The Taste of Christmas

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As Christmas fast approaches, it seems like a good time to explore another of our five senses, and possibly the one most closely associated with the sensory experience of the Christmas season — the sense of taste.

If you’ve read any of my other posts on the five senses, then you will hopefully have noticed that I’m very interested in tuning into the world, both inner and outer, via the body and its sensory organs:

I firmly believe that by stopping for a while to focus on what we’re taking in via our senses, we have the chance to slow down, notice and appreciate what we’re experiencing in the present moment of our lives. In doing so, we’re adding a new dimension to our encounter with life.

Taste is an interesting sense, because without the accompaniment of our sense of smell, it’s quite a blunt tool for appreciating flavour. Up to 75% of the ‘flavour’ of food actually comes from its smell, transmitted to the brain through the olfactory system. This is why, when you have a heavy cold, food can often seem rather bland or even have an oddly distorted flavour. And it’s why professional wine-tasters are said to have ‘a good nose’ — it’s their highly developed sense of smell which enables them to distinguish the many subtleties of the wines they sample rather than their sense of taste per se.

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It was thought for a long time that our taste buds are only able to detect four distinct types of flavour — bitter, salty, sweet and sour — but many scientists now assert that there is a fifth flavour type: ‘umami’ apparently has a meaty flavour and enhances the overall ‘taste experience’ of food. According to news reports earlier in 2010, tubes of ‘umami paste’ were just about to hit the supermarket shelves in the UK, with buyers urged to try adding it to all sorts of dishes to enhance their flavour.

Never having tried umami paste, I can’t vouch for its flavour, but be that as it may, taste is a great place to begin a journey of sensory discovery, especially at Christmas or holiday season, when we have an excuse to indulge a little (or a lot). Me, I’m sitting here at my keyboard with a mug of tea and a couple of ginger biscuits; when the tea has cooled just a little, I’ll dunk the biscuits in and they’ll go all soft and gooey and treacly. My mouth is watering in anticipation of the taste and texture of the biscuit when I finally bite into it. And as I write, I’m thinking how closely bound together these three senses are — taste, smell and touch: after all, if eating is about our sense of taste and therefore of smell, then it’s also about the sense of touch as well, because the act of taking in food is also about the feel of the food in our mouths, as well as its taste and smell (and visual appearance of course).

I wonder whether the multi-sensory experience of eating might give us a glimpse back to what it was like to be an infant in the womb, when the boundaries between the different sensory pathways were more blurred than they become after birth? As infants in the womb, nourishment comes via the umbilical cord, and much of our sensory input is through the touch of the amniotic fluid surrounding us. Our mouths open and close in preparation for sucking on the breast after birth; our taste buds develop after only 13 to 15 weeks gestation; so as we take in a mouthful of amniotic fluid, we also sense its taste and texture. Do the two senses — taste and touch — become entwined then?

Food is a comforter. Young children who have been weaned will sometimes seek the comfort of the breast again if they’re ill or upset or frightened; is the touch of the loving mother and the taste and texture of her breast milk another example of these senses being closely intertwined? As we grow, we find our individual comfort foods, foods that feel and taste good in the mouth and that are often high in calories, fat or sugar. Perhaps we’re all seeking the ultimate comfort food that we needed as infants, only to have it taken away when we were weaned on to solids. It’s not surprising that with such close associations with comfort — or the lack of it — and early bodily sensations, the desire to keep tasting can lead to problems with over- or under-eating. The irony is that unlike other ‘problem activities’, food cannot simply be avoided — the human body needs fuel, and our sense of taste encourages us to enjoy eating it.

And so it’s Christmas, or very nearly. When I was growing up, the taste of Christmas was always roast turkey with stuffing and bread sauce (never gravy — I didn’t like the texture) with piles of roast potatoes and sprouts, followed by pudding and custard (which despite its having the same texture as gravy, was one of my favourites). As an adult, I still love the turkey and the Christmas pudding, but I also savour the creamy whisky liqueur for afters — the velvety texture in my mouth and the bite as I swallow each sip, the high-fat creamy recipe making it irresistible. Whether or not you’ll be sitting down to a special meal this week, I hope you’ll spend just a few moments in quiet contemplation of the textures, tastes and aromas of the food and drink before you.

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