Wednesday 2 March 2011

The scent of memory

Culture is about human nature, and people who love food and fragrance are acutely aware of the connection between the senses and memory.” So writes Michelle Knell Kydd on her exquisite blog Glass Petal Smoke, dedicated to the olfactory and taste senses. Here she introduces us to osmanthus, the dried blossoms of which "are redolent of apricot, lemon and blonde leather" and uses it to infuse sugar for cakes. 

She has devised a questionnaire about the sense of smell which really does make you think a little deeper. Michelle is collecting responses, so if this appeals to you, do feel free to send her yours. You’ll see how it works by clicking on this link to Glass Petal Smoke. Here, just for fun, are my responses:

What does your sense of smell mean to you?
It adds the final layer of sensory experience, whether you are travelling on the Paris metro, or cooking a lamb tagine full of spices. Imagine walking around a garden and not being able to smell the mineral earth of early spring, or the sudden sweet perfume of a daphne or narcissus. I agree with Michelle that the sense of smell is a memory trigger like no other.

What are some of your strongest scent memories?
When I was quite young, my family went to live in China. The vibrant colours and sense of the exotic in Peking, as it was then, coincided with the age at which I really became aware of my surroundings. The gardens in front of where we lived were full of orange marigolds and every time I smell their sharp, sweet pepperiness, I am five years old again. There was a shop not far away that sold toys and dolls in silk clothes, silk figures in boxes and sandalwood fans. I still have some of these, and they have kept their scent to an extraordinary degree. If I ever come across them, as soon as the box is opened, I am remembering seeing them for the first time.

What are some of your favorite smells in nature, cooking, your environment?
I love the scent of flowers: lilies, the heliotrope, nicotiana, and the dark red cosmos that smells of rich chocolate. Pine trees after rain. Rosemary and thyme growing wild on sunny slopes. Dried Herbes de Provence frying with onion. And wood burning: sweet fallen branches from the fig trees and logs from a dead olive and cherry; bonfires in the evening; fireworks; even the striking and snuffing of a match is delicious.

Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
Old books have a slight mustiness, almost like incense. It’s the perfume of my days as a student, in the library of a Cambridge college, the atmosphere of rooms containing rare manuscipts and ancient tomes. That scent can be powerful in secondhand bookshops, too. It used to be exacerbated by damp cellars in junk shops we used to haunt in Greenwich down by the Thames when Rob and I were renovating out first flat in south London together, but it still carries the scent of the old about to be rediscovered. 

Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
Baking: any biscuits or cakes. And also toffee apples, though in my experience they always smell wonderful, but are a disappointment to eat.

What smells do you most dislike?
Cigarette smoke (though I don’t mind cigar or pipe tobacco), oil and petrol, bad drains, old fishbones, and mice.

What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
French cigarettes - Gauloises, but they don't smell the same as they did when I was a teenager and the boys who smoked them were cooler than anyone in England. I've noticed that today's Gauloises and Gitanes have lost that rich, honeyed tobacco aroma and become almost as unbearable as Silk Cut.

What mundane smells inspire you?
Leather: the inside of old satchels and bags. The other day I came across a small leather shoulder bag I bought in Crete, many years ago on my first holiday abroad with friends. It’s a cheap, rough thing – but oh, the perfume of new independence mingled with anxiety!

What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
I have a whole library of perfumes that will take me to almost any given year! From the Chloe I wore as a seventeen-year-old, to the perfume I wore as a designer-suited journalist in London: Diva by Ungaro, and which remains a great confidence-giver. 

What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones? 
That would be the smell of houses, the unique alchemy produced by lingering cleaning polishes and cooking and perfume of the people who live there. 

What fragrances remind you of growing up?
The strawberries that grew in every garden and field in the village in Luxembourg where I lived as a child (two countries after China – we got around). English sweet shops, fuggy with a combination of Fry’s peppermint chocolate and comics. Germolene, the disgusting pink ointment for cuts and grazes. And TCP for teenage spots: one of the vilest and most lingering pongs known to man.

