Our Brains Make Taste Memories When We Travel—Here’s How

Sensory evaluation expert Orietta Gianjorio on how to better savor your food—and your travels.

Our Brains Make Taste Memories When We Travel—Here’s How

Sensory evaluation expert Orietta Gianjorio (left) is both a sommelier and a certified olive oil taster (right).

Left: Photo by Tammy Nugent. Right: Photo by Ergioboccardo/Shutterstock

It’s no secret that taste and memory are linked. Marcel Proust waxed poetic about it; researchers have studied it. And who hasn’t had that moment when, taking a forkful of, say, warm apple pie or a spoonful of savory khao soi, suddenly you’re back at your grandparents’ dinner table or at a rickety table in Thailand? A single bite and you’re in another country, another time zone, another lifetime.

The average human has between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds, which allow us to taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory things. The ability to distinguish between these things was key to early human survival: For our early hunting-and-gathering ancestors, something sweet was likely safe to eat; something bitter or sour might have killed them in minutes.

Here’s something you may not know: According to a 2014 study, our brains actually encode food memories with a time and a place. As we eat, our taste cortex, which stores those tastes, works with the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for storing long-term memory) to literally create a food map, with positive and negative associations with foods linked to those places.

So why not lean into that biology to improve our sense of taste and build even stronger sensory memories? Enter Orietta Gianjorio, an author and sensory evaluation expert who specializes in consumer protection. (Among other things, she’s on the California Olive Oil Council Taste Panel, which certifies the extra virginity of olive oil.) Born in Rome—where she obtained her sommelier’s certification—she moved to California in 2010, where she became a sensory evaluation expert in olive oil, chocolate, and honey. (She’s one of only two honey sensory evaluation experts in the country.)

Here’s how she built her tasting pedigree, and how you can improve yours, too.

Have you always had a strong sense of taste?Yes. My mom was always cooking, always with fresh ingredients, even though she was a full-time career woman. Every Saturday morning, she, myself, and my brother would go to the farmers’ market and pick up fruits and vegetables. It was kind of a ritual, but also cooking together was the Sunday activity of the family. I don’t remember ever eating something that was takeout.

I remember maybe talking to my mom a few years ago when I realized I can smell and taste things that maybe a regular person can’t. She said, “I couldn’t give you something that I didn’t make or something in a can. [If I did], you would taste it and tell me, ‘There’s something wrong with this. What is it? It tastes like preservatives or it’s too sweet or it’s not what we’re used to.’”

It sounds like you’re a supertaster. Can anyone do what you do? The more you do it, the easier it becomes. When I do talks about supertasters, I’m trying to make people understand that the equipment they have and the ability we all have to look, smell, taste, touch, hear—those are all the senses we use when we taste, say, chocolate.

I always tell people: ‘It’s partially that you study for that career, partially you do it every day, and partially you’ve been gifted.’ . . . I’m also of the belief that talent without study is worth nothing. Physiologically, there are people who have more taste buds than others. Studies tell us that Africans, South Americans, and Asians have more taste buds than others.

What happens in a sensory lab?You’re in a little cubicle, and there’s a little window where the other person working on the other side of the lab is preparing samples. They [might] give you a tray with 10 numbered samples—you don’t know what you’re tasting. You’re in front of a computer, and you have a spitting sink where you get water. You smell, you taste (most of the time you are advised to spit while you’re tasting because you don’t know what you’re researching and maybe it isn’t good for you to swallow it). Then you put a bit of water in your mouth, rinse, and spit. You can spend five hours doing that.

It’s important to have an incredible focus and ability to stay focused even when you get tired. I do wine competitions, olive oil competitions, and honey competitions. Honey competitions are probably worse because you’re ingesting 70 samples of honey, which means you’ll get a sugar rush. For wine we taste about 120 wine samples between 9 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. For olive oil, 50. It’s a job.

How do you prepare yourself for a day of tasting?In sensory evaluation, there are rules we all follow. In general, we never use anything that has a scent. In my bathroom, my shower gel, my shampoo, my conditioner, my hair product, my makeup, my lotion, anything I put on me must be unscented, because when you step into the sensory lab, you have to be completely neutral. You can’t bring any outside odors inside the sensory lab. That also means you can’t wash any of your clothes with scented soap.

For me, that required a little bit of research. When I went to the store, I had to open everything and smell it, make sure it’s neutral. That’s number one. People shouldn’t smoke . . . because smoking really can damage your sensory equipment. Then the day of the tasting, other guidelines are: no coffee one hour before going to taste. You shouldn’t be taking any medicine that could alter your perception of specific aromas, flavors, and tastes. You should be in good mental and physical health and well hydrated and not have had any garlic or onion the night before. Some are actually rules and some are unspoken rules.

