Considering the the importance we attribute to aromas in wine, it's funny that leaning over and sniffing your plate in a restaurant is still not considered the height of politeness.
Mint. Parsley. Mandarin. Lemon. Grapefruit. Vanilla. Rosemary. Cinnamon. Lemon thyme. Basil. Rose. Verbena. All of these make their way into my cooking, more or less often. But what these flavorings also have in common is that I would happily rub them into my skin.
I was reminded of this when my eco-conscious hairdresser Nathalie asked me to conduct an experiment with her new line of shampoos, each of which contains essential oils (Nathalie works only with natural and organic products in her little salon L'Oiseau Bleu, which always smells heavenly). "Give each one a sniff," she said, "and the one you are drawn to will be the shampoo your hair needs."
I narrowed it down to two shampoos, one scented with mint and parsley and the other with orange and lemon. According to the labels, this means that my hair is either severely damaged or dull-looking and my psychological state is iffy. I suspect, though, that my choice had more to do with my love of anything food-related than the state of my hair. I wash in the morning with papaya and coconut soap and, when I wear perfume, it's either light and citrusy or warm and spicy. Most often I prefer not to wear perfume, which can distract from other pleasurable scents.
I wouldn't say that I have a great nose, but you don't have to be a musician to appreciate jazz music (I should know). My sense of smell was never more sensitive than during my pregnancy: for a while I couldn't stand olive oil, believe it or not, and my Paris neighborhood became a minefield of magnified odors.
I try to rely on my nose as much as possible in the kitchen, where this often-neglected sense can prove far more reliable than a timer. My nose tells me when a pie crust is biscuit-crisp, when chicken stock has developed a rich intensity, when onions have released their initial aggression to become sweet and mellow. (Ears are useful too, but that's another post.)
Considering the the importance we attribute to aromas in wine, it's funny that leaning over and sniffing your plate in a restaurant is still not considered the height of politeness. Lately, though, a few chefs have been drawing attention to the role our noses play in appreciating food. One is the wizard-like Ferran Adrià, who designed a spoon with a clip on the handle for attaching a herb sprig. Another is Alain Passard of L'Arpège in Paris, who likes to tinker with essences of vegetables, herbs and flowers in his cooking.
The creative people at Context Paris, a company for which I occasionally do food tours in Paris, have had the brilliant idea of organizing a dinner exploring the relationship between scents and cooking. Chandler Burr, perfume critic for The New York Times and author of The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York (Henry Holt and Co., 2008), has worked with Lapérouse’s new chef, Samuel Benne, to create a menu based on classic Paris scents that can be found in perfumes. It seems that "culinary perfumes," which are based on foods such as spices, herbs, fruit, chocolate and teas, are a bit of a French phenomenon (hmm, I wonder why?). Over an eight-course dinner, participants will learn about the molecular components that make up these perfumes and recognize the same scents in the dishes served.
I won't be able to indulge in this fascinating experience myself, but perhaps you can: the dinner takes place on Thursday, June 5th at 7.30pm. For more information and to sign up, visit the Context Paris website.