Arriving at Dans Le Noir restaurant in Clerkenwell for a blind wine tasting, my mum and I are told to leave our bags, coats, phones and watches in a locker.
‘No light must get into the dining room’ commands the owner.
A group of us are led in, conga style, hand on the shoulder of the person in front while our Italian waiter, Roberto, wearing big shades and an outfit more suited to a rave than a restaurant, leads us into the velvety pitch black interior.
‘Follow my voice,’ he says. ‘Feel the back of your chair.’
I’m obviously too slow, for he then pushes my bum onto my seat.
‘There are six glasses in front of you and behind that a water jug, glass and spittoon.’
We feel gingerly in front of us, the glasses are made of plastic, probably a health and safety requirement of this tasting. I hold my hand up in front of my face. I can see nothing. Voices are louder, there is a base note of panic in the air.
Our waiter is blind, and in a reversal of the usual restaurant hierarchy, he is in control, for we are out of our comfort zone. Dans le noir is a restaurant where you eat and drink in absolute darkness. For this tasting, our preconceptions about drink, labels and flavour will be tested by the loss of the major sense: sight.
I try to write notes on the wine. I dig my nails into the paper to mark where I have written, fashioning my own instant Braille. I don’t dare use the spittoon as I fear I might gob into my neighbour’s lap. Roberto claps but I can smell him coming.
‘Are you normal?’ he asks the lady opposite me
His voice comes near to me. ‘Are you vegetarian my pretty?’ he asks.How does he know if I’m pretty, I wonder?
I feel heavy plates thud onto the table.
My mum says:
‘I want to take my glasses off. I’m not sure why. It feels wrong to wear them in the dark’I fumble around with some canapés. I feel the rough texture of what appears to be tiny bruschetta. Are these rolls of wet vegetable courgette perhaps? There is also one mystery item that tastes suspiciously like paté.
There are 4 tastes in wine: sweetness, acidity, bitterness and saltiness. One might add umami, the 5th taste. Other things to take into account are weight and wateriness. In the dark smell came to the fore. I have heard that even wine experts cannot tell the difference between red and white wine served at identical temperatures if they are blindfolded. However the difference seems obvious here; the reds are astringent, more tannin.
A female voice fades in, ‘I don’t mind food and drink in the dark, but not men.’
The hardest task is to pour the water into the glass. No, the hardest task is to put the jug down again without knocking over all the glasses.
Finally the tasting is over, we are led out, my mum is relieved, she’d had enough. I feel relaxed. But then, as a photographer, I’ve spent years in darkrooms. The dim lights in the lobby area, where we emerge, hurt our eyes. We are asked to mark down which wines we liked best. I peer at my notes, they are scribbled on top of each other, like automatic writing.
Upstairs it is revealed that this was a tasting of Jacob’s Creek wine. Would we choose the same wines in a supermarket as those we had liked without knowing the label? This blind tasting was a way of challenging preconceived ideas about taste. I prefer an oaky chardonnay or a full bodied rioja-like Tempranillo, light or no light, but others were surprised by the disparity. I like Jacob’s Creek wine, but imagine if you were given a tasting of Blue Nun or Liebfraumilch, wines that have a naff reputation?
This was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. Highly recommended.
Dans Le Noir
30-31 Clerkenwell Green
Tel: 020 7253 1100
*Wine writer Anthony Hanson in his tome 'Burgundy' states that "tasters can be divided into 2 groups, group 1 are... uncertain of their skills...anxious that lack of knowledge bars them from deciding for themselves...they remain dependant on others...often have an eye on names and labels and tasting scores, and ...miss out on wines pleasures. Group 2 people are those who have made the jump, who look forward to putting their nose into a glass of wine as soon as it is poured. They know that finding words to describe or talk about a wine is difficult, but they will have a go"Coincidentally (?) we were divided into two groups, group 1,consumer press and group 2, trade press (or 'normal alkies' and 'professional alkies').