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Volatile Spirits or the Joy of Smelling

Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world. by Ed Yong, from An Immense World


I’m not thrilled about buying summer truffles. They’re pleasant, with a mild scent of loamy soil, the color fern green and the taste of hazelnuts. This variety appeared early in my truffle awakening. I experienced it hunting at a farmhouse outside of Florence, Italy. It was thrilling, and my truffle pooch, Florence Jayne Tartufa, aka Flora Jayne, is named for this epicenter of wonderfulness in Italy. But Summer truffles or Tuber Aestivum are not the power house of scent like winter truffles – the garlic and cheese, toss-that-pizza-dough-into-the air - big personality of Oregon white, the symphonic Perigord, the stealth, cashmere like pleasure of Burgundy truffles, the strawberry jam and ecstatic dirt of the Oregon black- they’re just pleasant. But tonight I’m doing a cookbook presentation at Omnivore’s Books in San Francisco, and the owners are dog lovers, so Flora Jayne is coming and she’s going to hunt truffles amidst the stacks of cookbooks. So I’m bringing a summer truffle, for her to find and everyone to sniff and taste.


Flora Jayne will show me a new way to be in a bookstore. She’ll go low and sniff the crevices and corners and I’ll smell the vintage cookbooks with pages slightly crinkled and stained from use versus the new ones, crisp with potential.  I allow her as much sniffing as she likes, and I try to smell along with her – I don’t crouch down to the bushes alongside her to get the low down on other dogs – she can smell their age, gender and diet in pee left on bushes; but I take us both on scent walks.


I want to improve my sense of smell by engaging it more often. And it brings a new level of pleasure to my life. Truffles have taught me that I get as much if not more pleasure from smelling them as eating them. In part, because I can sniff one repeatedly and eat it only once. Not far from our house is a commercial bakery – you can’t buy baked goods there, but I can smell them, and stop and enjoy a perfect croissant, a loaf of sourdough, a cinnamon kouign-amann wafting by on a breeze. Along the main road a hedgerow of star jasmine is in full bloom and it makes me dizzy with pleasure. Our regular walks around the neighborhood become dynamic and exciting. Can I smell the stage of the tide coming and going, and then sense the phase of the moon based on the odor of the mud revealed? Can I smell if the anchovies have entered the bay before I see the birds diving on them? It feels like an underdeveloped superpower we all could have. And it would this enhanced experience of ecosystems improve my palate and thus my cooking? I believe so.


I’ve been reading An Immense World, How Animal Senses Reveal the World Around Us by Ed Yong and it’s fascinating. For scent, he spends time with scientist Alexandra Horowitz who does studies on dog and scent; she lets her dog sniff all he wants. And Horowitz believes that our noses are underused. This seems obvious as I type it, but we could improve our sense of smell by just engaging it more.


And there’s also the association of “good” and “bad” scents. I’m leading an Anchovy Olympics this Saturday morning at Fisherman’s Wharf. And to many people, it smells bad there. Like a fishing port, where decades of dying or dead fish have been ground into the salt-soaked docks. Of the fishy belches of sea lions. Copious seagull and egret droppings on the docks. But I think it smells like a messy, multi-faceted estuary of humans connecting to the sea. And Flora Jayne loves the kaleidoscope of scent coming from historied stories of seas and ports. And so I think of smelling as another way to experience stories. I withhold judgements of good nor bad. I can enjoy the soapy scent of a rose in Golden Gate Park and the smell of seaweed at dawn with an open mind and heart and let them in, these “volatile spirits” as Sartre once wrote about scent.  

So when I was invited to be the first author at The Mechanic’s Institute Cookbook Club, and I was asked what I’d like to talk about, I first thought, "scent". And so I invited my friend, Jennifer Berry, artist, biologist, beekeeper and perfumer to be in conversation with me about it.


 Harold McGee wrote in his book “Nose Dive”, “Smell is more versatile than than taste. It’s more open-ended, broader, more specific, and more sensitive. And it’s much more informative, because things in the world are made up of many kinds of molecules – far more than the dozens that taste can notice.”

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