Friday, January 25, 2008

Breath Perfumes

In the late 1800’s, T.B. Dunn and Company introduced a “breath perfume” called Sen Sen®. Patchouli, geranium, ionones, orris extracts, nitromusks, anise and clove were some of the ingredients that comprised the oriental flavor of the candy, which was marketed to mask the smell of tobacco. According to F&F Foods, the current manufacturer of Sen Sen®, the candy straddled olfactive and gustative categorization at its inception and “In keeping with its perfumery roots, it was on the market list for many years as a cosmetic.”

Perfuming the breath is not an uncommon ritual in India, where fragrant spices abound. Consumption of mukhwahs—a mixture of fennel seed, anise seed and colored sugar—is customary at the end of a meal. Most restaurants leave a bowl of the refresher at the door as a courtesy to patrons, allowing them to neutralize lingering traces of onion, alcohol and other instigators of bad breath. Rose and cardamom are also used in mukhwahs, though fennel and anise seeds are commonly employed for purifying and uplifting properties categorized as “sattvic” in the tradition of ayurveda.

The history of breath perfumes in twentieth century America was not limited to Sen-Sen®. In an effort to create a “unique and different flavored candy,” Charles Howard enlisted the help of Givaudan’s flavor division and developed Choward’s® Violet in the early 1930’s. Historically, candied violets were a favorite among the Victorians and the French, but Choward’s® Violet was not an homage to sugar petal pleasantries and nostalgia. Its powdery bouquet was designed to eliminate tobacco, alcohol and unpleasant mouth odors, perfuming the breath with the subtlety of potpourri. Choward’s® Scented Gum, the company’s second fragrant creation, is more palatable than the candy that preceded it. Woody tones of musk, violet and a faint trace of patchouli playfully fragrance the mouth and do not overstay their welcome.

An interesting and complex example of fragrant confectionary is Lifesavers® Musk. The iconic pink candy is redolent of rose, violet, patchouli and musk, and tastes like perfumed cotton candy. Where the flavor of Choward’s® Scented Gum quickly fades, the taste of Lifesavers Musk® gently lingers in the mouth an hour after it has been consumed. In perfumery, musk is utilized for its ability to magnify the olfactive characteristics of individual ingredients that are combined with it. Its knack for promoting staying power in fine fragrance has made it the fixative of choice for perfumers. It behaves no differently in flavor applications, as evidenced by Lifesavers® Musk.

Though one may not crave “breath perfumes” or consider them a proper gourmand indulgence, the category does have a distinct place in flavor and fragrance history. Exploring fragrant sweets challenges traditional notions of flavor, providing an opportunity to expand sensory horizons.


Though Lifesavers Musk® is distributed in Australia it can be purchased online through the U.K.’s

Writer Stephen Fowler authored an essay on musk that appeared in issue #3 of Juice Magazine (1995). It is compelling, well written and filled with olfactive gems.

Natural musk is no longer used in flavors and fragrance due to the near extinction of the musk deer. Synthesized musk is now the standard.

Tabac Blond, a renowned perfume classic by Caron, was created to counter the lingering smell of cigarette smoke that would permeate the hair, clothing and fingertips of French women who began smoking in public after World War I. Parallels between Tabac Blond and Sen-Sen® are a reflection of the postwar popularity of tobacco on both sides of the Atlantic.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Coffee: The Fragrant Cup Revealed

My introduction to coffee began in a modest 1960’s family kitchen. These were the days of percolators, Nescafé and ads for Mr. Coffee™ featuring baseball great Joe DiMaggio. My mother drank two or three cups of coffee a day, a pack of cigarettes always within arm's reach. She took her coffee light with Sweet’N Low™ and in the afternoon added one or two Dutch-style pretzels, which she would dip into her coffee to soften before eating. Her coffee habit caught the nose of my sister who at age two displayed a taste for the brew and was permitted one or two sips with an accompanying pretzel. As a child, I never liked the taste of coffee, but associated the aroma with quiet moments my mother, sister and I shared together. I enjoyed coffee the way one enjoys the perfume of another—by encounter and in memory.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that I began drinking coffee. This was largely due to the extraordinary aroma generated by a peculiar gadget that graced our kitchen; the Chemex®. At first glance the hourglass shaped carafe, which is corseted by a wooden neck and a string of rawhide, exudes retro bohemian style. Invented in 1941 by German chemist Peter Schlumbohm, the Chemex® was inspired by a passion for coffee and an ubiquitous laboratory staple—the Erlenmeyer flask. Electricity is not required to brew a pot of coffee in a Chemex®, but patience is. If you enjoy the aroma of coffee, you can extend the sensory experience by becoming directly involved in grinding, wetting and brewing the beans. These steps result in a highly fragrant cup of coffee that is free of bitterness and sediment. Once the Chemex® is mastered, it boldly unmasks the drip machine for what it truly is—a scent bandit.

