As a "nose," I am often asked how one develops a vocabulary of the senses. There isn’t a simple answer to this question as describing what one smells or tastes is subjective. Every experience we have ties into another and each of us walks around with an internal compass with a particular set of reference points based on the people, places and things that have surrounded us. As each person searches for the right words, words that will add depth and meaning to their understanding, a collective tapestry of discovery is woven in which we are all inextricably linked.
This is particularly evident when an individual describes something we have encountered in a way that resonates with our personal experience of that very thing. We consider this person’s viewpoint and proceed in assessing their beliefs and notions as credible. Suspending judgment can be freeing, but it can also be a dangerous pit. When we rely solely on others to verify our perceptions, we are to a certain extent, allowing them to think and feel for us. Other people’s assessments are simply orientations. There are no absolutes in the world of the senses, which is why Proust could wax on about a single madeleine for paragraphs on end.
The perfect starting point for building an olfactive and gustatory vocabulary is observation. By paying attention to the sense of smell and taste, we begin to hone in on nuances which rely on instinct and memory, versus visual cues. In addition, the more we practice experiencing the world through taste and smell, the more skilled we become in reading people, environments and situations. This is because in doing so, we are reawakening primal skills that existed before mankind walked upright, when we could literally smell danger in food unfit for consumption or the pending arrival of a voracious animal. (One could say that modern women continue to execute this ability rather skillfully in the mating game.)
A perfect place to begin developing your sensory observation skills is the pantry. If you are a coffee lover, order a variety of regional beans in assorted roasts from a coffee shop that has relationships with growers and supports fair trade. If you are a chocolate lover, experiment with different percentages of cocoa content and regional varietals. If you are an herb or spice lover, download a free catalog from Penzy’s Spices and read it from cover to cover. Each entry in the catalog describes herbs and spices in detail and you can order in small amounts and sample flavors which befit your palate.
Should you have a touch of the mad scientist living inside you, or are particularly fond of detail, there is a link on Eblong that contains industry flavor wheels (tools which categorically organize taste families and descriptors) for beer, wine, coffee, chocolate and maple syrup. As you conduct each tasting, write down your flavor impressions and follow-up by checking them against the flavor wheel. You may want to keep a special notebook handy for your notes, so you may return to them for future comparison. Sensory experiences are deeply tied to memory and you will learn as much about yourself as the things you taste—which is why bringing a special friend along for the ride isn’t such a bad idea…
For Guittard’s single origin tasting kit, visit Chocosphere.
For spices, visit a local Penzy’s Spices or download their catalog on the web.
For flavor wheels, visit Eblong.
Photo of perfumer Yann Vasnier courtesy of the perfumer. Vasnier was interviewed by Michelle Krell Kydd in February, for the fragrance website Bois de Jasmin. The article is entitled "Kouign Aman: The Breakfast of Perfumers." Mr. Vasnier is a native of Brittany.