What's your poison?

Chemist, mixologist and raconteur Noel Jackson puts the good taste back into science, discovers Jane Pikett

They say that Noel Jackson possesses more taste buds than the average human.

Not only that, but this proliferation of papillae is so finely tuned it can detect a rogue flavour before it enters the room (probably).

It is a rare being that possess receptors of such acute distinction and a highly developed scientific brain; a combination that has rendered Noel something of a legend in his own lunchtime.

By day head of education at Newcastle’s Centre for Life, by night Noel hosts regular taste-related events, regularly focusing on alcohol.

He is motivated by chemistry, curiosity about the science of food and drink, and a love of concocting unusual tastes.

Some of us are still recovering from his summer cocktail event when we worked our way through various concoctions of varying hue, including an absinthe cocktail.

“This is my excuse to talk about poison,” said Noel, grinning widely, as we gazed in admiration at this concoction, which I think was our sixth or seventh of a highly entertaining, and increasingly blurred, evening.

Why poison? “It fascinates me,” he says, back at work in the lab, white coat and all. “Poison, often administered throughout history through drink, is very interesting.”

So much so, he is currently planning his next scientific exploration into alcohol with a Hallowe’en-themed event entitled What’s Your Poison?

“I’m going to give the audience a taste of what it might feel might feel like to be knowingly poisoned,” he says, rather too enthusiastically, “and let them learn a bit about chemistry, biology, history and our own nerves,  all while having a fun time drinking cocktails.”

He’s designing his own cocktails for the event, based around the figures he calls ‘the great anti-heroes of the poison world’ and their lethal combinations of deadly nightshade, arsenic, hemlock, cyanide and the like.

Noel is one of those people whose brain is so expansive one wonders if there’s anything he doesn’t know.

In one of the labs at the Centre for Life there are paintings on the walls of cell structures mutated by a cancerous tumour. I ask for an explanation, expecting unintelligible science babble, and am surprised to receive a succinct and entirely comprehensible explanation.

I ask lots of questions about science which are absolutely nothing to do with this interview and each one is answered in similarly comprehensible and fascinating vein. Blimey, if I’d had a science teacher like him, I might have been a brain surgeon by now.

Things I learn: The botany of gin is complex and that means you should spend money on the good stuff. Vodka, on the other hand, is the same whatever it costs, so just buy the cheap version.

More things I learn: Scientists often have very expansive and artistic signatures. I know this because there is a wall in Noel’s lab full of the autographs of visiting luminaries as Dr Robert Winston, Richard Dawkins, Bill Bryson and Simon Baron-Cohen.

And more: Cyanide exists in the kernels of the stoned fruits like cherries and apricots. Ricin is found in castor oil beans. Cinnebar moths become poisonous after contact with ragwort and therefore use the plant for their own defence purposes.

And just be warned: There are two types of arsenic: metallic arsenic smells like garlic whereas arsenic III oxide is colourless, tasteless and all the better to kill someone with.

Noel is a highly enthusiastic scientist and educator, an extremely entertaining raconteur and a mine of very useful information.

Exploring the chemistry of taste and presenting it to people in an entirely un-fuddy-duddy, accessible way, is a passion, while creating unique cocktails comes naturally.

“I create cocktails in my head and then start to experiment,” he says. “It’s just great fun.”

Noel’s passion for good taste began back in his days as an Oxford University chemistry undergraduate when he and his housemates set up a house cooking rota.

Unlike most male undergraduates, this soon got past the beans on toast stage and progressed on to three-course meals of increasing complexity. Noel’s skills, and his palate, developed over the following years as a scientist and chemistry teacher, and his presentations at Life are now followed by a loyal and growing audience.

Using cocktails as an excuse to talk about science seems to me to be an extremely clever concoction and one which I intend to swot up on in my spare time. What better way to prove oneself a dedicated student, after all?

Noel Jackson’s What’s Your Poison? (age 18+) is on Monday October 31, 7pm-11.30pm, at the Centre for Life, Times Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4EP, price £25, booking essential, tel 0191 243 8223, dress code – Gothic Glam!

Noel Jackson’s taste tips

Never be frightened to mess about with a cocktail recipe – sharpen with lime and sweeten with syrup

Once opened, most alcoholic drinks are best drunk because they change with oxidation

Always make your own salad dressing and keep a stock of different oils, vinegars and mustards in the cupboard for the purpose

Be fussy about apples. The supermarket ones are, in general, bland

Best meat: Backstrap of mutton from Knitsley Farm Shop, Consett, Co Durham, DH8 9 EW

King of cheese: Montgomery Cheddar, closely followed by Appleby Farm Cheshire and Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire

Best potatoes: King Edwards for baking, Carroll’s Heritage lines for everything else. Always bake potatoes in the oven in oil and salt (never microwave them!)

Store cupboard staples: Anchovies, capers, Thai curry paste, passata, tinned tomatoes, Dijon mustard, English mustard, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a nut oil, black pepper, bay, thyme, parsley

Noel’s Tart’s Pasta (Pasta La Puttana – a quick basic pasta sauce beloved of Naples working girls – puttana – between clients): Soften chopped onion in olive oil, add tomato puree, capers and anchovy fillets, mix with pasta and eat quickly before the next client arrives.


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