Reawakening Smell: how a perfumery course changed my ideas about smell training
In the summer of 2014 I found myself on a Monday morning, seated in a classroom at Kingston University, starting a course called Design with Scents. The course, now entering its fourth year, is designed to provide budding perfumers and people with an interest in scent and marketing with a good start down whatever path they wish to follow. My fellow classmates came from all over the world. They were interesting, varied in both age and background. Everyone had an interest in fragrance. Everyone, that is, but me.
I had lost my sense of smell. It seems an odd combination for an anosmic (as we are called by the doctors) to want to attend a perfumer’s course. It had been recommended to me by Duncan Boak, founder of Fifth Sense, and he had attended the previous year. I was sceptical. But I was also becoming more and more disconnected from so many of the pleasures of life through this loss, which happened as the result of a virus. I was ready to try anything: it is better to be a student of your affliction than a sufferer.
Our week was a strange, wonderful and heady experience for me. At the time I attended, I was what is termed a “functional anosmic”. I could smell something, but not very much. Most smells seemed to me like white noise, or perhaps even grey and brown noise. I could detect the presence of smells, but beyond that I felt at a loss to interpret the olfactory messages. The difficulty that confronts anosmics – as well as all people interested in smell and fragrance I learned – is that the experience of smelling and not smelling is near impossible to put into words. The first awakening of that week was to be introduced to this problem -- formally -- and go through some exercises that employed all the senses in an effort to bring us towards the kind of vocabulary that might help us in understanding and describing what we smell.
The second awakening that week was the exciting feeling of seeing all those little bottles and knowing there is something wonderful hiding inside, even if I knew I couldn't really experience it fully. The tactile experience of this, doing smell, rather than smelling smell: the mouillettes, the ritual of holding, smelling, concentrating, thinking about smell. All these things may on the surface seem like just “smelling” but in fact the experience is multisensory. And although I was only catching a distorted glimpse of each accord, perfume or ingredient, it was as though I was allowed to look into a hundred unlocked safe deposit boxes by the light of a single candle.
I am a devourer of trivia, and have a scientific background, so the anecdotes about putrescine and cadaverine stick out prominently in my memory of that week, as does the headspace method of smell extraction. That week another surprise came to me: the smell of an ingredient in one fragrance, geosmin, made such an impression on my nose that I was able to “find” it the following day in another. I was actually able to learn, remember and isolate a new smell. Another unexpected awakening.
The crowning achievement for me at the Design with Scents course was the final day at the wine tasting. We were doing a compare-and-contrast exercise, and that was the first time I realised that something of the week of smelling was rubbing off onto the realm of flavour. What we perceive as flavour is actually a combination of “true taste”, or that which is experienced on the tongue (salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami) plus the smell of the food or drink we are taking. We use the word “taste” all the time without thinking that the full impact of any food or drink comes not from the tongue but a combination of tongue and nose. The next time you eat something delicious and hear yourself say “mm! mm!” with enthusiasm, think that tongue gesture you use to do this is pumping the air inside the oral cavity up to the olfactory epithelium for a hit of delicious sensation. The heightened awareness brought about by smelling, comparing, describing and thinking about smells that week seemed to make my experience of the wine that afternoon a new one. Now there was complexity. Awakening #4 was to discover separate strands of flavour in each mouthful.
What I found in the weeks after my course in Kingston was that food, also, was taking on a new definition. I describe my experience like this: If food for functional anosmics is like putting your dinner into a food processor and turning it into a brown mush, my week of intensive smell training allowed me to run that food processor backwards enough that I could experience individual flavour notes. I can’t say whether my ability to identify individual odour objects is better, but I had developed a new kind of awareness that let me drill down into which olfactory messages were making it to my brain.
But the benefit of this week of joys and marvels had one last gift for me, delivered recently. Because my sense of smell remains distorted (I have parosmia, which means all smells are different now than they used to be for me) I had given up hoping that one day I might smell one of those wonderful smells that bring you straight back to a happy moment in your past. Like the inside of the first car you owned, or your grandmother’s kitchen at Christmas. When I took out the olfactorium that was given to the participants at the close of the Design with Scents course, opened the bottles and smelled the accords we had used to blend our own fragrance, it happened. I was right back in Kingston during the hottest week on record. I probably won’t get any of the old ones back, but this memory shines bright in my new smellscape.