Everything tastes better in France, even olives

Sitting in a fabulous hotel bar in Nice, France, trying to look just as fabulous while drinking a Kir, the bartender offered me an olive. I politely declined. While I love other polarizing foods, including oysters, cilantro and blue cheese, olives were my arch-nemesis. To me, soap is the closest cousin to the taste of an olive, and I could pick out a mere sliver of the offender from any dish. “Non, merci,” I said.

In a perfectly cool French manner, the bartender explained that the region produced some of the world’s best olives, and that these were his personal favourite. I was doing myself a great disservice by avoiding these olives, he insisted. When I confided that I don’t actually like the fruit — with no offence to his country, region or the prized delicacy in front of me — he offered a suggestion: He promised that if I ate five in quick succession, by the time I finished the last, I would love olives.

Incredulous, but up for a challenge, I steeled myself for the task and began my snack.

First olive: SOAP! I’m eating soap!
Second olive: Mon dieu! Still a soapy olive.
Third olive: Salty, less soapy, but I still want off this ride.
Fourth olive: Salt. Hmm, I like salt. And the texture is good.
Fifth: Yum. Is there a sixth?

In addition to the scientific fact that everything tastes better in France, research on genetic predispositions shows that exposure over time can help us adapt to a flavour. In a story for the science site io9, Arizona State University psychologist Elizabeth Phillips explains that we are born with an innate preference for sweetness and a dislike of anything sour or bitter. These taste preferences have evolutionary roots. Sweet foods, like fruits, are typically nutrient-dense and so we are predisposed to like them. As we mature, so too do our tastes. Amy Proulx, professor of food science at Niagara College, in southern Ontario, says that cultural exposure can also contribute to that hedonic reversal, the changing of our tastes.

That bartender was on to something with his five-step program. Though it can take more than a dozen encounters to warm up to the taste of something, Proulx says that we can learn to like a new or previously hated flavour if we are repeatedly exposed to it. Essentially, we can charm our tastebuds into loving something — particularly when we’re in a beautiful setting, and on a vacation high. “Often, after we travel, we return and crave certain foods. There’s an emotional connection and we try to recapture an experience from our travels,” she explains.

Was it science? The emotional pleasure of sitting in that fantastic bar? Or did my tastebuds just need some gentle French persuasion? In any case, I’ve since suggested this method with  others and they too have converted to loving olives. Order your next martini super dirty, filthy even, get a few extra olives on the side, and get ready to fall in love in five, four, three, two, one…

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