Is it science, or is it a flavour we just love to savour?

Go into nearly every food establishment and you’ll see salt and pepper gleaming at you on the table, begging for you to pick up. Etiquette dictates you must taste before adding extra, I do try to, but almost always add a touch more salt and a dash of pepper.
Why? Do I just crave that salty kick or spicy bite, or does science and possibly even genetics play a part in the need. Curiously it’s all and more…


To begin a little bit of history (sorry) its necessary I promise!
Salt was historically a preserving agent and was used in this vein for thousands of years. Indeed, whole civilisations were built to harvest salt and roads were creating to transport the precious cargo to major cities across the globe.
Salt meant food could be exported for longer periods of time as the drying and curing properties made perishable, filling goods a much longer life.
Salt was also used in battle ‘salting the earth’ rituals which was believed to render the earth uninhabitable by the defeated.
Pepper is another ancient spice. The black peppercorn we know and love today would have been used alongside a variety called a long pepper. Black peppercorn won out possibly not over flavour, but over cost, and is now staple in our diets today.
Onward with a splash of science. Salt is sodium and chloride (NaCl if you want to be super geek).
We as a species need sodium and have evolved (or not dependant on your beliefs) to crave it. We even have an area on our tongue to detect and enjoy it. But what’s happening on the tongue when we eat?  Well quite a lot. Flavours such as bitter, sweet and sour bind to other flavours of the same type, so for example lemon juice when tasted is extremely sour as it binds with other sour notes creating an overall sour taste- obviously. However if you were to add salt to lemon you would get a variety of notes, salt does not bind to other salt, but instead lets other flavors pass through and enhance.  This is why when added to sweet it brings out an extra sweetness, when added to bitter it enchances but also balances with a savoury saltiness.
For example when a few flakes are added to a piece of cucumber will not be overly salty but will bring out extra floral, fruity, crisp notes in the cucumber, because it is allowing those flavours to come through while opening up your taste receptors and firing to the primary nerve in the tongue and in turn to the brain.
Try this yourself with a plain piece of cucumber or tomato and then with a slightly salted piece. Note the difference.
Pepper’s spiciness is actually a mild irritation to the tongue, but when combined with foods creates a well rounded flavour. Giving earthy slightly bitter notes that as above bind with other bitter and savoury notes to create this.
Now do the test again with the cucumber or tomato with both salt and pepper, note the difference.
Perfect partners.
salt is no doubt the lead singer in this band. Salt wears the trousers loud and proud! Pepper is the drummer a little less in the limelight, but vital steady partner that gives an extra bite and well rounded full flavour. The rest of the band are made up with initial ingredients, the cooking method, and any extra spices or herbs added.
We are in no doubt salt and pepper are required, but you can play with these basic flavours and play with them to suit your palate.
Some of us will have an extra propensity to both or either simply from how much of each we were exposed to as a child when our taste was developing. As they say – just season to your taste.
Go easy on the white stuff though! Its back to that science bit. Sodium and potassium regulate our water system. Its a delicate balance of allowing water to flow through cells. Too much salt will make this process harder, your kidneys work harder, your blood pressure rises creating greater strain on your heart, arteries, kidney and brain. In turn this can lead to strokes and heart attacks. Basically your systems stressed from working so hard. So with everything Moderation is key! With pepper you can be more vigorous, the fact it’s a heavy spice means only a small amount is required anyway.

Another key element to involve is where is your salt coming from? I would stick to rock or sea. These are more natural processes and that  fine table salt stuff- nah! that is just pure chemicals. Keep that for household cleaning, do not eat it.
Play with pepper. Why not try and get hold of some long pepper and see the difference, or try using a touch of chilli flake instead or pepper to see what elements that brings out.

My recommendations are :

Maldon Sea Salt –
Cornish Sea salt –
Barts Long Pepper –
Cornish Sea salt and luxury pepper –

Enjoy, Janine

Camera used : Nikon D700, Lens :  Macro Nikkor AF 60mm
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