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Rachael sniffs Tomme Brulee, a sheep's milk tiny tomme from the Midi Pyrenees Rachael sniffs Tomme Brulee, a sheep's milk tiny tomme from the Midi Pyrenees

By Rachael Lucas

When I was young, my mother had me tested for epilepsy because she was convinced that I was having olfactory hallucinations. 

Mom has an obtuse sense of smell, so she was never privy to the aromas I described.  She assumed that there must be something wrong with my cerebral wiring to provoke such (speculative) olfactory acuity.  I assured her that I was not epileptic, that I just had a sensitive sniffer, and the test results confirmed my assertion.  Even though more things smell bad than good, I have a profound appreciation for my detection of scent.  I can smell when someone has a cavity or needs to floss.  I can detect when anyone anywhere within a block of me is smoking a cigarette.  I used to cook with fresh dill and feed it to my college roommate because she emits the loveliest bouquet after she eats it.  I also love a good waft of skunk, a nice blast of gasoline, and a dash of paint thinner.  I have always loved to inhale aromas.  My sense of smell gives me an edge not only in my career, but it also enables me to experience so much more than those whose sense of smell is on the duller side. Though there is still a lot to be understood about human olfaction, we do know there is a direct correlation between smells, memory and emotion.

The olfactory sense is our most primitive sense.  It likely developed early on as a means of enabling us to determine what foods were edible and what should be avoided, as well as assisting in the detection of danger.  For example, perhaps the meat that was hunted began to turn rancid.  If one was unable to smell the putrefaction, the entire clan might have gotten sick and/or died.  Bitter aromas in plants tell us that the fruit is likely inedible and would have been a blatant signal to our ancestors to avoid eating it.  What if one detected a whiff of bear scat?  The aroma would have registered, and the memory of what that aroma is linked to would have told the hunter/gatherer to either flee the location, prepare to fight, or be a meal.

Nowadays, olfaction is utilized for more than just sussing out trouble.  It is a means of evoking pleasure, assisting in the experience of taste, triggering memories, healing emotional ailments, and more. In my field of work, my nose is my most trusted ally.  If I cannot identify a cheese by sight, I’ll give it a whiff; with this, I can determine what the cheese is, its milk-type, and whether it has become defective (via oxidation, for example).

Olfaction is an intricate means of perception.  There is a complex system at work that involves odor at a molecular and vibrational level.  According to The Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products, “Perceptually, when a person sniffs a cheese sample, the mix of volatile compounds flows over the receptors in the olfactory region in the nose.  This activates an array of olfactory receptors, but only those specifically responsive to the compounds present.  The G-proteins initiate a cascade of intracellular signaling events, which are propagated along the olfactory sensory axon to the brain.”  Alas, if there are no strawberry compounds present, you will not smell strawberry (unless, perhaps, you are epileptic).

When we smell aromas, we seek an affiliation with our memories.  If I glean a hint of, say, lilac in perfume, my brain makes the association.  If I had never smelled a lilac before, then I would not be able to say that it exists in the perfume (F.Y.I. I have never really liked the smell of perfume because of the nasal blast that I get; it always makes me feel like I need to sneeze).  I grew up in Kansas where there are grain silos galore.  When I encounter a hint of silage in a fromage, I ascertain that the animal was eating it.  It is a simple detection for me because the aroma is so highly embedded in my childhood experience.  I have colleagues, however, who have always been city folk.  It makes sense that for them identification of silage is more difficult.  After all, how would one be able to identify it in a cheese if she/he has never smelled a silo?

Though some of us are gifted with an elevated sense of smell, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us cannot train our noses to serve us better.  Look at wine professionals.  The ability to distinguish a variety of volatile aromas in any given wine is a skill that must be developed.  My nose is trained to absorb cheese aromas, but I am conditioning myself to pick up on the nuances in wine, as well, which ultimately strengthens my entire olfactory system.  The best way to do this is to simply smell everything.  If it stinks, take a bigger whiff.   What is that repugnant smell?  Is there an herb in your soup that you cannot pinpoint?  Have a huffing party in the bulk spice section.  Once you find that hidden aroma, you will easily recognize and identify it next time.

Though they are linked, there is a difference between olfaction and flavor detection.  The five gustatory senses are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.  When our noses are plugged from allergies or a cold, we are unable to taste at this basic level.  When this happens, our retronasal passage, which is where most flavor is gleaned, is also stifled.  However, when we are in good health and our olfactory system is clear, the number of volatile aromas that we can sense is staggering.  To further complicate things, what we smell does not always indicate what we taste.  Take a washed rind cheese like Alsacian Munster, for example.  Munster smells of hot breath and musky scalp (I am instantly taken back to the aroma of my ailing grandma’s scalp just before my mom washed her hair in my sink that one time in college).  Its flavors, however, range from barn floor and dusty peanuts to cooked cauliflower and bone broth.  Such is why it is imperative to taste a cheese, rather than merely smelling it.  We cannot know for sure its flavors if we don’t taste it.

Since aroma is so closely linked to memory and emotion, you could speculate that those of us who are emotionally sensitive plausibly have heightened olfactory sensitivities and vice versa.  Could this mean we sensitive types are more primitive? Does emotion have a correlation with palatal capabilities?  Based on my own emotional peculiarities, it is no wonder that my olfactory perception is fierce.  I personally revel in the sensuality, and I trust my instincts (instinks).  If you are looking to expand on your overall sensual experience in life, paying attention to your olfaction is a tremendous first step.  After all, whoever said it first was onto something when she/he said the nose knows. 

 

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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