When a friend introduced me to a natural perfumer named Mandy Aftel a few years ago, I had no idea how my life would change. She taught me about essential oils, which I began using in cooking, and, more importantly, about how our sense of smell affects what we feel and remember. We eventually wrote a book together about food and fragrance, and that led to a culinary collaboration. Mandy made a perfume to accompany a dish at my restaurant that contains the same aromas: ginger, black pepper, tarragon and cognac. Diners rub the perfume on their wrists and sniff it before tasting the dish to highlight the relationship between smell and taste, as well as to create an indelible memory of what they ate. It usually works, although occasionally diners, encountering this idea for the first time, find this scratch-and-sniff approach ridiculous. The funny thing is that these same skeptics usually find nothing odd about smelling their wine before drinking it.
In fact, the first thing a novice wine drinker usually learns to do is to smell a wine several times before tasting it, because most of what we think of as a wine’s flavor comes from its aroma. If your sense of smell is blocked, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish red wine from white, let alone identify more refined differences.
Much of the reason we are so strongly affected by wine’s aromas is due to physiology. Smell goes directly to an area of our brain called the limbic system, which is also a center of taste, emotion and memory. Evolutionarily speaking, that structure makes perfect sense: Once upon a time, before we hunted plastic-wrapped dinners under a fluorescent sun, we had to find food in the wild. Aroma, and the way it links to pleasure and memory, helped us distinguish plants that would kill us from those that would nourish us.