Food and sex are inextricably linked. Smell is the lure, consummation the reward. In the middle ages everybody and everything stank. Sewers were open pits or gullies, nobody bathed and there was no refrigeration. If your food didn’t reek because it was off it was probably smothered in some concoction of spices to make it taste of something else. Perfume wasn’t worn as a subtle hint of exotic unguents and flowers, it was plastered on in the hope that no one mistook you for a rank old goat that had fallen into a cess pit. When Catherine de Medici met Henry II of France, her husband to be, he smelt so bad that she fainted. In those days a bit of garlic breath was probably a welcome relief when you went to kiss your sweetheart.
In a strange turnabout we go to enormous lengths now to hide all the natural odours our body produces with constant showering and depilation, we then smother ourselves in different smells. One could argue that these are pleasanter being extracts of plant oils and flowers. But consider musk, a widely used base for expensive perfumes. Musk is a milky secretion from the penile sheath of a small deer. This secretion dries and collects in the fur on the animal’s underside. This is collected and sold to the perfume industry. It fetches more, in weight, than gold. This substance has a ravishing scent when detected from afar but smells like excrement if you get too close. Another product the perfume industry is rather keen on is ambergris. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this has anything to do with amber. No, this stuff is whale vomit. Whales produce a waxy substance in their gut that collects the many squid beaks that they cannot digest. This is then ejected periodically and floats on the surface of the sea. From a process of being naturally salted, pickled and matured by years of floating on top of the ocean it is finally washed up on a beach somewhere. Lucky finders of this rare product can sell it for nearly a thousand dollars per pound. Charles II liked it with his breakfast eggs; I’ll have bacon with mine thank you.
Truffles have a complex scent, on the one hand intriguing and appetising, but also rank and repellent on the other. It is very similar to the smell of a rutting male pig, which is why sows are used to locate them. Cheese has a fetid, sweaty smell, which is not surprising seeing as it is solidified, rotting milk, and we won’t even begin to go into the subject of fish – yet. Some wines have pheromone like chemicals that occur in them naturally, described by one expert as ‘rather like the underarm of an excited and nubile female.’ Nice research if you can get it.
Since the invention of different preservation techniques but before refrigeration we did some weird things to cultivate our foodstuffs. Crocodiles are known to keep dead prey in underwater ‘larders’ till they have tendered up a bit. Dogs bury bones, ants farm aphids and spiders wrap and store their prey. Nothing there that man doesn’t do but only man does it all.
Our sense of smell has become less important to us since we started to walk upright. But our search for more diverse smells and tastes continues apace. At times in history it has stemmed from necessity. People ate snails, frogs and rats when times were hard. But in times of plenty when stomachs were full and palates were jaded man searched for new experiences which gave rise to the demand for exotic spices, things steeped in oils and strong liquids and a multitude of fermented and rotted ingredients. The Romans were past masters. Check out this recipe for Garum: Place in a vessel the innards of large and small fish, salt them well and expose them to the air until completely putrid. Drain off the liquid and use it for seasoning. No wonder they invented the vomitorium.
But this is not quite so perverse when you consider how rank but strangely appetising some food smells are, from the extremes of oriental dried fish products and fermented prawn paste to ripe camembert and well hung venison.
Perhaps it is just coincidence or maybe nature has some subtle plan. Men are drawn to smells and therefore foods that mimic the odour of vaginal secretions such as shellfish and caviar while women favour those similar to fresh semen such as ripe persimmons, chestnuts and, apparently corn on the cob. This is understandable because of the obvious association but when the smells are redolent of something less appetising it seems perplexing. For example, cheese may mimic the odour of a well-used trainer, but rind washed cheeses are something else. The practise of washing cheeses in wine or cider inhibits some bacteria whilst promoting others. This can produce a smell that when unleashed has people in its vicinity looking accusingly at each other.
Then there is the practise of hanging meat especially game. Up to a point this tenderises and improves flavour but the practise of allowing it to get so rank it starts to rot and may even get infested with maggots may have a small coterie of aficionados but is not universally acceptable. Sartre summed it up after a dinner party where he was given well hung grouse as a main course. When asked what it was like he replied: ‘Like the flesh of an old courtesan marinated in a bidet’.
It was another Frenchman, gourmet and lover who knew what he liked. On travelling back from a famous victory Napoleon sent a note on ahead to his mistress, Josephine: ‘Home in three days – don’t bathe’.