Coffee contains over 800 aromatic compounds and is one of the most fragrant foods in the world. Of these compounds furans and pyrazines dominate the aroma spectrum, luring coffee drinkers with their savor. Furans lend caramel-like aspects while pyrazines add toasty flavors. Though roasting and country of origin contribute to differences in taste, it is important to note that not all coffee beans are alike. Arabica beans are highly fragrant and indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen. Robusta beans, which are used to make espresso, are native to Uganda. Higher in caffeine than arabica beans, robusta are essential to the development of crema (the foam that caps a shot of espresso) and possess a telltale rubber note that can be exaggerated in overly roasted coffee.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a variety of coffees and found that medium roasts possess smooth bouquets that are as complex as perfumes. In the interest of promoting a more fragrant cup, the following coffees are recommended for use in a Chemex®:

Fazenda Lagoa Estate of Brazil (Medium/French Roast)
Mingling notes of chocolate, honey, and caramel are topped with traces of walnut. Low acidity and a touch of sweetness make this the perfect choice for an unadulterated cup.

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Organic/Fair Trade (Light/Vienna Roast)
Notes of maple, honey and floral nuances of lemon blossom leave a sublime impression.

New Mexico Piñon Coffee (Medium Roast)
A unique melding of roasted coffee and pine nuts results in an incredibly smooth and earthy flavor. Faint traces of toffee and vanilla linger on the palate. Not a flavored coffee in the commercial sense.


For an instruction sheet on brewing coffee in a Chemex®, visit Sweet Maria’s. They sell the eco-friendly coffeemaker and related accessories.

In February 2006 The Sun published a wonderful selection of coffee stories submitted by its readers. Each is a testament to the importance of coffee in our culture and the role it plays in memory (Issue 362, February 2006). A partial sample can be uploaded for free in PDF form. The ad-free magazine is published monthly and worth the subscription price of $36/yr.

Photograph of latte art taken at The Pioneer Coffee Roastery in Australia and posted by Gilfer on Flickr.

Animator Jonathan Ian Mathers takes a hilarious crack at a commercial coffee chain in Coffee House Propaganda. The main character is a ranting squirrel named Foamy. Warning; hilarity and profanity are involved.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chinese Smoked Tea Eggs

Chinese smoked tea eggs possess aesthetic and gastronomic qualities that smooth the jagged edges of winter. In a season where everything in nature is stripped down and bare, this simple yet exotic preparation of eggs inspires the  the appetite with mesmerizing patterns and voluptuous earthy flavor.

Lapsang Souchong is a bit of an oddity to the western teetotaler, whose palate is unaccustomed to the savory flavors of this pine-smoked tea. Many store-bought Lapsang Souchong teas have been fired to conceal inferior quality leaves and the tarry notes are overpowering for most tastes. Upton Tea’s Lapsang Souchong is sourced from China and is less smoky than traditional Fujian versions, offering appealing characteristics of dry spice and wood.

Fire is one of the most powerful elements known to humankind and smoked foods are marked with its transformative verve. Rise above the stark chill of the season with a smoky and tasty antidote by indulging in Chinese smoked tea eggs.

Chinese Smoked Tea Eggs
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

· 1 dozen eggs (rinsed of any residue that may be on the shells)
· two points of a whole star anise
· 3 tablespoons of Lapsang Souchong Tea
· 8 cups of water
· ½ cup low-sodium soy sauce
· one block of firm tofu, cut into fifths*

· 2-quart cooking pot
· 2-quart bowl for rinsing eggs
· tongs
· 2 ¼-quart plastic storage container with lid
· measuring cup
· ladle
· 4-cup plastic container with lid*
*Option to make tea smoked tofu using reserved liquid from tea eggs.

· Fill the pot with water, star anise and tea. Heat on medium and keep the lid on.
· When water begins to boil, gently add eggs using tongs and reduce flame to medium/low. Place the lid on the pot, leaving an opening for steam to escape.
· Cook for 15 minutes. When done, remove from heat.
· Remove eggs one by one with tongs and place into a bowl of cold water for 3-4 minutes.
· Ladle tea from the pot into the plastic storage container, keeping tea leaves out. Extract the star anise and place it in the tea broth. Slowly add low sodium soy sauce from your measuring cup into the brew. Stir with ladle to incorporate.
· Tap each egg firmly against a counter to promote cracks. The idea is to create crevices that will be permeated by the savory tea. Place eggs into plastic storage container, making sure that the eggs are completely submerged in the liquid. Allow to rest for 30 minutes. Secure the container and refrigerate for 8-10 hours.
· Remove the tea eggs from the refrigerator, reserving 2 cups of the liquid in a 4-cup plastic container. Place eggs in a heavy-duty freezer bag and return to the refrigerator. The eggs will keep for 5-7 days. When you remove the shell, beautiful marbled patterns will emerge and the eggs will be redolent of tea, smoke and spice.
· The reserved tea liquid can be used to marinate tofu. Cut a block into 5 slices refrigerate in the tea brew for 24 hours. You can use the tofu the next day or let it soak for two more days if you don’t plan on using all of it at once. The outside of the tofu will turn a soft shade of brown and all of the flavor in the liquid will gently infuse the tofu. Smoked tea tofu is great cubed in soups or prepared scrambled with onions, shitake mushrooms and a touch of sesame oil and salt.

Photo of eggs from Speak Peppery.