by Simone Sekers
MY father lost his sense of smell as he got older, and it ruined the considerable pleasure he’d had all his life in eating and drinking wine (spirits were a different matter, he said). I live in dread of inheriting this disability – for me it would be as bad as going deaf or blind.
If this sounds melodramatic, think of the pleasure from the smell of an omelette being made, or bacon being fried, the hot butter sizzling as the eggs hit the pan, the fat crisping on the rashers. Even if you couldn’t see it, your remaining senses would give you a hit of delight. But if you can see and hear, the fact that you can’t smell it really matters, as it does damage your palate as well.
Perhaps that’s why I keep pushing the boundaries of flavour and smell, while I can, just to keep my senses on their toes. As a result I frequently make the mistake, when going to a restaurant for the first time, of picking the dish with the weird flavour combinations. Sometimes it works, like a tonka bean mayonnaise with crayfish, and sometimes it doesn’t, as with the venison with mugwort I had recently at a much praised and Michelin starred place in Cheltenham. I had to look up mugwort when I got back home, and found it to be one of those bitter herbs which are added to vermouth, and sometimes used in medieval brewing: fine, but not wholly successful with venison.
Sensibly, my husband and friends had played safer – wild garlic pesto with their lamb, for instance – and ate better. I did score well with the dessert, however, eschewing chocolate and the ubiquitous salted caramel confections, for an oddly coloured plate of tiny blobs of intense liquorice ice cream and clear orange jelly. Invigorating and exciting, and, thank goodness, delicious.
Of course, it is good to be able to trust the chef’s own skill at making flavours work. We were finally persuaded to try eating at Goodfellow’s restaurant in Wells recently – we are rather addicted to The Old Spot, just opposite, but our friends thought it was time to make us step out of our rut. Goodfellows do fine patisserie, but goodness they do fish well too. Our fish of the day was grey mullet, something you are so rarely offered on a restaurant menu. I buy it from the fishmonger when I see it, but it was great to have big fillets of it, grilled, served on a bed of potatoes scattered with pesto and accompanied by saffron mayonnaise. Nothing out of the way, just a really good balance of big flavours, everything perfectly blended and harmonious.
The same thing happened when I paid my summer visit to Woodforde’s Perfumery in Sidmouth, which I do when I want a truly exciting sensory experience. Instead of going for the rather wackier essences of fig and coriander, or jasmine and nutmeg (with top notes of black pepper), on the grounds that those would make my nasal passages (and those of everyone around me) sit up and take notice, I opted for a cologne that offered a blast of sharp lemon combined with mint, rather like a glass of homemade lemonade on a really hot day. It is so successful that no-one has yet noticed it, except me. I am enjoying it very much as it is a scent you can wear while cooking. This can be a problem, as anything too strong doesn’t go well when you are mixing up a delicate panna cotta with orange flower water, or frying garlic and shallots to make a pungent tomato sauce.
On that basis, keep on honing your sense of taste and smell. If that is what turns you on, as it does me, make sure you go for the weird and wonderful on the menu for as long as you can. It may mean that you find a shepherd’s pie a bit bland, but at least you can relish the experimental, and that keeps your taste buds young and invigorated. Bring on the liquorice ice cream, or the sharp sea buckthorn berries scattered over a dish of grilled plaice – and go for a bottle of perfume that reminds you of cricket teas.
Simone Sekers 2015 ©
Pictured are mugwort, a grey mullet, and the interior of Woodforde’s Perfumery.