Pringles and crema inspire training design for HCR's new course

By Ross James

The distance between gastrophysics and community-centred media training is long, but stay with me on a journey that pauses at Pringles, coalesces with crema and arrives at a resolution.

Charles Spence is an experimental psychologist. He chose 20 people then got each person to sit in front of a microphone one at a time, take a bite of a Pringle, spit it out, and rate their satisfaction for taste. This was repeated over and over for each person. The munchers heard their crunches through a set of headphones, but they didn’t know the sound of their crunch was manipulated as Spence adjusted audio settings such as frequencies and volume. Spence ran statistical tests by crunching the Pringles, sorry, the numbers, and proved chips were perceived to be fresher with a louder, higher-pitched crunch than those with softer-sounding crunches, even though all the chips were exactly alike. It was the first experiment to show food could “taste” different just by altering the sound of eating it. Thus began the scientific discipline of gastrophysics that studies how the five human senses work together to form our perception of what we eat. Master chef Heston Blumenthal, a convert to Spence’s ideas, offers diners a fish dish, accompanied by ear buds to listen to sounds of the sea, waves and cries of gulls as they dine.

All this came back to me in Pakistan recently. A weekend between onsite training sessions was a weekend to devote time to HCR’s new training course. Writer’s block was the perfect excuse to stroll down a familiar tree-lined street (I lived in Islamabad for some years) from my guesthouse to Jinnah Bazaar. Coffee shops abound in modern Islamabad; even Gloria Jean’s is here! But I like MJ’s because the barista has got the crema right.

Crema is the caramel-brown froth on top of a shot of espresso, a combination of air bubbles and the oils from the ground coffee. The visual appeal and texture of crema creates the sensory experience of coffee when it bursts on the tongue. Forget fancy designs, swirls, flowers, hearts or faces. It’s all about the crema, the sensory evidence of an alignment of everything that makes a good coffee.

For reasons related to a specific HCR project (another blog for another day), I completed a barista course. Rule number one was drilled into us: get the crema right because that first sip has to capture the sensations of aroma and taste that make a coffee memorable. When I took my first sip of the doubleshot flat white I ordered at MJs, the crema met my expectation. Well done, barista!

The crema sensation reminded of gastrophysics and that began a reflection on the sensory elements of good training. I’m leading the development of HCR’s new training course to be fully accredited as a vocational training program for the community-centred media work we are known for. It pulls together everything we have learned in projects we have influenced in the Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Africa and elsewhere. Our purpose is to develop community leaders who can organise and lead media partnerships with media content that “gives to the listeners, it doesn’t take from them like our commercial radio programming does”, to quote a radio station manager initially suspicious of our approach in handing over the microphone to community, not keeping it in the hands of “radio professionals”.

My writers block was not about methodology: HCR already has a proven innovative cross-cultural method of competency based training for specific topics. Pringles and crema gave me the insight into the way we could design the course and distribute it across the proposed seven-day intensive workshop. We don’t need people who “know”. We need people who are inspired to “be and do”. And that led to my resolution for a course design to be sensory-focused and experiential. We’ll keep you updated on progress and our emerging design. Meantime, get gastrophysical: enjoy eating as a sensory experience, and critique your barista’s crema.