paper I am going to explore the relationship between food, flavour and
self-identity from my personal experience as a chef and food writer. Every
culinary choice that we make defines who we are, not just to ourselves, but
also to others. Cooking is an unspoken language, but it is one that few analyse
or clearly understand.
I am not
referring to culinary techniques or social fashions, but rather to the main
sensory relationship that we have with food, in particular with its smell.
It is this sense that appears to link
us most strongly with emotion and memory, and therefore our identity. The scents
of freshly baked bread or of crushed mint, for example, instantly evoke
memories and associative emotions to anyone familiar with them, and in turn
have an influence on their behavior.
flavour and emotion
purposes of this paper, it is important to clarify the difference between taste
There is often
confusion amongst cooks as to the meaning of these two terms.
This is hardly surprising as in
everyday English the two words are often interchangeable.
However, it helps to differentiate
their meaning in order to understand how we experience food.
In this context taste refers to the
five tastes – bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami – which can only be detected
in the mouth from water-soluble compounds in our food1.
is often mistaken for taste, but is actually a complex mixture of smell, taste
and what is often referred to as ‘mouth feel’.
In order to explore the ideas in this paper, I am going to
refer solely to the olfactory aspect of flavour.
In other words, when I refer to flavour here, I mean smell
or what the olfactory cells in the roof of the nasal cavity pick up from
air-borne compounds. These can be in the air around us or released from the
food in our mouths.
way to understand the difference between taste and flavour is to crush a bay
leaf and sniff.
It will release a
sweet herbal fragrance, the delicate flavour of a creamy béchamel sauce.
Now, take a tentative bite.
You will discover that it tastes
words, it is the smell of the bay leaf rather than its taste that flavours the
food writers know, one of the best ways to lure a reader into cooking is to
write an evocative article. The food is put into a desirable context.
This might be conjuring up a cosy
kitchen, where the reader feels they can almost lick the chocolate from your
mixing bowl, or it might be some foreign land, where they can almost taste the
exotic foods cooked by the roadside.
In either case, the first thing the reader subconsciously does is to
smell everything you describe.
mere thought sets their mouth watering, and with luck they will want to
recreate a sense of what they have read and felt.
years, little was understood about how our sense of smell works, but in 2004
Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
for their discoveries of “odorant receptors and the organization of the
olfactory system” or as Linda Buck entitled her Nobel Lecture
“unraveling the sense of smell’’2.
They discovered an enormous gene family, comprising of some 1,000
different genes (three per cent of our genes) that give rise to an equivalent
number of olfactory receptor types. In essence, their work showed how we are
able to recognize and remember about 10,000 different odours.
These receptors are located on the
olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part of the
nasal epithelium and detect the inhaled odorant molecules. It is through this
mechanism that we detect the scent of food when eating.
Furthermore, these signals take a surprisingly
direct path to influence the activity of those areas of the brain to do with
emotion and memory.
All of the
other senses are less immediately experienced because they are heavily filtered
and modified by other areas of the brain before they can do this.
munching an apple.
You taste its
sweet sour flesh, perhaps even a hint of bitterness in the skin, but it is the
apple’s flavour or smell that releases myriad delicious notes. Moreover, this
mechanism, by which we can consciously experience a smell can recall that same
olfactory memory at other times.
Take melted chocolate:
whenever the same aroma is smelt, it will trigger distinct memories and emotional
reactions, which can be posititve or negative depending on the earlier
Anyone who has been
ill from eating a bad mussel, for example, will know that even years later,
their slightly sulphurous ozone smell can prevent you from eating them, no
matter how good the dish.
there is little to eat, our sense of smell is crucial to ensure that we eat
safely; in the same way as our ability to taste umami helps us to consume a
However, in a
well-fed world, smell takes on a different role.
We can choose foods whose aromas make us feel good through
their positive associations; and we can select recipes whose smell projects a
particular message about ourselves to others.
when I grind some Brazilian coffee beans, their rich scent instantly reminds me
of student days and Italian holidays.
Their fragrance makes me feel both young and sophisticated.
I like the feeling and image and decide
to play on it by making a coffee crème caramel.
If my guests have equally positive associations, their love
of coffee will colour how they perceive me and how much they enjoy eating my
interprets flavour according to his or her own cultural context. Every aspect
of eating can indicate different social classes, ideologies and nationality. On
the simplest level, a Jain or vegan is unlikely to feel comfortable in a home
that is filled with the scent of roast beef.
At a more complex level, the Japanese appreciate the
aesthetics of releasing a puff of aromatic steam when they remove the lid from
a bowl of suimono (clear) soup before admiring its physical beauty and pure
Yet, it would be deemed impolite amongst the English upper classes to
sniff a bowl of consommé, no matter how good it smelled.
language of flavours
enthusiasts are familiar with categorizing different fragrances in their drink,
but most cooks have not consciously given the matter much thought.
In culinary terms, this is akin to
talking without fully understanding the meaning of the words you use.
Every flavour we create has resonances,
and the deeper our awareness of smell, the better our ability to create good
theory, there are an infinite number of smells and their combinations, so
rather than be overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject, I found it helpful
to try to categorize different flavours into broad groups such as verdant,
citrus, ozone, earth and fungi4.
This helped me to identify foods that
have a predominant flavour and then see how they worked within my cooking.
Earthy notes, for example, can be found in many grains such as oats, barley and
buckwheat, as well as in pulses and root vegetables.
start to focus on a particular category of flavour it is surprising how
sensitive you become to that aroma.
My mental starting point for earth was the smell of mud from my rural
childhood, which I might add has a sweeter more vegetable-like aroma than
rank-smelling London clay.
began to identify elements of earthiness in different foods, I realized that it
is a smell that requires careful handling. A hint of rain-splashed muddy
vegetables can evoke a primeval sense of oneness with nature, but too strong a
whiff can trigger revulsion with its closeness to foul smells. Think of the
delicious earthy flavour of a baked potato.
It hints at camp fires and freshly dug soil.
Now imagine eating stewed brown lentils
sweet earthy flavour is amplified by the fungic aroma of the mushrooms to
create a sense of rotting vegetation which would be unpleasant to eat.
began to explore foods within my chosen group of flavours, it became clear that
each flavour group required a different culinary approach.
Earthy flavoured ingredients, for
example, tend to be starchy.
has several implications: first, that care is needed in their preparation to
prevent their natural sweetness from becoming cloying5;
and second, that an earthy aroma can also be associated with what are widely
considered to be ‘comfort’ foods and will therefore generate a secondary
emotional reaction in the eater.
illustrate this point further, it is worth looking at a contrasting flavour
such as verdant. I used the smell of freshly cut grass as my starting point for
tracking down verdant flavoured food, such as watercress, parsley, spinach and
The nature of such
foods is ephemeral as their aroma is easily destroyed by prolonged contact with
Many also have an underlying
This means that
verdant flavoured foods should either be added raw at the last minute to a
dish, or blanched to lessen their bitterness and capture some of their
Winter greens, for
example, are both bitter and verdant, but by briefly blanching them and then
adding them at the last minute to a hot dish, the cook can make them taste
sweeter and more fragrant.
so obvious, but then there is the tricky question of how we respond emotionally
to verdant flavours.
This is, of
course, entirely subjective. In my mind, verdant flavours are associated with a
wonderful feeling of bubbling optimism. The scent of green leaves, spring
showers and warm days induce a feeling of anticipation in me. To translate this
into culinary terms means introducing constant verdant flavoured excitement
into a dish, either by contrasting textures, such as with a mixed leaf salad,
or by layering flavours so that the verdant notes add an element of surprise,
for instance, by biting into a prawn and watercress sandwich and discovering a
hint of sorrel hidden in the watercress.
in our environment
order to understand how different flavours affect us, it is necessary to set
food aside for a minute and consider our normal, everyday environment. What
does it smell like?
literally bombarded by different scents all the time, but we only focus on a
smell when it is different from normal.
Thus, most of us wouldn’t be able to describe the smell of our homes,
unless we had just returned after a long absence or suddenly discovered an
unusual aroma like unexpected damp or the drains. To become aware of all the
different scents of our surroundings requires constant conscious analysis.
Take the streets of central London:
their underlying smell is a mixture of dust, traffic fumes and dirt. This is
then overlaid with myriad different odours ranging from fragrant flowers and
stale alcohol to cooked food and wood smoke.
reason for such analysis is that during the process of writing my last book
and Spice A Year of Flavour, I realised that our cooking is deeply influenced by the smell of our
In North India, for
example, the evening air hangs heavy with smoke from small fires fuelled by
dried cow pats.
aroma, mixed with spices and sizzling ghee, permeates the Indian cook’s
perception of life.
flavourings such as tar-like black cardamoms or heavy-scented cloves to aromatic
rice and earthy dahl dishes creates a pleasing resonance with the smell of
To give another
example, if you eat the food of the Outer Hebrides, you can pick up the scent
of sea spray, moorland mist, heather and peat smoke. The pure natural scent of
this environment is interpreted into foods that are dominated by few notes,
such as earth, ozone, smoke and honey.
This is perfected in an Islay
whisky, but can be enjoyed in dishes such as hot smoked salmon with oat cakes
and tea soaked fruit cake.
words, when you set about creating the categories of flavour you want to
explore, your choice will automatically be influenced by your environment as
well as by your personal taste and cultural background. As a Londoner, I will
inevitably translate some of the smells around me into food.
A cold November London night, with its
smell of taxi fumes, Indian restaurant cooking and smoke, for example, results
in a spicy black bean chilli flavoured with smoked Spanish paprika and cumin.
are choosing which flavour groups to analyze in your cooking, it is worth
drawing up a general list and then selecting those that have the greatest
resonance with you.
range from light smells such as citrus, ozone, floral and verdant to heavier
flavours, for example, earth, fungi, smoke, toast, nut, caramel and
There are many others,
including butter, cream, herbal, fruit, spice and resinous. You could even
consider putrid as there is nothing to say that a flavour has to be nice6.
Terasi (balachan or shrimp paste), for instance, smells horrid, yet in
tiny quantities its flavour adds an irresistible element to Javanese food7.
Many categories, such as fruit, herbal and spice are
enormous and can be sub-divided.
then comes the task of considering your emotional response to different
Obviously, I can only
highlight what certain flavours mean to me, but perhaps this will help to
clarify your own thoughts.
here is a selection of some of my favourite positive and negative
Citrus notes instill a
sense of excitement and a desire for simplicity; ozone flavours, such as you
might find in oysters or seaweed, are imbued with a feeling of freedom and
energy that comes from windswept beaches.
Cream and butter aromas suggest dreamy thoughtfulness, while floral
scents such as rose and lavender evoke a childhood sense of rural English
the negative: in other words, flavours I prefer to avoid or will use with a very
light hand as they can make me feel uncomfortable. These tend to be smells that
somehow seem tainted or related to bad food.
Sulphur notes, for example, fill me with anxiety.
These can be found in a surprising
number of ingredients, ranging from eggs to asafetida.
The bloody iron-like smell of some
foods, such as mutton and liver also make me feel uneasy, while the smell of
processed pork products epitomised by spam and cheap sausages, induces a sense
As an aside, it is
interesting to note that food writers rarely write about bad flavours as
editors think that such topics will not sell copy, yet understanding what and
why something tastes bad is crucial to becoming a good cook.
have established your flavour palette and explored individual flavour groups,
you can start to use them together.
Imagine serving a blackberry crumble.
The scent of bubbling sugary blackberries instantly conjures
up a sense of comfort that should make you relax and feel happy and spoilt,
provided of course, you like blackberry crumble.
If you then make a crumble topping with ground roasted
hazelnuts, you will add an evocative toasted nut flavour that might add a
frisson of excitement; or you could flavour the blackberries with cinnamon,
which would reinforce the sense of homely comfort.
manufacturers are starting to conduct research on which aromas induce positive
emotions in the eater, particularly in relation to different tastes. The
apparently soothing nature of vanilla, for example, appears to negate
bitterness in food.
It is likely
that most consumers will not notice if they are being manipulated in this way,
since the widespread increase in the use of the artificial taste enhancer monosodium
glutamate to make poor quality food taste more alluring has occurred with
also beginning to experiment with aroma. Heston Blumenthal, chef owner of the
three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in England uses smell to influence the
diner’s perception by artificially conjuring up a landscape. A classic example
is a dish entitled Oak Moss and Truffle Toast.
When I ate it, they placed on the table a bed of moss, under
which was hidden dry ice.
released a billowing mist, so that you smelt the moss as you allowed a tiny piece
of oak flavoured film to melt on your tongue before biting into a delicious
piece of truffle and oak buttered toast, which was then alternated with some
parfait of foie gras and matsutake puree.
It was like eating pure autumn.
Massimiliano Alajmo, chef owner of the three Michelin-starred Ristorant
Le Calandre in Italy, meanwhile, has partnered up with the perfumer Lorenzo
Dante Ferro to create distillates of natural flavours such as cardamom,
bergamot and ginger.
He then takes
a dish, such as broad bean curds, langoustine and radicchio and sprays his
marinated seared langoustines with a lemon distillate at the last moment, just
before he plates them. The prawns are not soured with a squeeze of lemon juice,
but the dish does contain a little lemon zest.
His concept is to use smell to accentuate an element in the
recipe or to deceive the eater.
other words, he sees it as a means of removing the eater from reality and
playing with flavour. It may well be a sign of cooking to come that he now
sells some of these distillates as Essenze in his In.grediets line.
and eating is about being alive.
The food writer acts like a conduit between cook and ingredient –
heightening the cook’s awareness and appreciation. The more we start to
consciously smell the world around us, the more we will appreciate everything
that we make and eat, albeit through an unspoken language.
1 David V.
Smith and Robert F. Margolskee,
Making Sense of Taste, Scientific American, March 2001
2 Linda B.
Unraveling the Sense of Smell,
Nobel Lecture, December 8, 2004
Japanese Cooking A Simple Art,
Kodansha International, 1985
Citrus and Spice A
Year of Flavour, Simon & Schuster, 2008
Taste A New Way to
Cook, Mitchell Beazley, 2003
The Secret of Scent
Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell,
Faber & Faber, 2006
Indonesian Food and
Cookery, Prospect Books, 1986
This is a lecture I gave at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 2009. The subject of the Symposium was Food and Language. It is also published in Food and Language, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2009, published by Prospect Books.