What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
An endless list… I’ll just pick Youth Dew, a whiff of which takes me right back to Singapore, where I used to spend my university vacations with my parents, who were living there by then.

Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind has one of the best openings I have ever read. It opens with a sensory bang, full of rotting cabbage and other stenches. And Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell, which is a glorious evocation of Corfu in the 1930s and a treasury of visual riches.


Carol said...

Oh my goodness!
Have just put up a posting on my blog about a smell that caught my attention only this morning and brought memories flooding back.

Great posting


Ankica said...

I have never seen such a clean, calm, beautiful blog design... I am sure content is the same :)

Michelle Krell Kydd said...

Your evocative sensory memories are a joy to read!

When you mention the smell of mineral earth I feel compelled to share my love of Mitti Attar with you. It is a distillation of earth and sandalwood and it reminds me a bit of Petrichor.

White Lotus produces beautiful Mitti. The story is here:

P.S. Thanks for taking the Glass Petal Smoke "Sensory Questionnaire" and sharing the link with your readers. Makes my labor of love all the more worthwhile.

Victoria said...

Fabulous post and tribute to the world of scent..I am a very multi-sensory person and scent has been a powerful experience throughout life being super sensitive..sometimes too powerful but mostly wonderful and a beautiful all in ym life.....there is just so much information attached and connected to scent..and all the senses.. people would be amazed! Wonderful post..lovely to read all your wonderful answers!Fabulous!

Anonymous said...

Presque une confession intime!
Merci Deborah de nous livrer tes petits secrets. Maintenant, nous te connaissons mieux.
Bonne journée!

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

This was a great writing prompt, whether you intended it or not...a lovely reminder to tap into all of the senses while writing. Thank you.

✿France✿ said...

Pas de tems ce soir donc je te souhaite une douce soirée

BonjourRomance said...

Bonjour Deborah,
I too love the smell of old books, you never know what you will find inside!
Enjoyed reading all your answers.
à beintoôt,

vicki archer said...

Wonderful read Deborah....xv

Adiante said...

Autant de questions auxquelles je n'aurai pas pensé ...

C'est un bon exercice mais je ne veux pas y répondre !

Leovi said...

It is very interesting test, and some of their responses are very creative.Saludos.

bookspersonally said...

So lovely- it is amazing how smells transport you to a different time and place. I love how you have described your favorites!

llevinso said...

Is it weird that I have almost no smell memory? Like different smells don't bring up the memories of different places or experiences for me. Am I broken?

Samantha Sotto said...

Lovely post. It reminds me of the saying - What the mind forgets, the body remembers :)

Forest Dream Weaver said...

Thanks for sharing this Deborah.It put my head(and whole self)in gear,some really deep memories came up.I enjoyed reading your own responses.

Anonymous said...

This is really cool. It will provide me with some good thinking whilst I work my day away.

IngridLola said...

Hi Deborah! Your blog is wonderful, and I'm glad you signed up for the Literary Blog Hop! However, to take part in the Hop you need to put up a post answering our question and linking back to us. Unfortunately, I had to take you off the Linky List for now, but you are welcome to add yourself again once you put up your post.

Thanks! :)

versus said...

The smell of the fresh cut grass...
Ou les draps à peine lavés et leur odeur embuée de la sortie de la machine, un corps tout chaud à relever.
(Votre blog, sur ma liste, désormais).
Le haut Var n' est pas si éloigné...

;) said...

Un très beau post à respirer... Les parfums, fragrances, odeurs font partie intégrante de ma vie, de mes souvenirs...

Suskind... mmmhhh

Deborah Lawrenson said...

All your comments are such a delight! Thanks to Michelle for her "labor of love" it seems many long forgotten senses have stirred. And yes, the smell of fresh cut grass, Versus - how could I have left that one out?

As Richard says, there is an air of the confessional about all this...but it's also true that some people naturally have little sense of smell. For those who do, though, a simple walk can be like entering a veritable library of memories.

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