Friday, October 24, 2008

Can we improve our sense of smell?

“Can you train your nose?” inquires wine writer Natasha Hughes in the November edition of Decanter Magazine. Moreover, can people that professionally rely on their sense of smell accurately identify aromas outside their field of expertise? Three experts, a sommelier, a tea buyer, and a perfumier, were put to the test with tea, wine, and perfume samples.

The sommelier, Mathieu Gaignon, doesn't think he was born with extrordinary skills. “I believe the sense of smell is one you can train,” he says. “The trick is to find a way of associating an image with a particular smell.” For him, detecting the aromas of the perfume samples was easier than for the tea samples, which were more subtle, although he ended up with the same score for the tea as for the wine.

The tea buyer, Edward Eisler, “learned about tea just by being interested in it.” “When you're focused and you drink a lot of tea, you can pick up the subtleties,” he says. Although he acknowledged not being into perfume, he got the top score for the perfume and tea samples.

The perfumier, Linda Pilkington, was never formally trained, although she admits that perfume bottles was a childhood obsession. For her, the way we interpret aromas is personal. “Sometimes a smell reminds you of something personal to you, and it does not smell like that to someone else, ” she says. She thought that the aromas of the tea samples were the hardest to capture.

My conclusion is that our sense of smell should benefit from regular exercise. So next time you pour yourself a glass of wine, close your eyes, sniff, and enjoy!

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António R. said...

Wonderful post! I have a degree in enology and have been a winemaker for the last 20 years, producing red and white wines In Portugal and Port. My profession led me to develop my sense of smell. Once I mastered the skill of imaging smells to communicate with other people and to reference myself, living in a smell-ridden country like Portugal is, I started applying the same routines to several other smelling stuff. Tea, coffee, herbs, fruit, vegetables, clothes, streets, people and so on became the target of my nose. Recently, I cam across a french professional parfumist who lectures on aroma sniffing in wine according to parfum industry methodology. With him, I learned that besides images, aromas can be classified in terms of being warm or cold, upper-nose or lower-nose, balsamic or resinic, sweet or crisp and so on. Through this methodology, I enriched the way I approached smell and started using the concept of olfactive landscapes much in the way that we have visual or auditive ones. Some anthropologists contend that the western world capitalist society downgraded smell as a primitive, unsophisticated and dangerous sense. That's why western cities smell much less than oriental ones and also why fast food tastes much less than home cooked meals. Discovering that smell is a sense in all its right and following our nose around, closing our eyes and discovering the olfactive landscapes of the places where we are, is not only an awakening to a reality which is usually kept hidden from us, it is also a return to our most inner memories of childhood time. Worth the hassle!

Catherine Granger said...

Great comment, thanks António!