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Taste of Vail: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter … and umami?

Lauren Glendenning
lglendenning@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyTaste of Vail: Tom Mobley, center, and Pat Boyd, right, and other participants in the Food and Wine in Balance umami seminar taste a lemon between tastes of wine to determine the effects of different tastes - sweet, sour, salty, spice, bitter and umami
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VAIL, Colorado – Most of us know the tastes created when certain foods hit our tongues – there’s sweet, salty, bitter and sour – so what in the world is umami?

Umami has been around for more than a century. A Japanese food scientist identified what many food enthusiasts now refer to as the fifth human taste in 1908, said Jerry Comfort, a food-and-wine educator and the teacher of Friday morning’s Taste of Vail umami seminar: “Wine and Food in Balance.”

Food-and-wine pairings are all about tastes, and Comfort wants people to recognize the difference between taste and flavor. A taste is the natural reaction that our taste buds have when certain foods are eaten. Lemon and rice wine vinegar, for instance, are both sour in taste, but they have completely different flavors.



“We’re all too concerned about pairing to flavor,” Comfort said. “You pair to taste, not to flavor.”

Comfort teaches with the “keep it simple, stupid,” or “KISS”, method. He said there’s no need to make food-and-wine pairings any more complex than they already are. People are intimidated by pairings and often think they need to follow a certain list of rules in order to get them right.



Pairings are a matter of personal choice. What tastes like a perfect union to one person might taste completely foul to another.

Comfort used a simple plate of tools paired with four wines and let everyone realize how foods can alter the taste of wines, not the other way around.

And because most people like certain wines for a reason, you never want a food to change the wine you’re drinking dramatically. Food should merely enhance the wine, mirror it or complement it.



As seminar students bit a piece of a sweet apple and then tasted their wine, you could hear lips puckering throughout the room along with an occasional “ewww.” It’s because sweet foods can make wine taste more sour and acidic than the wine might taste by itself or when paired with another food, so pairings are very important, Comfort said.

The lick of a lemon followed by a taste of the same wine got more favorable results from the students.

“Sour food will make wine softer, less sour,” Comfort said. “Sweet food makes wine more sour.”

The lessons were simple and fairly black and white – a teaching strategy not as common in a world of wine-and-food snobbery.

Rather than try to teach everyone in the room something that might only be true to a quarter of the people, Comfort just wanted people to understand the simplest lessons about pairings.

“Perfect pairings don’t exist,” he said. “There’s no perfect pairing for all of us, but there’s absolutely a perfect pairing for each of us.”

As Comfort went through the four tastes of salty, bitter, sour and sweet, he finally got to umami – and he saw a lot of puzzled faces around the room.

Umami is an earthy taste that is typically found in proteins. Unseasoned beef or fish, for example, bring out the umami sense on the taste buds. Comfort said it’s impossible to describe a taste other than to compare that taste to other foods with similar tastes, which is why it’s so hard to explain a taste that people don’t necessarily recognize already.

Sushi and tofu are perfect examples of umami – neither food is sweet, sour, salty or bitter – they’re umami.

Umami, like sweet, can make wines taste stronger. It’s why so many of us like to drink a full-bodied red wine with steak; that umami flavor, which can be subtle, can stand up to the bold wine.

Comfort reminded students that there’s no simple answer to the way our taste buds react to tastes, flavors and pairings. There’s no right or wrong answer, he said, just our individual palates speaking to us.

“You can’t argue with your own tongue,” Comfort said.

Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at lglendenning@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2983.


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