Why I Will Never Love Bitter Gourd, and Other Lessons I Learned in Vevey

Exploring the science of food at the Alimentarium food museum in the Swiss town of Vevey.  
Giant fork, Vevey
A giant fork stuck in Lake Geneva is bang opposite the gate of the museum. Photo: Mahaux Photography/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

“Would a crisp, salty, fried potato chip be as satisfactory if it didn’t make a sound when eaten?”

I found myself contemplating this question in front of an exhibit of a human brain. The display, one of many at the Alimentarium food museum in Vevey, deconstructs the senses we employ when we put something in our mouths. Taste is only one of them. We also eat with our eyes, nose, fingers, and on occasion, our ears. In addition to sensory inputs, our taste for certain foods (juicy Alphonso mangoes) over others (karela juice) is also a product of evolution. To early man, who largely foraged for food, bitterness was a signal that a plant might be toxic. So in a way, my dislike for bitter gourd, however inventively my mother cooked it, is embedded in my genetic coding. I couldn’t wait to tell her.

At the Alimentarium everything is a matter of taste. The museum is dedicated to food: where it comes from, how we cook, eat, and digest it, and our attitudes towards it. Outside the two-storey building, there are rows of neatly labelled edible plants. Some, like the heads of lettuce and cauliflower, I could recognise. Others, like carrot and beetroot, I didn’t know at all. It made me realise how little I knew about the fruits and veggies that were regulars at my dinner table.

Inside, the museum has a large selection of exhibits that give food historic, scientific, and pop-cultural contexts. A display charts our species’ evolving relationship with food, from early man who hunted and foraged for his supper, to the junk food generation. I lingered at the section that explained the science of taste, drawn to its interactive installations. At one station, visitors pop coloured pills and answer a touch-screen quiz about the flavours they taste. At another, I sniffed various scents and tried to discern which foods they were.

Alimentarium, Vevey, Switzerland

The Alimentarium is in a neoclassical mansion that is a Vevey landmark. Photo: Guenter Fischer/Imagebroker/Dinodia

Though many Alimentarium exhibits may look like they are for children, they offer rich food for thought even for adults. One pyramid-shaped exhibit demonstrated how our consumption patterns have changed over time. We are now eating more rice, bread, meat, and year-round produce, and less fruits, veggies, and seasonal food. Our hunger for global foods has raced ahead, leaving traditional, habitat-happy food behind, with worrying repercussions for the planet.

On another floor, I found a large wooden table in a handsome room with wood-panelled walls and staggering views of Lake Geneva. But not a food exhibit in sight. A plaque offered an explanation: This room—and the entire Alimentarium building—once housed the offices of Nestlé. The multinational food company was born in Vevey. The Swiss town was also where milk chocolate and Nescafé were created.

My favourite section in the museum was dedicated to traditional kitchen equipment from around the world. Little notes explained each instrument and told visitors about the community that created them. There were intricately carved wooden spoons, delicately painted ceramic jugs and bowls, cane implements used to winnow rice, granite mortars and pestles, and brass grinders. In the centre of this kitchen of my dreams were two large platforms where the museum occasionally conducts cooking classes. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one on the day I visited, so I made my way to the greenhouse-café instead, settled by a table near a cacao plant, and ordered a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “A Matter of Taste”.

The Guide

The Alimentarium is in Vevey, a 15-min walk from the railway station (www.alimentarium.ch; open Tues-Sun; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Apr-Sep and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct-Mar; adults CHF13/₹900, visitors between 7-16 CHF4/₹278).

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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