’s milk on the Beara Peninsula... but there’s a sweet mouldy whiff. I can’t decide. One thing I am sure about, however, is the accompanying red onion marmalade.

“It was gorgonzola,” Mazza reveals. Obvious? Maybe with your eyes open.

By now, the conversation is flowing. There’s a lively mix of guests at my table, ranging from food bloggers to supper club hosts and a broadcaster recording for Dublin City FM.

“There was the moment of silence when people start eating,” recalls Yolène Dabreteau, a lifestyle and food blogger at Crème de Citron (cremedecitron.com). “Then, there was a sudden buzz around the room with everybody trying to guess the flavours... and the occasional laughter when my friend across the table drank my glass of wine in the dark.”

I also find myself questioning my attitude to presentation.

For me, the way a dish is assembled constitutes a huge part of a good restaurant experience — I love subtly creative compositions, and I find sloppy-looking food off-putting, even before I taste it. Needless to say, when I’m blindfolded, that’s all taken away. I can’t tell whether the food looks amazing or abysmal. It all comes down to how it feels, smells and tastes.

The remaining dishes are a mix of easy (a milky mozzarella cheese with mint and strawberries) and testing (pan-fried mushrooms pan-fried with chilli, garlic, thyme, white truffle and ricotta cheese). With the latter, I correctly identify the mushrooms, but fail to note the truffle.

Ultimately, dining in darkness is as liberating as it is limiting. The experience provides a fleeting insight into just how challenging life with full or partial blindness must be, but it’s also great fun, brilliantly social, and everybody learns something new about how they eat.

It seems our eyes are bigger than our bellies after all.

* For more info, visit yelp.ie, pacinos.eu or makers.annlowney.com


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