Yesterday, a colleague took me to a restaurant called “Ctaste”, run by blind and visually impaired people in Amsterdam. A recipe for disaster? Not at all. The strapline for Ctaste is “hear, feel, smell, talk, listen, imagine, experience, enjoy”. Diners eat a “surprise meal” completely in the dark.
Before eating, we went on a virtual tour of a set of Amsterdam, experiencing it as blind people. Our guide, Walter, gave us our white canes and took us through a series of rooms which were pitch black. We went over a bridge, up some steps, through a maze of bicycles by a fruit and veg market, into a pub where we had a drink (fizzy orange, of course – it’s Holland), across a park and onto a train.
It was tricky making our way over cobbles, uneven ground, feeling for clues as to where we were and if we were safe. Space seemed to shrink around our bodies, we could only know what we could sense. It was fascinating to experience how our other senses tried to take over from loss of vision. Hearing becomes more acute and important, but in the noisy pub, the loud pop music detracted and distracted me from appreciating the surroundings. The noise was too much. And when I played the slot machine and pub games, I was no “Pin Ball Wizard”.
If you are blind and you get onto a train, how do you know where there is an empty seat? Most people avoid taking action and don’t speak up, telling the person where they can sit. I did get lost, however, and Walter had to take my arm and lead me back on the path. I took some photographs, but they all turned out black.
I was apprehensive about the meal. I thought that food tastes better when it is visually appealing – look at all the gastro-porn on FaceBook. Werner, our waiter, collected us from the bar and led us through three blackout curtains into the dining room, hands on the shoulder of the person in front, like gas victims in World War 1. The blind leading the blind, in this case.
He showed us to our table and we explored our environment. Cutlery and a napkin, no condiments. He brought us a glass of water and an appetiser/amuse bouche. Tasting had become hard work. All my attention was on the food, touching it with the spoon in the small dish, smelling it, feeling the texture inside my mouth, hunting for clues. It was stirring my memory as well as my taste buds. The sensation of eating certain food made me think, “I know this, it reminds me of something, perhaps when I first ate it as a child.” I gave up on cutlery and used my fingers to feel all the food on the plate, which did improve my detection rate.
We spoke to each other as we ate, describing our experience. Any additional help was a bonus for identifying the food. In doing so, we appreciated it more.
I didn’t identify the smoked chicken breast in the salad, but I got the cream cheese (easy) with cucumber, tomatoes, onion and chives. This was real processed food – I had to process all the information I could garner about the dish in order to work out what I was eating. Needless to say, it was delicious and this process did not detract from the taste.
First course had a Chinese theme. Chicken with ginger sauce and marinated prawns covered in raita, served on a bed of shredded romaine lettuce, white cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, pak choi, baby sweet corn and mangetout.
You have to be aware that the mouthful you have just eaten might not be the same as the mouthful you are about to eat. Our brains assume we are eating more of the same, but wait a minute, that tasted like prawn, not like the chicken in the previous bite. You eat some white cabbage, identifying it easily. You are expecting cabbage, but you get pak choi. And then you get lettuce. Your brain is processing the information, taste, texture, context, smell. The oriental dressing coats everything like an invisibility cloak, hiding some of the finer features of the food.
The main course featured two types of meat, steak with orange chicory sauce and slow cooked pork shoulder with tarragon sauce. The vegetable was a herby ratatouille, and the fresh pasta with home made pesto provided the starch. Then I found a slice of tomato quiche with mozzarella.
This was getting to be exhausting. I was tired after the flight from Delhi, during which I was called upon to treat a sick passenger. It was way past my bedtime. But there was a appetiser of strawberry mousse to cleanse our palates then dessert. Apple strudel, caramel mousse, pineapple, poached pear, orange & chili pepper sorbet and yoghurt fig ice cream, all sprinkled with explosion sugar – that popped off in our mouths as we ate. (Unfortunately, the caramel sea-salt brownies were finished, so I will have to wait to taste Mark’s when I get home.)
How many flavours can you pack into a meal? I reckon we identified about half of the food that we ate, but we enjoyed it all.
There is an option to have wine with every course, and this is what fuelled the raucous din coming from a table of ladies-of-a-certain-age behind me. Their laughter was an unwelcome distraction from the food, but part of the experience. I would highly recommend this place if you are in Amsterdam – Amsteldijk 55, 1074 HX Amsterdam, email firstname.lastname@example.org telephone +31 (0)206752831.