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Chewing it over

Categories: News and previews

Jane Levi reports on the Rumination on Mastication event at Borough Market: an unusual meeting of art and science

Wrapped in blankets against the November chill, 100 or so guests were treated to a feast for the mouth and the mind in Borough’s Market Hall last Thursday evening. Artist Victoria Shennan’s Rumination on Mastication, the latest burst of creativity presented by the Science Gallery at King’s College London in association with Borough Market as part of the Mouthy season, was a beautifully conceived meeting of art and science inside the mouth.

Table manners generally demand that we hide the mechanisms of the act of eating while we are doing it—talk of saliva and excessive chewing being particularly discouraged—but this dinner required attention on the food at two levels. As we experienced the flavours, textures and visual jokes of the dishes served up by Blanch & Shock in a sequence of seriously playful courses, we read and discussed ‘tantalising titbits’, ‘trivia’ and ‘unpalatable facts’ supplied in a coded series of envelopes. This combination of presentation, taste and talk made it a memorably unusual dinner.

Rumination on Mastication

Intriguing combination
Fortified for the journey with ‘a breath of fresh air’ in the form of warm apple juice infused with douglas fir and caraway, the voyage into the oral cavity began with a focus on the tongue. We garnished thin slices of beef tongue on sourdough bread with various relishes, each of which stimulated different responses from our own tongues. Black tea and apple sauce was tannic, sour and sweet; beetroot and Szechuan pepper chutney was piquant and numbing; mushroom and miso was deeply umami and salty; and smoked beer vinegar, onion and alexander seed provided an intriguing combination of bitter and sour notes.

Next, we were challenged with a palate cleanser that demanded we begin to reconsider the many roles of saliva. A small glass of a bergamot and chamomile-infused yellowish liquid was gloopy enough to conjure up spit, but tangy and fresh enough to make it pleasurable to swallow. Every day we produce an astonishing 1-1½ litres of protein-, calcium- and phosphate-filled saliva which performs a startling variety of roles. It is the liquid that dissolves the flavour molecules in our food, activating our taste buds. As we chew, it also works to lubricate the bolus—the swallowable ball of food that is formed in the process of mastication. Once we have swallowed, its presence in the mouth maintains pH and protects the teeth.

Rumination on Mastication

Cheeks and lips
A main course of ox cheek, pork jowl ham, slippery seaweed, crispy kale and gelatinously crunchy wood ear mushrooms in a beef broth invited reflection on the actions of our own cheeks and lips through an artful combination of textures and colours. For me, this was the peak of the meal, a beautifully balanced dish with both depth of flavour and light touches.

From a visual perspective, though, dessert was the highlight: a ‘sweet tooth’, composed of pink sponge ‘gums’, quince and custard ‘dentine’ and white ‘enamel’ meringue. We each swooshed an oversized syringe of sherry over it and happily called it a trifle. To assuage the guilt of such a sweet finish, a toothbrush was thoughtfully provided, along with the bombshell that we will probably spend the equivalent of more than 38 days bushing our teeth over the course of our lives. Fortified with our new, deeper knowledge of the mouth and its magical powers, it seems like time well spent.