Next time you’ve an idle moment – and a willing partner – in the kitchen, try the following experiment: don a blindfold, take a spoonful of jam, and try to discern what flavour it is. Dab a piece of bread in an unseen salad dressing, and work out whether it’s vinaigrette or Vidalia onion. Try to distinguish a glass of white wine from one of rosé, or Brie from Camembert. It’s far harder than it sounds.
Alternatively for a far subtler sensory experience, along with an illuminating insight into the challenges that blind people face in the culinary world, opt for a night out at London’s Dans le Noir? restaurant, where food served in a room so dark it must be seen (or unseen) to be believed, and the waiting staff (known at Dans le Noir? as 'guides') themselves are blind.
The product of a pilot project developed in France in 1999, with the backing of the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People, the first Dans Le Noir? restaurant was established in 2004 in Paris by entrepreneurs Edouard de Broglie and Etienne Boisrond. Their aim was threefold: first, to allow sighted diners the experience of living, for just a few hours, in the world of the blind. Second, to investigate the effect on the senses of sight deprivation (does the food taste better, worse, or simply different? Is it necessary to use touch – a sense rarely associate with eating – to enjoy a meal you can’t see?), and third, to provide employment in the catering industry for the blind, a demographic not easily included. The result was a resounding success. In 2006, the first franchise opened in Moscow; in 2007, London followed.
A night out at Dans le Noir? begins with a champagne cocktail (opt for the 'Surprise Cocktail' to guess the ingredients and get a taste of sensory mysteries to come) and a brief orientation in the restaurant lobby. First, staff firmly instruct, mobile phones, cameras, cigarette lighters and all other light sources are to be stowed in a bank of lockers in one corner. Next a crocodile-line is formed, each diner with his or her hand on the shoulder of the diner in front. From here, guides lead patrons through a dimly lit ante-room into the darkest space that most have ever experienced.
At first there are giggles and scuffles as diners falter in the darkness, nudge a table corner with an errant knee, or simply stop, disorientated, altogether. Guides call words of encouragement, tell guests when to move and when to stand still. Slowly everyone is manoeuvred into the correct seat. If you’re in need of assistance or a trip to the powder-room – which, incidentally, are well lit – your guide advises you to simply call out his or her name.
A mis-en-bouche arrives, the wine begins to flow, and, depending on whether you’ve opted in advance for the red (meat-eaters), blue (seafood-lovers) green (vegetarian) or white (chef’s surprise) menu, you launch into the process of eating, and identifying, food described by Dans Le Noir? as 'French-inspired world eclectic'.
Whilst discerning the components of dinner inevitably occupies a greater part of the conversation, something interesting happens when sight, around the dining table, is removed. Conversation takes unexpected twists and turns. Etiquette slips. Your companions may say things that, under normal circumstances, they would keep under wraps. Your usual interpretation of expressions and body language – that wagging fork, those drumming fingers, that lingering gaze – are eliminated. After several courses, and a good few glasses of fine French wine, you may even find you’ve grown used to your pitch-black surroundings and forgotten, for just a minute or two, about the sighted world without.
But perhaps the best thing about an evening out at Dans le Noir? is the opportunity to relinquish for a moment all those stuffy table-manners you’ve upheld for so long. There’s no need to wait for everyone else’s food to arrive before tucking in. The elaborate tongue-rolling of the wine tasting ritual is suddenly obsolete. Indeed, you’re at liberty to prod your food, dispense with your fork, slurp your wine – or try a quick glug straight from the bottle – sniff, handle, and even lick your plate clean, safe in the knowledge that no one, save for a few infra-red security cameras, is watching.