Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading Your Way to Great Taste

There are few indulgences in life that come without a price. Case in point; the past two weeks of holiday feasting that has loosened belt buckles across the nation. Reading books about food is a great way to hone your sense of taste minus the risks associated with gluttony. Consider the following list a prescription for the New Year. Side effects include: knowledge of interesting and unusual facts, a legitimate reason for needed time alone, and a curiously informed palate that will impress friends and potential love interests.

Recommended Reading:
Any book in the Reaktion “Edible” series, edited by Andrew F. Smith.

Content is short, sweet and packed with interesting information. Savor the subject of your choice; Cheese, Chocolate, Curry, Hamburger, Hot Dog, Pancake, Pie, Pizza or Spices. Forthcoming titles include; Bread, Cake, Caviar, Cocktails, Dates, Fish and Chips, Ice Cream, Lobster, Milk, Pasta, Soup, Tea, Tomato, Vodka, Whiskey and Wine.

Reading these books before going to sleep may induce cravings, especially Pancake.

Recommended Reading:

Alimentum is a journal for food lovers by food lovers. Its pages are filled with fiction, poetry and essays that are authentic, imaginative and at times heartbreakingly beautiful. Think that the bittersweet taste of love and caramelized Scandinavian goat cheese aren’t related? Think again: “...In time I would taste all kinds of desire, too, from piquant longing to salty lust; from pungent infatuation to tart jealousy; from sour envy to saccharine adulation. Yet never again would the sweetness of longing be so perfectly balanced with the musky, gamey saltiness of lust as it was that summer…” (You’ll have to buy issue nine of Alimentum to read the rest of Peter Selgin’s Gjetost.)

Alimentum is published bi-annually. Quality content makes it hard to wait six months for the next issue's arrival.

Recommended Reading:
Gastronomica, published by the University of California Press.

Whining about the loss of Gourmet won’t bring the magazine back (though television is likely to be the medium of resurrection for Ruth Reichl). Gastronomica gives you an opportunity to sink your teeth into the culture of food with an intellectual bend. Literature, essays, history and book reviews abound in this quarterly, though some content is more eclectic than others. Don’t deny the needs of your inner geek. Pull up those pants, tighten that belt buckle and nerd up.

Parting with Gastronomica is difficult. Stylish covers rendered in high “art school” style make every issue perfect for the coffee table.

Recommended Reading:
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee

On Food and Cooking is the consummate “book of why” for every food question imaginable. From the simple to the technical McGee, the father of molecular gastronomy, makes food science approachable and interesting. “Flavorings from Plants: Herbs, Spices, Tea and Coffee,” the eighth chapter, will fascinate foodies with aromatic descriptor charts a la perfumer Jean Carles. The book had a profound influence on the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal; he became a chef after reading the 884 page book from cover to cover.


This book is meant to be savored. Resist the temptation to take a week off, curl up on the couch and read the whole damn thing.

Recommended Reading:
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Don’t let every bad history teacher you’ve ever had stand between you and this book. Kurlansky is an engaging storyteller who unearths myth, history and intrigue out of an ingredient many of us take for granted (forget about salt throwing superstitions, if you didn’t eat salt you’d be dead). Over consumption of salt derived from chemical processing, versus cultivation via sea water and rock deposits, has demonized an ingredient that deserves a closer look and a little more love.

An increased desire to read books based on single culinary ingredients may follow. Finding a raconteur like Kurlansky will not.

Recommended Reading:
Herbs and Spices: The Cook’s Reference by Jill Norman

Herbs and Spices: The Cook’s Reference is a sensualist’s dream. Each entry includes information on tasting notes, parts of the plant used, buying and storing, growing your own, culinary uses and suggested combinations. Jill Norman is a culinary doyenne when it comes to herbs and spices (she’s a trustee of the estate of Elizabeth David). Her publisher, Dorling Kindersley Limited, has spared no aesthetic expense in the design of the book; lush photography illustrates every page.

This is the Holy Grail when it comes to books on herbs and spices. Ian Hemphill’s Herb & Spice Bible is a close second, followed by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’ The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices and Flavorings.

Recommended Reading & Huffing:
Les Coulisses du Parfum Series, Volume IV: Vibrations of Spices (

Engaging the sense of smell improves the sense of taste. The folks at Firmenich, the flavor and fragrance company behind, worked with renowned perfumer Annie Buzantian to create an olfactive spice kit. Essences include clove, nutmeg, saffron, coriander, black pepper, Sichuan pepper, pink pepper, ginger, cardamom, everlasting, cinnamon and cumin. P.S. Dipping blotters and educational brochure included.