Are there ever exceptions?
When you’ve been doing this job for quite some time, you know how to calibrate even if you maybe had a coffee less than an hour before the tasting. In between tasting, always take a sip of water, always rest your palate for 60 seconds, but also cleanse your palate according to the food or beverage that you’ve tasted. For olive oil, it’s water or green apple. Chocolate is unsalted crackers and warm water. Honey is unsalted crackers and warm water. I once worked on a panel for Bayers and Monsanto on tasting onions.

That sounds awful.
It was horrible. Three days tasting raw onions. For that, you cleanse your palate with bagels and cream cheese.

How do you approach eating for pleasure, especially while traveling?It’s really hard for me to separate my working self and my travel self.

In reality, once I’ve done that, I really, really enjoy traveling and finding different senses in different cities. I come from a family that has traveled a lot. I have great memories of aromas and tastes of food. I remember when we went to Spain, tasting the Picual olive oil for the first time. It smells like tomato and basil—it’s a flavor, an aroma you can never forget. I remember the first time I went to London . . . it was my first time smelling curry.

What do you eat when you return to Italy? In Rome, the first thing is supplì. It’s a little pan-fried rice ball and inside there is a heart of mozzarella cheese. If it’s fried correctly, the cheese melts. Number two, in the morning, is maritozzo. It’s almost like a croissant, almost like a brioche, with whipped cream inside. There are specific cafés in Rome that still make it traditionally.

Then I go to a restaurant called Sergio in Campo de’ Fiori, a square in central Rome. First, I stop at the farmers’ market there. The color, the aromas, the fresh fruit, fresh vegetables are amazing, but I have a specific little corner, [where] a guy I’ve been friends with forever sells spices. I buy all the spices that I need. Then I go to this restaurant called Sergio and I order two things: carbonara and pasta amatriciana (red sauce). Even if I’m by myself, I must have those two.

How has the pandemic affected you?I have a little bit of boredom right now with everyday food because I am not being surprised and marveled by anything. For me, the COVID situation has been very hard. Not so much for the stay-in-place order but I’m having sensory boredom because I can’t travel and therefore I can’t experience things that I have not experienced before.

Orietta Gianjorio’s tips on improving your taste memories

Five ways to savor your food while on the road.

Scale down ingredients

In modern cooking, there are a lot of layers of ingredients, Gianjorio says. “The more we [eat those], the more our palate gets unbalanced towards unreal expectations,” she says. “Scaling down allows us to taste ingredients, and the quality of ingredients, one by one.” She uses Italian food as an example. “When you travel to Italy and you taste pasta pomodoro, it’s pasta, tomato, olive oil, basil, and that’s it—the most delicious food. Then you go to some Italian restaurants abroad and they’ve got three or four other ingredients for that recipe and our taste buds get used to that. All of a sudden, they’re looking for more and they’re unbalanced.”

Keep aromas to a minimum

Try to surround yourself with aromas that aren’t overwhelming, Gianjorio suggests, as they’ll alter your perception of taste. “I notice this when I travel particularly in Paris,” she says. “The city is so oriented toward perfumes—a lot of the perfume industry is there, everybody is wearing a different scent. When I walk around, I get overwhelmed by all of the senses.”

Once we smell something for three seconds, our nose gets overwhelmed so you can’t smell anything anymore, which impacts your taste. “That’s why when you smell a wine, you swirl it around, you smell it, count one, two, three, and then push the glass away so that you allow for your brain to connect with what you’re smelling,” she says.

Eat and drink more diversely

This is something that Gianjorio suggests to chefs and those in the wine industry. “You can’t always drink a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, otherwise your palate gets unbalanced towards Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon,” she says.

Watch out for manufactured foods and aromas

There’s a lot of unreality and unreal expectations in manufactured food, Gianjorio says. “I don’t want to name a brand, but sometimes you eat food and it’s been created in a lab, not in nature,” she says. “Now, all of a sudden, our taste buds are used to something that does not exist in nature. When we taste what does exist in nature, it’s disappointing.”

Consider, for instance, a cheese-flavored food that’s been made in a lab but contains no actual cheese. “Now our palate is used to cheese created in a laboratory and it tastes 10 times cheesier than the real cheese,” she says. “Then when you go and you eat real cheese, you’re almost disappointed.” It’s important to retrain our taste buds to tasting real food so we can have real expectations, she adds.

Slow down and savor

When traveling, we pack our schedules so tight with museums that we have to see and activities that we have to do, and we never really take time to experience the city like a native would,” Gianjorio laments. “Sit down at a café, order a bottle of wine, and, at least for an afternoon, take the time to do nothing.

“Enjoy life and meals like we do in Europe, taking time to eat. Every time I taste [something it’s] really an experience. I take the time to taste and really connect with my senses. My husband feels a little embarrassed when I taste something for the first time: I close my eyes and make comments and voice my pleasure. I actually find that to be something that I couldn’t live without. It’s part of the pleasure of eating.”

>>Next: Engaging the World Through Touch

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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