Contrast Enhancement (In Space and Time) For Food & Wine Interaction

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This is a follow up to a theory of wine-food interaction which a fair amount of people managed to read. In that post I attempted to explain wine and food interaction in terms of nutritional preference comparisons which change our construction of reality (like salting a tomato!) as well as strange changes in contrast detection similar to those that occur in black art theater. Recently, I’ve come across a great explanation of what I called “black art contrast pairings”.To explain the phenomenon I have to quote a large passage of Gordon M. Sheperd’s excellent new book, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters.

Ordinarily it might not be appropriate to republish an entire passage from a book, but Shepherd explains the phenomenon more articulately than I can paraphrase.

From Gordon M. Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy

Contrast Enhancement in Space and Time (Forming a Sensory Image p. 61)

“This effect had actually been described in humans by a German physicist named Ernst Mach in the nineteenth century. He had noticed that when we view a light-dark border, such as a sharp boundary between two walls with different illumination, the contrast is enhanced by a lighter band on the light side and a darker band on the dark side. These came to be called Mach Bands. You can see them yourself if you look for them. (The bibliography provides a site for you to look them up on the Internet.)

Hartline showed that Mach bands are present even in the primitive eye of Limulus (**horseshoe crab). He further showed the mechanism that produces them: lateral inhibitory connections between the receptor cells.  Through these connections, the strongly excited cells at the border more strongly inhibit the weakly stimulated cells, and the weakly stimulated cells more weakly inhibit the strongly excited cells. The mechanism is called lateral inhibition. The effect is called contrast enhancement, because the difference between the light and dark areas is enhanced at their boundary. In a general sense, contrast enhancement also is a kind of feature extraction, the enhanced response to specific spatial features in a visual scene.

This is contrast enhancement in space. Hartline’s laboratory also showed that there is contrast enhancement in time. When there is an abrupt step increase in illumination, a single cell responds with a large increase in impulse firing, which rapidly declines to a steady level somewhat higher than before. The overshoot in impulse frequency is called the phasic response, in contrast to the tonic response. It shows that the nervous system is sensitive primarily to a change in the environment rather than to an unchanging steady input. This contrast enhancement in time is the counterpart to contrast enhancement in space. After the initial increase in stimulation, lateral, as well as self-inhibition comes on to counterbalance the higher level of steady stimulation.”

There you have it. Wine pairings feature contrast enhancement over time. This does not explain what I felt was the result of nutritional preference comparisons, but I await or will search for that answer as well!

Feel free to notice the “think spatially” motto which has lived atop my blog for the last several years now. It should probably be changed to “you smell spatially” or something to that effect which is a big theme to Neurogastronomy. For the last several years I’ve been trying to describe flavor experiences with the language of space & attention.

So now what do we do with this new found information? Flavor is so multi-dimensional that now if we try and explain reactive pairings we may have to explain what resides on each side of the Mach Band created. In the last post I made on wine-food interaction I picked out all the holy grail pairings from What to Drink With What You Eat. I failed to explain them articulately but I should probably try again and consider the Mach Band concept.

If you anyone wants to help, feel free to lend a hand!

Another idea to consider when thinking of wine pairings is the technique of unsharp masking that is used in photography. In unsharp masking, when we overlap an image with a blurred or unsharp version of itself, changes in contrast detection happen. Following wine with food could create a similar effect to adding an unsharp mask which might explain phenomenons of contrast enhancement and feature extraction that characterize wine and food interaction. This all may be possible due to the spatial nature by which we perceive aroma.

Shepherd spends a lot of time explaining the spatial perception of aroma, but he doesn’t ever try to connect the concept with a simple enough analogy. I think what he is trying to get at is best expressed by the work of the 19th century perfumer, Septimus Piesse, who developed an Odophone which arranges aromas in tandem with musical notes on a scale. Piesse’s work is remarkably intuitive. The photo I’m linking to has been known to change lives and inspire career choices.

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fava beans and bruleed pecorino toscano with aged balsamic

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This rather simple yet interesting dish entered rotation into our tasting menu. The dish is rather basic and I don’t really get why it is special enough to get a slot on our menu. The dish however, is interesting enough to think about with wine.

