Can a classic tablecloth really make your food taste better?
A well-chosen tablecloth is the key to a successful meal. According to a recent study exploring the sensory realm of gastrophysics, mealtimes can be altered by environmental cues — and some decent linen will make your food taste better. It’s certainly more effective than mood lighting, which only makes food taste saltier.
Participants in the University of Hohenheim study dined on tomato soup, in varying settings. Those with crisp, white tableware not only ate more but also thought the food was better quality, and lingered longer.
Prof Charles Spence, author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, and adviser to the likes of top chef Heston Blumenthal, says tablecloths contribute to the tactile and auditory experience of a meal — what he calls the “sonic seasoning”.
“Tablecloths can affect the acoustics of a room, rendering sound levels softer and more relaxed. A tablecloth or napkin is also pleasant to the touch and removes the clinking, scraping contact of plates and cutlery,” he says.
The visual appearance of a tablecloth can also help set the desired context for your feast. “The colour and pattern of a tablecloth can evoke a certain mood or place, which will affect the tasting experience: a red and white checked cloth evokes Italian cuisine, while a floral tablecloth with sunflowers and insects is reminiscent of the south of France. A white tablecloth denotes a more formal, impressive fine-dining occasion.
“Dressing a table with flowers, fruits and spices also affects our sensory perceptions and can create a visual, aromatic feast.”
Colour is important, says Spence, who points me towards an experiment by napkin brand Tork and Swedish food stylist and chef Linda Lundgren, which looked at “colour pairings”. Apparently, coral pink increases perception of sweetness and decreases bitterness in, say, strawberries, while aqua blue dials down saltiness and mustard yellow improves the taste of green foods and seafood. ”
Think about the contrast between the food and the plate, and how that affects your perception of the appearance of food,” suggests Spence. “A large white plate doesn’t stand out against a plain white tablecloth and fades in; that starkness is favoured in some high-end restaurants, because it allows the food to speak for itself, but it serves a very different function to the homeliness and rustic charm of a patterned cloth.
“Tableware isn’t the only way that the enjoyment of a meal can be enhanced. Auditory stimuli have long been known to enhance flavour. Spence was behind Blumenthal’s decision to play atmospheric sounds of the sea alongside seafood dishes at his restaurant The Fat Duck.
When it comes to dinner parties, crack out your weightiest cutlery, and your diners are more likely to think the meal as being of higher quality. And make a menu card for place settings.
“The way dishes are described has been shown to enhance our appreciation of them,” says Spence. “The more colourful, evocative and extensive the vocabulary you use for your food, the better: one Californian linguist analysed restaurant menus and found that for every extra letter used, people would be willing to pay more.
“Rather than plating up individual meals, studies have shown that sharing plates can increase a sense of togetherness and connect guests through food,” says Spence. “In restaurants like Mugaritz in San Sebastián, they playfully serve Parma ham and melon on separate plates: the person on your right is given the ham, while you’re given the melon, which leads you into dialogue.
And to be sure to avoid squabbles, seat your guests at a round table. “According to research, those sitting around a round or curved table are more likely to be in accord than those who find themselves sitting at a square or rectangular table.”
There may also be no need to fork out on expensive wine: the gentle clink of your best glassware gives the impression you have poured a much finer vintage. In one experiment by Stanford University, subjects were given several glasses of the same wine, but consistently rated the “more expensive” glasses more favourably. Brain scans even suggested they derived more pleasure from the costlier glasses.
Of course, even the best-dressed table won’t turn a terrible meal into a Michelin-starred one, wizard though it is, jokes Spence. But it all has an important impact on your overall experience and memory of an evening. Bon appétit! — The Daily Telegraph