Let your nose lead you to a place of happiness and excitement
Pleasant kitchen smells can contribute as much to our happiness as the hearty meal it heralds
Before we eat our food, we see it, which is why we strive to make it look as good as possible. But before we see the food, we smell it – and the aroma of food is one of the key elements of its attraction, its satisfaction and its ability to make us feel well.
Walk into a house where there is an aroma of fresh bread, or the scent of meat slowly braising in the air and you not only feel instantly hungry, you feel immediately loved up.
Smell alters our mood, as aromatherapists know, but I reckon the ultimate aromatherapy is the scent of a chicken roasting in the oven, or a fist of basil leaves torn up by hand and scattered over a tomato salad, or bashed with mortar and pestle as you make some pesto.
Every cuisine has its olfactory heavy-hitters: the great Chinese trinity of spring onion, garlic and ginger sizzling in crazy heat in the wok; the Italian soffrito of sautéed onion to which garlic is added, followed by the rest of the dish’s ingredients; in Catalonia, this will be sofregit, with tomatoes added to the cooked onions.
We are led by our noses and it is good for us. Lovely food odours are calming, and create expectations that make us happy: sharing food; recalling a happy time from childhood; feeling hungry and then feeling sated; being with others.
But the smell of food is also exciting to our senses, which is why we want pickle in our hamburger, or juniper in our gin, or lemon curd in a cake.
Scientists often describe smell as a “primitive” sense, but smell has been an essential component of the development of the higher mental processes of the brain. The food and science writer Harold McGee has gone so far as to say that: “In a way, then, smell gave birth to the mind.” We smell, therefore we think!
There is a lovely passage by the American food writer Michael Ruhlman, in his book Ruhlman’s Twenty, where he describes the effect of the aroma of food cooking in a house quite beautifully:
“A decade ago, deep in a Cleveland, Ohio, winter, with nothing but blackness by 6pm, I was addressing bills I didn’t quite have the funds to pay, and I wondered why I wasn’t nearly as miserable as I ought to be. It was the short ribs braising in the oven, the kitchen windows steamed from the heat . . . Braised beef short ribs with buttered noodles.
“Braising sets the tone of warmth and satisfaction and fullness in your home, even when your bank account isn’t any of those things.”
Most of what we taste in food is due to our sense of smell, which is why you can get very knowledgeable wine tasters who don’t actually drink the stuff: they only need to smell the wine to identify its characteristics and to identify it.
Opening up potential
It is the smell of food that opens up its potential to us, because while we can smell thousands upon thousands of odour molecules, our taste buds are limited to the five major tastes: salt, sour, bitter, sweet, umami. It’s in the olfactory system that the real glory of our food resides, and that is why the smell of what we eat is so important to our wellbeing.