Indulge a neglected sense of scent and sentimentality
SHE’D been wanting to make gingerbread men for weeks.
‘‘ But you don’t like the taste,’’ I sighed, trying to justify the bronze medal parenting I’ve long dished out to my second child — even though her elder sister always got the gold.
‘‘Well I might now,’’ she said. ‘‘Now that I’m 10.’’
So we melted and sifted and kneaded and tasted, producing a tray of gingerbread men and women that I like to think reflects our equal opportunities household rather than her fascination with fashioning biscuity boobs.
And then a lovely thing happened: as our Diversity Council- approved gingerbread baked away in the oven, the smell of golden syrup and spice wafted through the house.
The eldest, more inclined to her own company, wandered in and sat nattering at the kitchen bench. Then a friend dropping off a book stayed for a cup of tea because, ‘‘I imagine this is what Nigella’s house smells like, well, without the alleged drugs’’.
I don’t love Christmas — so much expectation, so much potential for disappointment — but I adore how it smells: mince pies; mangoes; brandy; the pleasing night before combo of champagne and Sellotape.
Smell — it’s the most primitive, evocative but overlooked of our senses even though we breathe in an average of 23,040 times a day.
Recently I’m noticing it like never before having spent the best part of the last year chained to my desk writing a book. As a treat I burned orange blossom-scented candles but otherwise it was just me and the faint aroma of my singed brain.
But then November came and I was finished. I started to run again, revelling not just in the physical but the spring scents of gardenia, honeysuckle and star jasmine.
Food that I’d shovelled down months earlier was now savoured and inhaled: a roast chicken; tomato and basil salad; white nectarines like those that grew in the garden of mychildhood home.
I know proponents of mindfulness suggest focusing on something visual, like the petals on a rose, but there’s something both calming and transporting about a scent. Of all the senses, smell is the most honest.
Of course it was a smouldering, Hermes-scented Frenchman in his lilac-infused salon ( I may be fantasising slightly) whose writings led to the ‘‘Proustian phenomenon’’ linking smell and memory. Marcel Proust described a character vividly recalling memories from childhood after smelling a tea-soaked madeleine cake.
Melbourne- based neuropsychologist Kylie Ladd explains: ‘‘The olfactory bulb is part of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for emotion and memory, so that’s why smell produces such powerful recollections.’’
Smells, more so than dates, mark the three distinct ages and stages of my life: chlorine, lemons and the exquisite scent of daphne flower and I am back in provincial New Zealand; CK One and I am in love in London; sea salt, barbecued sausages and breast milk and I am sprogging in Sydney.
‘‘Smell is a potent wizard,’’ said Helen Keller, ‘‘that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.’’
But I wonder if we’re losing it, the ability to be awakened and softened by this most subtle of senses.
Technology has commandeered the visual and aural and is pumping it out in ever more heightened formats whether via YouTube or Grand Theft Auto. Shopping is done via pick and click, the sensory process of stroking and smelling now redundant in our bold new online world.
Porn, too, is rapidly replacing the need for real live touch and smell.
Indeed, I suspect when they do enjoy a human connection the young are increasingly assaulted by the synthetic stench of tanning creams, eyelash glue and cheap eau de cologne rather than the genuinely erotic cassolette, the French word used to describe the scent of perfume mixed with natural body odour.
Remember Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman? Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful? The protagonist in Patrick Suskind’s Perfume? They’d be appalled.
Hermetically sealed in our faux-scented houses, stimulated by a plethora of screens and eased of our stress in sanitised spas and resorts, we’re deprived not just of smell, but of life.
In Delhi last year the nose jolt from incense, chai and excrement made me feel more alive than I had in years, a reminder of Rudyard Kipling’s observation that ‘‘the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it’’.
There is much pleasure to be gained from a keen sense of smell. More sex, for a start. Research last year revealed those with no sense of smell were more socially insecure and had fewer relationships than those in perfect olfactory order.
Grief, too, is processed through smell. I’ll never forget a widower telling me that comfort came from burying his face in his dead wife’s silk scarf.
Newborn babies, a morning after rain, coffee, apple strudel, forests, freshly washed hair, sheets dried in sunshine — how many of us linger to inhale? But we should. Not just for the small, quiet pleasure of it but because our scent-strewn memories are the pathway to who we once were.
The scent of gingerbread at Christmas reminds us that smell is the most evocative but overlooked of our senses