The plate consists of fava beans three way (pureed raw, blanched, then boiled), soppressata, a seasonal type of pecorino toscano that is bruleed with sugar and topped with aged balsamic, and then some interesting bitter greens to garnish of a type I can’t remember. Very little elaborate preparation happens here. The raw beans have a very fresh and green taste that darkens as they are cooked more while the texture gets softer as well. The bruleed cheese is pretty incredible. The sweetness and complexity of the caramel is beautiful contrasted with the acidity and balsamicness of the vinegar. The cheese adds awesome texture and you tastes it before the other parts diffuse through your mouth. The stacking of the flavors makes things linger for quite a while. I see how the acidity of the soppressata could contrast the richness and sweet elements of the cheese, but how do the fava beans fit in? I think that they may just be there because chef really likes favas. so many other delicious and seasonal things could be substituted and the favas just change the rules of what wine works for the whole dish. So many wines could work for certain elements but when you consider everything on the plate, things will be narrowed down.

The first wine i tasted with the dish was a really focused, dry reisling from clos de rochers in luxembourg. With the pureed favas, the beans seemed to lighten the wine and stretch the fava flavor on the tongue. Nothing special happened with the cheese. The interaction of the wine and soppressata was simple and harmonious. The dryness of the wine was refreshing. The best part of the pairing was the greens which showed the elegant flavor depth and sophistication of the bruleed sugar and balsamic.

The next wine was bridlewood’s viognier which has a very different structure and is rather low acid. The raw pureed fava pairing was nothing bad, but the greenness contrasted with the baked peach like fruit of the wine was weird. The bruleed cheese with the wine was really long lived in the mouth and created an experience where both were tasted in a continuous and pleasurable stream of sensations. The soppressatta on the other hand, made the wine taste flat perhaps because the soppressata has more acidity than the wine. Comparable acidity may be a requirement for success across the entire dish. Again, the greens with the balsamic was beautiful and quite long lived in the mouth with the wine.

Whitehaven’s intensely grapefruity new zealand sauvignon blanc enlivened the balsamic but was barely interesting anywhere else.

A lightly extracted Chinon rose of cabernet franc, which is rather dry and quite aromatic, seemed to overpower the favas. The wine was nothing special with the cheese and seemed to bring out a vanilla note that may have been from the caramel. Like the favas, the soppressata seemed to get lost in the intensity of the wine.

The last wine that I tried was Montinore estates very feminine style of pinot noir from the willemate valley. Even being considered light for a pinot noir, the wine was too full bodied for the favas and soppressata creating an inelegant vanilla flavor trap with the bruleed cheese.

Knowing that to have a successful pairing across the board you would need sufficient acidity, the wine I wish I could have tried with the dish would have been a vino verde from portugal like “joao pires”. joao pires is a muscat based wine and has a unique “greeness” of flavor that could perhaps be interesting with the favas themselves or perhaps provide the flavor contrasts the favas have while refreshing the palate with every sip. This worked similar to the signal that chefs give when they pair a fruit with a meat. If the chef feels that shade of fruit is a good contrast, a wine that captures that similar note will probably work wonderfully as well. Fava beans are not exactly fruit, but the greenness of a vino verde is not too outlandish a comparison. Some vino verde’s have a really peasanty, gritty finish, but I find joao pires to be the best of the few examples I’ve tasted. Another interesting wine of potential success would be a fruity dry vermouth like Martini & Rossi’s.

I never really pinned down the ideal wine but I know more about it than when I started and I think I have a better appreciation of the dish.

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A Cheese and Vermouth Pairing

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I stopped into wholefoods and bought a couple affordable cheeses and a baguette to make an easy lunch. I then sat down with the cheeses and a couple vermouths I had open and tried to see what happened. With vermouth even successful pairings can be beyond the words I know, but I’ll try.

The first cheese was a small cut of Marcillat Alsatian Munster. The cheese is very creamy, sort of nutty, and rather stinky. My cheese sensory evaluation skills are very amateur so hopefully I’m conveying a good description.

The first vermouth I tried it with the was a very ancient Cinzano Reserva dry vermouth (chilled) which is based on chardonnay, probably at least 15 years old and has some serious old wine character. Food really seems to wake it up. The dry vermouth melts right into the cheese and the weights of each match well. The cheese seems to bring out some of the banana flavors in the wine.

