When was the last time you let aromas guide you when you go exploring?
As a travel writer it’s an eternal mystery to me how devalued our noses are as tools of global discovery - and why it’s not a common thing to be presented with a “smell map” of a place when you first arrive, highlighting the sources of the most interesting and evocative lungfuls of air.
Yet I’m far from the first to wonder this:
“The artist Kate McLean has been trying to address these and other questions for the past seven years with her Sensory Maps project. In 2010, she began looking for ways to map landscapes based on sensory input. The first of these maps related to smell. “I collected comments about smell from people in different parts of Edinburgh,” she says, “and transformed that into a visualization that had this amazing link to the environment, as smell often has to do with conditions like wind direction, rain, or changes in temperature.””
-“Learning About Cities By Mapping Their Smells,”Vittoria Traverso, Atlas Obscura
The philosopher Immanuel Kant also described the sense of smell as the “noblest” of our sensory information inputs - while noting it was generally regarded as the “most dispensable.” I’d say the same is still true in modern times.
But what a poor thing our experience of the world would be without the joy triggered by an evocative aroma: the petrichor smell of wet earth after a bout of rain. The warm, yeasty mouthwateringness of freshly-baked bread (which supermarkets have been known to deliberately waft in our direction to subliminally program us into raiding the bakery section). Those first ten seconds of pure nostril-based bliss after you grind fresh coffee beans into a powder that’ll make coffee that never tastes as good as it smells…
And then there’s perfume. If smell is really so much of an also-ran, why do we collectively spend so much money on altering our own?
If you’re joining Wheel & Anchor in our trip to Tuscany in October, you’ll discover the truth of this for yourself. On top of being a feast for all your other senses, it’s also one of the world’s greatest fragrance manufacturing centres, home of almost all the world’s cultivation of orris root and its resin - which, pound for pound, is up to 3.5 times more expensive than solid gold.
There’s something magical at work here, because when newly harvested from the sweet iris (a pale violet flower that forms waves of soft colour across many parts of the Tuscan landscape), it’s almost odorless. It’s only after years of storage - six years to reach full maturity - that orris root yields the incredibly versatile oily butter that has become so precious worldwide:
“Its incredible potency means that only a few drops of distilled orris absolute are needed, fanning the top notes of a perfume’s composition or flavouring botanical spirits like gin.”
- “Orris: The world’s rarest perfume ingredient,” Adrienne Bernhard & Elisabetta Abrami, BBC Travel
(Legend has it that the discovery of orris’s whisky-like properties of aging was a happy accident.)
But there’s a clue here to Orris’s enduring popularity - it’s a flavour too. Because really, all aromas are also flavours. We separate smell and taste out in our language, but they’re two sides of the same coin - and both have a similar effect on us, like the way a fragrance can catapult you back to a treasured memory in exactly the same way a taste can.
So - since they have much the same effect on us, what’s the science here? Just how closely related are they in a human-biology sense?
Let’s try an experiment. What’s the tastiest thing in your house right now? Go get a bit of it. (Chocolate works a treat for this.)
Now - pinch your entire nose closed, front to back, the entire fleshy part of it including both nostrils, right back to where you feel the bone begin. Bingo! Your dose is dow incabable of sbellig adythig.
Now put that tasty thing in your mouth. Let it dissolve on your tongue. Bat it around a bit. Give it a chew.
There shouldn’t be much flavour (which is weird) but you’ll be getting something else that contributes to what we call “taste.” We don’t think about this often enough, but - why do we describe a taste as ‘silky smooth’ or ‘creamy’? They’re textures, right? And yet we include them in our everyday act of tasting stuff.
Now let go of your nose. POW. Immediately that flavour is back.
We tend to think of taste as a thing made solely in the mouth, but a lot is engineered in the back of the nose - more specifically, in olfactory receptors, special cells that send messages to the brain. Pinch your nose shut and you discover how important they are in tasting anything.
Okay. Now this story gets a bit weird.
It’s 2012, and at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen, Professor Barry Smith is speaking to his audience. As the founding director of the University of London’s Centre For The Study Of The Senses, he’s there to talk about taste - more specifically, how absurdly complicated it is:
“What we call taste is in fact the result of inputs from touch, taste and smell that combine into a single unified experience that we either like or dislike. The effects of one sense on another go unnoticed in our experience and yet finding out about these interactions is telling us more and more about how our senses combine information.”
That’s “like or dislike” as an immediate reaction. Our mouths are biologically wired to respond negatively to some tastes - in particular bitterness, which is often associated with poisons, toxins and other harmful stuff.
This is why your first taste of anything bitter (say, beer) is a hearty BLEARGH. You just can’t help yourself. To appreciate its “adult” flavours, you need to teach your palate to overcome this reaction, by way of tasting this “bad" thing again and again until its more rewarding side makes an appearance.
It’s the flavour equivalent of a masochistic-looking hobby that involves fighting all your natural instincts - like, say, running.
But then Smith explains this picture is even more confused by how those receptors in our noses actually work. When you’re smelling something, you’re wafting airborne chemicals over them in one direction: up your nose and into your face.
Yet when you’re tasting that same thing, you’re wafting those same chemicals out of your nose (because when you eat, you breathe out a little bit) over those exact same nasoreceptors. And for whatever reason, they work differently in this direction.
The message they send to your brain from a sniff is different to the one they send as you breathe out - even though the airborne chemicals triggering them are exactly the same.
You can test this for yourself, as I’ve been doing this week to the point of hyperventilation and sparkly vision. Get something that smells nice, pinch your nose, breathe in the smell through your mouth, close your mouth, let go of your nose and breathe it out. It’s a subtle difference, for sure - but when it’s part of what we call “taste” (which is really made of Actual Taste + Mouthfeel + Smell), there’s a big impact.
According to Professor Smith, almost every ingestible substance is like this. There’s always that difference, and for some people, it’s a difference they never learn (ie. force themselves) to overcome. It’s also presumably why things that smell nightmarishly awful like durian and century egg can actually be pretty tasty - and why we can stomach eating cheeses that smells like 6-month-old dirty laundry.
Weirdly, only two things have been found to taste exactly the same way they smell: chocolate (hooray!) and lavender (erm, ok - although I gather it’s pretty decent in pound cake).
This, then, is smell’s superpower: if you try to eradicate it, it’ll take everything else down with it. Our sense of enjoyment of all the finer things in life will be blunted to the point they’re just not worth the hassle anymore. What’s an expensive new shirt or dress without the fresh, subtle just-made smell that wafts up your body as you move around in it? (And let’s not get started on anything made of leather.)
What about new furniture? And if taste has a “texture” in our mouth, and blocking smell also shuts down taste, does that mean that the “mouth-feel” of food is heavily dependent on smell as well?
In all sorts of subtle ways, it’s everything that’s at stake here.
Fragrance is incredibly important to our ability to live a rich, enjoyable life - and perhaps it’s a testament to how ingrained it is into our sensory experience of the world that we mostly seem to use it without consciously appreciating it, except for those moments when we encounter an especially pungent flower, or recoil from someone who seems to have taken a bath in whatever perfume or aftershave they’re wearing…
So that’s my challenge to you, wherever you’ll be in the world this year. When you’re out in well-aired spaces with no need to wear a mask, be open to following your nose. You never know what it’s trying to tell you.
Join Wheel & Anchor in October of this year for a month of wine tasting, relaxing, and exploring in Italy's charming Tuscany region - but act quickly! Only a few places remain.