by Michael Skov Jensen, journalist, University of Copenhagen. Published here with his permission.
Oysters and champagne are considered a perfect pairing. Now, researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science have found flavours in a range of champagnes and variety of Danish oysters that for the first time provide the scientific explanation for why these two foods complement one another so well.
"The answer is to be found in the so-called umami taste, which along with sweet and salty, is one of the five basic flavours detectable to human taste buds. Many people associate umami with the flavour of meat. But now, we have discovered that it is also found in both oysters and champagne," states Professor Ole G. Mouritsen from the Department of Food Science at UCPH and head of the national Danish center for taste, Taste for Life.
In champagne, dead yeast cells contribute greatly to an umami flavour (glutamate). And as for oysters, the umami emerges from the mollusc’s muscles (nucleotides).
"Food and drink pair well when they spark an umami synergy from combinations of glutamate and certain nucleotides. Champagne and oysters create a notably synergistic effect that greatly enhances the taste of the champagne. Furthermore, champagne contributes to the overall impression with, for example, its acidity and bubbles. That explains the harmony of these two foods," explains PhD student Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, the study’s lead author.
Could get people to consume more vegetables
Besides the more luxurious example of oysters and champagne, the professor also points to ham and cheese, eggs and bacon and tomato and meat as gastronomic companions with umami synergy.
The professor believes that this synergy and taste is important to us humans for food choices. According to him, we are evolutionarily encoded to crave umami, as it is a sign of protein-rich food that is important to our bodies. The encoding may be responsible for us being less enthusiastic about eating umami-less vegetables.
"Understanding the umami principle is particularly important because it can help get us to eat more vegetables. By being cognizant of umami synergy, one can make any vegetable tasty. And, it is my firm belief that if we want more people to eat more vegetables, we need to deal with the fact that greens lack umami," says Ole G. Mouritsen.
Limfjord oysters and old champagne
For the ultimate combination of New Year’s Eve oysters and champagne, Professor Mouritsen suggests native Danish Limfjord oysters and an older vintage champagne.
"One gets the most bang for the buck and best taste experience by tracking down flat Limfjord oysters and a slightly more expensive bottle of older champagne. Older vintage champagnes have more dead yeast cells, which provide more umami. And Limfjord oysters contain large quantities of the substances that give umami synergy. Still, one shouldn’t hesitate from purchasing the invasive Pacific oysters that are harvested in the same area as our native Limfjord species. They too can share an umami synergy with champagne, as the study shows," says Mouritsen.
The research was published in Nature Scientific Reports [here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-77107-w] and conducted by Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, Karsten Olsen and Ole G. Mouritsen of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science.
· In the study, the researchers examined a variety of champagnes, along with both Limfjord oysters and Pacific oysters. The study marks the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for why oysters and champagne pair so well.
· It is the combination of the amino acid glutamic acid and nucleotides from the breakdown of muscles from fish, molluscs and shellfish, for example, that greatly enhance umami taste.
· The umami taste is derived from the concurrent binding of the salt (glutamate) of a free amino acid (glutamic acid) along with nucleotides to the umami receptor found in the taste buds of our tongues and in the oral cavity.
Mentioned in the article
Charlotte Vinther Schmidt works at the Dept. of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. In Taste for Life she takes part of a project on Danish squid, optimizing product development using chemical and physical analysis of texture and umami-specific components, and sensory evaluation.
She also works to empower Danish children, young people and adults to make food choices based on evidence.
Dr Ole G. Mouritsen is the head of centre in Taste for Life and head of the Gastrophysics focus area. He is a professor in Gastrophysics and Food Innovation at the Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen.
He is an expert in bio- and gastrophysics with a special focus on mediation of the natural sciences to the general population through knowledge about food and taste.