Does dining in the dark sharpen your tastebuds?

Farringdon restaurant Dans le Noir has a pop up at Swinfen Hall where dinner is served by blind waiters Roberto and Dhao

Farringdon restaurant Dans le Noir has a pop up at Swinfen Hall where dinner is served by blind waiters Roberto and Dhao - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

If you want something unusual to do this month, Farringdon-based Dans le Noir has launched a pop-up dining experience at Swinfen Hall.

Two hours by train from its St John Street home, this highly original and immersive event has relocated to the Litchfield hotel, a 250 year old traditional country house replete with deer park, roaring fires, ornate ceilings, and wedding cake plasterwork.

Swinfen Hall

Swinfen Hall is the grand setting for the 'Dans le Noir' pop up during which four courses are served in the pitch dark - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

After being told our seating arrangements and waiting with drinks, we are led to our table, by blind waiter Roberto sporting dark shades. To avoid any light reflection in the dining room, we've had to leave our phones and watches in a locker outside. Instructed to put a hand on the shoulder of the guest in front, in the manner of a nursery school crocodile, we enter the velvety blackness, our faces brushed by curtains, twisting and turning until a tactile Roberto pushes us into chairs.

Diners gather with their blind waiters at the Dans Le Noir pop up at Swinfen Hall

Diners gather with their blind waiters at the Dans Le Noir pop up at Swinfen Hall - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

We are in his domain now. He's in control. I enjoyed the dark - feeling comforted and stimulated by this new experience. It reminded me of my photography training, spending hours in a darkroom. Others, I'm told by Ola, the Dans le Noir manager, feel vulnerable and exposed. "Many people ask to leave quite quickly, they can't handle it," he said.

The ambient noise is tremendous as other tables are seated, voices getting louder with nerves. I find it harder to 'hear' my dining companions. As someone who is deaf in one ear, I rely more than I realise on reading lips. Our first task, Roberto instructs us is to pour a glass of water: "There is a bottle of water in front of you". I grope the table, finding the bottle and unscrewing the top. The glass is to the right. I pour the water, keeping one finger inside the glass so that I know when to stop. I breathe out deeply, mission accomplished.

The dining room before the light is extinguished for a four course meal

The dining room before the light is extinguished for a four course meal - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

Again I feel Roberto's hands, placing a bowl in front of me, feeling him touch my hands to guide me. He then serves the others. I can only really hear the woman next to me. Those opposite are silent, which is unnerving, while Ola, who sits at the head of the table, talks us through the meal. The quiet people 'disappear'. You don't know if they are still there.

Roberto gives me a glass of wine, which I pat the table to find. I'm guessing it is white, because of the chilled temperature. Famously there was a 'black glass' experiment in which the finest masters of wine were given blind tastings of different wines at the same temperature. Virtually none of them could distinguish between red or white wine.

Swinfen Hall near Litchfield is the setting for the Dans Le Noir pop up

Swinfen Hall near Litchfield is the setting for the Dans Le Noir pop up - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

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Dans le Noir suggests your senses will be stronger when deprived of vision. I'm not sure that is the case. Certainly not immediately. Scientist Frédéric Brochet discovered that the brain processes olfactory (taste and smell) cues approximately ten times slower than sight -- 400 milliseconds versus 40 milliseconds.

The experience is messier, riskier and harder to differentiate between flavours. Texture and temperature become all important: common foods such as cucumber feel cold or wet. Nothing is served too hot: it is a risk for the blind waiters and also for the diners. Nor do we have stem glasses for wine; tumblers are safer.

We have four courses: the first has something rubbery and smooth in the middle. I think it's an egg. The second is ravioli with possibly a root vegetable inside? By now I'm feeling out food with my fingers rather than cutlery. The design on top of the third course pastry feels like some kind of pithivier. There is a creamy puddle - mushroom?

Dessert has crispy bits- puffed rice? Cold thick cream, perhaps ice cream. I got confused, some of the sweetness tasted bitter, almost savoury. By the fourth course I realised I had food in my fringe. Later, having drinks in the sitting room, Roberto and Dhao, our blind waiters, emerge. Now they are quiet, sitting down with dark glasses and canes.

Now we are in the world of the sighted. I ask:"How do you differentiate between the meals? vegetarian, meat eaters or gluten-free?" It turns out, that the shape of the plates and bowl are different for each specialised diet.

Swinfen Hall the location for the Dans le Noir pop up

Swinfen Hall the location for the Dans le Noir pop up - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

The next day we sit in the huge elegant ballroom for breakfast and wander around the gardens where there is a huge oak tree painted red. This is an interesting and diverting weekend away from London which runs until March 31 and again in November.
 
To Book: https://swinfenhallhotel.co.uk/dining-in-the-dark/
Price - £95pp includes four course meal and wine. Times: Wednesday to Saturday – first seating 6pm, last seating 9.45pm
Sunday – 12 noon to 15.45pm. Dietary requirements to be provided ahead of booking. No photography allowed