Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Melon Feta... And Other Cultural Matters

If you've come here hoping to find out who my next guest blogger is, I'm sorry to say that, this week, you're going to have to put up with me. As the Invasion Of The Day Job is going through a momentary lull, I thought I'd put together a brief post about an issue that's been on my mind for quite some time.

About a year ago, I attended an excellent Royal Institution lecture at which Procter & Gamble's Will Andrews stated that one of the main difficulties faced by multi-national perfume companies trying to promote their wares is that scents are perceived in such different ways by people of different backgrounds and cultures. For instance, he mentioned that fragrances which are considered 'clean', 'watery' or 'marine-like' in the West smell of absolutely nothing at all to most Japanese people. In the UK, lavender is frequently associated with elderly women. And in Germany, lemon notes spell disaster because they're linked with cleaning products. (Personally, I think the latter applies to most of the West, but I'm just repeating what Andrews said.)

Of course, this has implications for how perfumes are judged and evaluated. No matter how objective they may try to be, scent critics can't divorce themselves from the cultures in which they grew up and in which they operate. I recently spent a few days wearing Mathilde Laurent's much-praised L'Heure Fougueuse for Cartier. I haven't yet decided whether I'm going to post a review of it - there's a part of me that thinks enough has been written about it already - but I will just say that it certainly wasn't a case of love at first sniff. And I'm beginning to wonder if this may have had something to do with cultural reference points.

My own olfactory biography has been shaped by the fact that I was born in Britain and that I did almost all of my growing up in Poland, Iran and Dubai. Whether I like it or not, this will have had an effect on how I process the information the world presents to my nose. So, as a way of generating a discussion with all of you out there, I thought I'd share some brief descriptions of a few smells which I 'read' in ways that are probably different from most of the people with whom I currently inhabit this cloudy little isle.

Cardamom: in my mind, inextricably linked with tea, because the two are often served together by Gulf Arabs. (To a lesser extent, the same goes for ginger.)

Saffron: inseparable from rice, which makes it as un-exotic as any smell could possibly be, because rice was the main component of my family's meals on at least five days of every week. (Dill also carries heavy rice connotations, but then it sometimes nudges Polish memories and makes me think of potatoes.)

Watermelon: strongly tied to salty smells, because the fruit is often combined with feta cheese in southern Iran. (Highly recommended as a snack, by the way!)

I could go on, but three's probably enough for the moment. For now, it's over to you: what are some of your idiosyncratic smell associations?



  1. I'd always link the smell of boiling potatoes to home. Like rice/saffron for you, potatoes for me was nearly an every evening occurrence. Not that I'd say potatoes are anything exotic it's funny when you think to someone else they very well could be. The relativity of exoticism is key.

    Oh and watermelon and feta sounds delicious by the way!

  2. I'm from the Southwest, and while cumin does smell a little sweaty to me, it also reminds me of taco meat.

  3. Liam, here's a little anecdote for you. As a child growing up in Iran, I was fascinated by my Mum's St Michael's All Colour (!!!) Cookbook, partly because it featured a picture of a Christmas cake which, to me, just seemed like the most exotic, other-worldly, unattainable thing you could possibly imagine.

    I've since seen that picture again, and I now realise that it's the most bog-standard depiction of an icing-covered fruit cake ever placed before a camera lens, but as you as, relativism is the key here. In Iran, that Christmas cake was as 'exotic' as gold, frankincense and myrrh.

  4. Elisa, there you go: cumin and meat is a good one. I use cumin so often in my cooking, yet I somehow never really associate it with oil. To me, it's tied in with mustard seeds and ghee.

  5. I like lilacs. But many perfumes with that note remind me of a cheap air freshner.

  6. Patchouli oil and incense and...what they were used to disguise the smell of!

    Lemon cologne and the subway in Madrid in July.

    Stinky black-tobacco cigarettes -- Franco-era Spain.

    A genteel mustiness -- Southern houses built before central air-conditioning came along.

  7. Undina, I think I know what you mean. There's a certain cheap jasmine smell that I associate with air fresheners.

  8. Olfacta, those are great ones, I think. I particularly love the idea of a cologne being linked with a transport system :-)


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