Sometimes the unlikeliest food, or food and drink, combinations actually taste really good once you give them a try. Think back to when you first tasted a bite of sweet apple pie along with a slice of tangy cheddar. Magical, right? There's a reason why some unlikely combos work really well together. Scientists call it 'food pairing' and have found that foods that share a common flavour profile usually taste good together, as well.
How do they determine the flavour profile of food? By the very scientific use of a gas chromatography coupled mass spectrometry, or GC-MS. Not something that most of us have lying around on our kitchen bench!
All five of our senses impact how we experience food. Of course, you would expect that of our senses of sight, smell, and taste. After all, we 'eat with our eyes' and whose mouth doesn't start watering when they smell a roast cooking? But our senses of touch and hearing also contribute to the enjoyment of our food. Just handling a crisp apple has us wanting to take a bite and part of our enjoyment of that apple is the expectation of the crackling crunch we'll hear when we bite into it.
However, perhaps the most important component of our enjoyment is our sense of smell. Our noses are able to differentiate between at least 10,000 different odors! Of course, our mouths are part of the action, too. The volatile compounds that make up the aroma molecules are received both through our nose (orthonasal) and our mouth (retronasal). Aromas actually make up approximately 80% of what we generally refer to as taste.
That's why food doesn't taste very appetizing when we have a head cold or allergies - we aren't able to process most of its flavour. You can try this out for yourself next time you have a cup of coffee. Enjoy that nice, rich coffee aroma and then pinch your nose while taking a sip. It's amazing how that lovely roasted coffee bean aroma is replaced by a nasty dose of bitterness.
Sometimes, all of the aromas in a food aren't readily perceptible until enhanced by a complementary flavor. Perhaps it was a serendipitous pairing at some time in history that led to such classic flavor combinations as chocolate with cherries, cucumbers with dill, and champagne with caviar. In each case, one ingredient draws out the best flavour of the other; the flavours play off of each other to bring out each's complexities. Perhaps the pairings work so well because they share similar aroma components.
In the future, maybe scientists with a GC-MS will create even more fabulous taste combos that go together so deliciously.