Chilled Stock brand sweet vermouth pairs pleasurably with the Munster and again one doesn’t really over power the other. What happens is rather difficult to evaluate but the vermouth seems to reflect back into focus some of the stinkiness of the cheese.

The second cheese was Petite Reblochon de Savoie. It is much firmer than the Munster but still soft. Overall a similar cheese but sort of milder. The Reblochon may have been a little over ripe as there was a faint ammonia character. I was told that is a hazard of buying small cuts at wholefoods.

Though the cheeses seem similar, the Cinzano reaction is different than with the Munster. The cheese seems to make the wine seem more alcoholic and strip away the fruit. The reaction is very subtle but overall it probably doesn’t pair well. Perhaps the vermouth is too dry.

The reaction from the Stock sweet vermouth is very delicate and the cheese seems to make the fruit of the vermouth taste like dark brooding berries.

Because the Reblochon was a bigger cut, I had some cheese left over and decided to taste it with Gallo’s dry vermouth which I’ve never had before. Gallo’s dry is actually kind of horrible. The fruit character of the wine is over the top. Kind of akin to how the fruit character sticks out on fresh Martini Rossi but much more so. The muscat character becomes as inelegant as a concord grape wine. The botanical weight also seems to be much lighter than imported dry vermouths and the whole product seems not very adult. The vermouth may be too dry for the cheese because it makes the fruit of the wine taste even thinner and draws out the ammonia character of the potentially overripe cheese. But I do give Gallo points for a pretty label.

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Maccheroncelli Primivera with Falanghina

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At the end of the night I sat down with a new dish from the Menu. I actually made the dish myself with the very close supervision of the sous chef because I barely cook beyond scrambled eggs… I know way too much about food but have been debilitatingly spoiled by chefs for years. The dish has a very dense rigatoni like pasta from Gragnano in southern Italy. The sauce is a porcini crema with a little lemon juice for acidity. Spring vegetables like peas, morels, and pickled fiddle heads are added to the dish. Over all it is green tasting, mushroomy in that porcini kind of way. The pickled fiddle heads lend more acidity to the lemon juice’s subliminal acidity.

In my opinion as delicious as the dish is, this is simple stuff and can’t really justify itself headlining a supposedly alto cucina restaurant’s menu without a pairing worked out to elevate it. My simple strategy was to grab every open bottle of white wine available plus the lightest red (because I feel red barely goes with food), try and call my shots like in shooting pool and see what happens. (I was not very good at calling my shots so I gave up)

With whitehaven’s new zealand sauvignon blanc the flavors of dill were obnoxiously revealed in the wine which i guess paired but was far from fun and elegant


bridlewood’s viognier was too low acid for the dish and tasted thinner


a strange rather full bodied pinot grigio brought into focus intense nut flavors so I guess it might have paired because there was an interesting reaction but it was again not really elegant or worth a second sip. I think this is the style of wine that most books would recommend with this wine in theory but that is why we need new books…


terra di paolo’s falanghina is this very dry white wine with pear like fruit, and very subtle herbaceous notes like pinenut and rosemary… it is so amalfi probably like the dish… but when you drink the wine following a bite of the dish the stunning unembellished flavor of the porcini is reflected back into focus in your mouth contrasted with the beautiful pear flavor in the wine and you have the most ideal pairing… exploring the pickled fiddlehead element of the dish also proved no negatives… though there wasn’t enough of them to explore it with every wine…


the red was barely worth mentioning. edmeades mendacino zinfandel is in my portfolio of advanced food wines but even in its lightness and rare for a zinfandel acidity it was too full bodied for the dish…

Unfortunately restaurants hate investing in pairing R&D but when you can really link food and wine with a successful pairing it is very profitable. People guzzle things that work. They are either trying to figure out how and why the magic happens or enjoying it all simply subliminally. When trying to make money it sucks to see a guy put down his glass of red wine while he enjoys his fish and then doesn’t return to it until he is done.

Would it be weird if restaurants developed perfect wine pairings for every dish with the sole goal of the making money and the art was cast aside solely to move more wine? Amusement and pleasure are only byproducts. Shouldn’t the market system really drive the art and science of food and wine interaction yet it appears to have barely gotten anywhere?