“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself. Immediately, at the very moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertoires throughout the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, old memories, connections.”
“It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”
—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
I think about this a lot, and I wonder what your thoughts are. Do we want a more robust language for scent? If we, as a culture, paid more attention to everyday smells and regularly sought out scents to experience—would it lose some of its magic?
Sometimes smelling a raw material feels like discovering a Rosetta Stone—it unlocks a perfume that until then I couldn’t quite decipher.
Recently I had this flash of recognition with flouve absolute (see description below), which was entirely new to me, but upon smelling it I suddenly understood what’s going on in Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse. Similarly, when I smelled a gorgeous fir absolute, it felt like I could more deeply understand Slumberhouse’s Norne and its dense, sweet, “jammy” forest character. I don’t know if this material is in the perfume, but when I smelled hydrocarboresine (made from the gummy resin of labdanum) my mind instantly went to Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma, and the chewy quality of its smoky leather made more sense, like I could see the through-line from incense to chocolate.
Have you had this experience with any raw materials and perfumes?
I had just started reading a section of The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about the matsutake mushroom by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, when it was time to go to dinner. I was surprised and delighted to see the list of specials—there it was: matsutake mushroom, served with preserved pine, currants, and herring roe. I had never heard of matsutake until about an hour before, and I wasn’t 100% sure I was remembering the name right, but I had to order it.
From what I’d read at that point, I gathered that matsutake had a polarizing scent, and that it could overtake and ruin a dish if you didn’t prepare it correctly (Tsing described throwing out an entire stir-fry when the matsutake’s flavor invaded every bite). I was expecting a strong and distinctive aroma, but was a little disappointed to find the dish perfectly inoffensive. Light and earthy, with an outdoorsy aromatic lift, probably from the pine, and a hint of salty marine breeze from the roe. The mushroom was served raw and sliced thin, yet its smell and flavor was mild. Ordinary.
After dinner I went back to the chapter I’d read and realized that I hadn’t yet encountered an actual description of the smell. I kept reading. Tsing says that for the Japanese people to whom matsutake is so delightful, it’s a nostalgic smell. It “smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell … It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.” Eventually she breaks the news: “It is time to tell you that most people of European origin can’t stand the smell.” Even though matsutake flourishes in the PNW, Tsing says that white mushroom pickers find the smell “nauseating,” describing the smell as “mold,” “turpentine,” and “mud.” When I googled matsutake to try to find out what kind of smell I should have expected, the first hit was this description from California mycologist David Arora: “A provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and ‘dirty socks.’” I felt a little bit shortchanged to have been given such a pleasant dish.
“Perfume is a language whose speech is worth learning and unpacking as one would a poem, book, or film. Scent is a path to getting closer to our senses, to instinct, and to our bodies and the earth at a time when those attachments are threatened.”
—Barbara Herman in her wonderful book Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume