One of my favourite moments of the day is my first taste of breakfast. It’s normally as I’m standing over a little saucepan full of a porridge concoction of some description. All the wonderful porridge aromas weave their way up to my nostrils: a hint of cinnamon, a touch of honey and the nuttiness of oats.
Just for a few seconds, I breathe in deeply and smell before I put a tester spoonful in my mouth. I then adjust things with a little this or that depending on my mood and my taste buds. By the time I sit down to eat properly, I’m normally feeling nicely hungry and looking forward to eating what by now is smelling very enticing.
It’s amazing how little we normally think about smell, but it’s a very important part of life. Just think of all the things you would miss without smell: the aroma of freshly baked bread, coffee brewing, pungent rosemary as you rub the oils on to your fingers. Our food would also taste very bland.
There’s actually a condition called anosmia, which is an inability to smell. For people with anosmia, food tastes of very little or nothing. It also means you might not be able to smell dangerous things, like a gas leak or when food is off. Our sense of smell can also sometimes guide our awareness of the emotions of others. Without it we may not detect these things so intuitively. As you can tell, smell is a very strong sense!
(Edit: after I published this article, Gina Power, who writes a food and travel blog, got in touch to share her own experience of anosmia – including how it has led to her senses evolving and new discoveries. You can read her fascinating story here.)
Somewhat ironically as I’m writing this, I’ve managed to pick up a nasty summer cold. While the sniffles and a bin full of tissues are a bit annoying, the main issue for me is that my taste has been dulled. I’ve had to add strong flavours and seasoning to get my get a more substantial hit of taste. As my nose has started to clear a little it has been a delight to ‘taste’ things properly again.
How smell & taste are connected
Various studies attribute anything from 75% to 95% of our taste being connected to smell. Actually, the exact figure is a bit hard to come by (and those percentages are not necessarily based on good scientific evidence), but what is clear is that smell has a dominant role in what we perceive as ‘taste’.
As mentioned in one of my previous posts, we have 2 types of smell:
- orthonasal smell – when we breathe in through our nose and detect odours
- retronasal smell – when we breathe out through our mouth while chewing, releasing aromas
We detect smells via receptors at the back of our nose. These receptors capture odour molecules, become activated and send a signal to the olfactory bulb in our brain. The olfactory bulb relays a further signal to the thalamus, which in turn passes on information to other parts of our brain. This includes a region which mixes smell information with taste information.
Just as an aside, the thalamus also sends signals to the hippocampus and amygdala. These are areas of the brain that are linked to learning and memory. This is why when I smell Cinnabar perfume I think of my mum; it’s the only perfume she ever wore when I was growing up and it instantly comforts me.
If you want to test the impact of smell on taste for yourself, hold your nose while eating a small piece of food. Something as simple as a sultana or a piece of cherry tomato will do the trick. You’ll be able to pick up a basic taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami), but it will lack a certain something. Now release your nose and breathe, and you should get a flood of flavour in your mouth.
In fact, there are many other influences on our final flavour perceptions, but this at least gives you a good starting pointing for appreciating how our sense of smell plays such an important role in what we taste. You can probably also understand why anyone who is a professional taster (what a job!) carefully guards their nostrils and makes every effort to avoid getting the sniffles.
My favourite uplifting smells & how to incorporate them in cooking
One of the first foods that really got me to pay more attention to smell was chocolate. With hundreds of flavour compounds, chocolate is so much more delicious when you breathe in the aromas before tasting. It adds complexity to the taste and gets the mouth ready for something good to come. The smell alone instantly makes me feel good.
Without having to go into the science of smell, we inherently understand that certain smells lift our mood. Sometimes it’s because they’re linked to a particular memory, like my memory of my mum’s perfume, or because certain aromas are naturally uplifting. Here are a few of my favourites:
Studies involving the aroma of lemon oil showed that it had some very positive effects on mood. It’s an easy, fresh flavour to add to dishes:
- grate a little lemon zest over a risotto or spaghetti to refresh your spirits
- make a very simple vinaigrette dressing mixing together 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts extra virgin olive oil, a little pepper and salt to season and a sprinkle of your favourite herb or spice
As well as tasting great, mint is a good mood enhancer. There’s some evidence that peppermint oil can also help boost endurance and performance; when I ran my first marathon I put a little on the edge of my t-shirt and gave it a good sniff every few miles.
Start your day out on a positive note with a cup of fresh mint tea. Either grab yourself a fresh bunch from the supermarket, or, even better, grown some in a pot so you always have some to hand. Peppermint tea made with a tea bag is also a good option. You can also add finely chopped mint to fruit salads, pea soup or chocolate mousse.
Cardamom is a personal favourite of mine. I feel instantly uplifted and awake when I smell it. According to Ayurvedic principles, cardamom is also good for digestion and can lift the spirits.If you can, I recommend popping the seeds out of pods and grinding them fresh each time you use them (I use a pestle and mortar).
Yesterday I made a batch of my Anzac biscuits with cardamom (with sesame seeds instead of coconut) and the pungency of the cardamom was truly delicious. Other options include:
- dropping a little ground cardamom into your morning porridge
- adding a sprinkle when roasting nectarines
- mixing whole pods and a generous dollop butter through warm basmati rice to infuse (careful as the whole pods themselves can be very bitter so you probably want to take them out before eating – though I have a friend who unusually really likes the taste!)
I couldn’t leave chocolate out when talking about mood-boosting aromas. As I mentioned above, chocolate has hundreds of flavour compounds so it’s worth taking the time to smell properly. It’s the dark stuff you want to go for to get the full flavour hit.
You can of course just eat a piece of chocolate, but adding a square or two to a chilli or a red wine sauce adds some interesting depth. The other way you can incorporate chocolaty tones is through cacao nibs, which are the broken up bits of cocoa beans. Their fruity bitterness is a good addition to porridge, but try them in some savoury dishes too. I like to add a handful in a carrot salad or a pumpkin curry.
Food At Heart Flavour Tip
Spend a little time this week paying attention to smells that make you feel happy & treat yourself to food that’s filled with them
What are your favourite food aromas? How do they make you feel? I’d love to hear your recommendations – just add in the comments below!