We were treated to a fascinating evening of science served up with an assortment of sweet, savoury and spicy snacks when Andy Brunning presented 'The Chemistry of Food' in the Oxford Brookes Restaurant. It was a lovely, convivial way to spend a Saturday evening – and we all learned a lot, too.
Andy is a teacher who started putting together interesting posters illustrating the chemistry of food for his students. They are beautifully, clearly formatted and are now available in his book Why Does Asparagus Make Your Wee Smell? He used a few of them last night as slides to illustrate his talk, but the subject was really brought to life by the food samples brought round to the audience at their tables by Science Oxford's lovely smiley volunteers.
Andy's talk explored several aspects of food; e.g. poisons and how they work (we were assured the mushrooms in our pate were not Destroying Angels or Fool's Funnels!); why onions make you cry and what you can do to reduce the effect; how taste varies from person to person and why some foods taste bitter to some but not to others (including why Brussels sprouts were once used for paternity testing). We experimented with some of the foods which affect people differently, such as artichokes, and made our own Universal Indicator for pH out of red cabbage water at our tables, and used it to test shot-glass samples of egg white, vinegar, etc, producing some truly beautiful colours (all the mobile cameras came out at this point).
Some of the items we tasted were a real challenge. One was the Durian fruit, so smelly that it is actually banned on public transport in Singapore, and described by Andy as a mixture of "garbage and used gym sock". I'm afraid I actually bottled out of that one! Another was a superb palette of chillis chopped and pureed in a colourful circle of increasing intensity – it was very reassuring to learn that they were not actually physically affecting the tissue at the site of contact, but fooling the sensory neurons in our brains that they were. I gave up at the fourth level of heat but several people managed to survive tasting the Canadian Reaper, the hottest chilli on the planet. It was a relief to many that they had Brookes Restaurant's lovely range of bottled ales to refresh them!
The most fascinating taste of the evening was definitely the Miracle Berry. Discovered over 200 years ago, this little berry has the capacity to change our perception of taste. After rolling a small tablet containing the active ingredient, the miraculin protein, on our tongues, we marvelled at our ability to suck lemons and limes as if they were candies, and even drink vinegar and perceive it as sugary-sweet.
If you are sad you missed this highly enjoyable and well-attended event, fear not – you could recreate it at home if you buy Andy's book (which would also make a lovely Christmas present) or find out more on his website.