The scent kit includes Immortelle flower (a raw material that produces a honeyed spice effect, but isn't technically a spice). Though all of the essences in Vibrations of Spices are derived from natural sources, the saffron tincture is a fantasy that riffs on the hedonic/musky facet of the spice.* Supporting olfactive explorations with actual spices takes this exercise to the proper level of connoisseurship. The Spice House sells ingredients in small amounts that make this suggested tweak easy to apply.

Recommended Reading:
Wellness Foods from A-Z by Sheldon Margen M.D. and the editors of the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Wellness Foods from A-Z is geared towards readers who seek to optimize health through nutrition. It is an encyclopedic reference book that analyzes the benefits of food as well as offering tips on shopping, preparation and storage. The current edition of Wellness Foods from A-Z is out of print though an updated version is likely.

This is a book that family members borrow and never return. Keep an extra copy well hidden.

The Spice House' website is filled with delightful information on herbs and spices. Every page has a delicious food quote and every product for sale has a unique story on the label. You can follow the owner's tweets here.

*True saffron is rarely used in perfumery due to cost and the presence of safrole, a skin irritant and possible carcinogen. Eating saffron does not pose a danger as small amounts are used in cooking and baking. Consuming saffron has several benefits. Read this post to learn more.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

National Geographic: The Intimate Sense of Smell

Discovering a great article on olfaction that doesn’t make you feel like a science dweeb is a rarity. That’s why the September 1986 edition of National Geographic is a must-have for anyone remotely interested in the sense of smell. For a fragrance lover, it is the equivalent of finding a hardcover copy of William Kauffman’s Perfume in excellent condition. The magazine includes an in-depth article titled “The Intimate Sense of Smell.” It’s length? A whopping 36 pages long; which is more ink than Scientific American gave the sense of smell in its “Senses” issue on December 12, 2006.

“The Intimate Sense of Smell” was written 18 years before Richard Axel and Linda Buck won the Nobel Prize for their research on the molecular basis for odor perception (a theory challenged by Luca Turin, who drives a convincing argument for vibration’s role in odor perception versus Axel and Buck’s focus on shape). Writer Boyd Gibbons examines the sense of smell from scientific, aesthetic, and emotional perspectives, including stories from the animal kingdom.

When it comes to describing scent Gibbons’ style is free from hyperbolic metaphor and fetishist cliché. In “The Intimate Sense of Smell” we learn that doctors used their noses to detect disease before high tech medicine. Many of the analogies between diseases and their odors are linked with the smell of food; typhoid smells like baking bread, scrofula smells like stale beer and yellow fever smells like a butcher shop. Gibbons reveals the methods of Detroit dope smugglers who used after-shave, green peppers, talcum and/or garlic in their cars to distract the noses of drug sniffing dogs. (Note to aspiring drug smugglers; these methods do not work.)

In 1986, little research was being done on the subject of anosmia; the loss of the sense of smell. Nicolaus Weickart, who was interviewed by Gibbons, poignantly illustrates the depth of this loss, “I’m a lawyer and a collector of histories…I smell a book before I read it. You go into one of those damp bookstores in Italy, and you smell that old leather, the musty pages. You can smell a touch of history. Now I can’t. It’s very sad.”

Perfume lovers are in for a rare treat; the inclusion of an interview with IFF perfumer Bernard Chant. This is historically important as Chant’s digital presence is limited to a speech he gave to the British Society of Perfumers in 1982 and a handful of obituaries from 1987. There are no photographs of Bernard Chant on the internet, but one opens “The Intimate Sense of Smell” in National Geographic. Edmond Roudnitska, who studied under the tutelage of Ernest Beaux and was Christian Dior’s in-house perfumer, is also included in the article.

The passing of 23 years and advances in the science of olfaction are two good reasons for National Geographic to revisit the sense of smell in the near future. In the meantime you can purchase a reprint of “The Intimate Sense of Smell” by calling 800-777-2800 or by visiting National Geographic. As an added bonus, look for the scratch and sniff "smell survey" conducted by Dr. Charles Wysocki and Dr. Avery Gilbert.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chrism: Perfume for the Soul

St. Joseph’s Abbey is a monastery located in Spencer, Massachusetts. The monks who live within the walls of the abbey are renowned for their delicious Trappist Preserves, but they are also involved in the creation of Chrism, a fragrant anointing oil used in rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. The aroma of Chrism possesses indescribable beauty and is truly a perfume for the soul.

The Holy Rood Guild, a part of St. Joseph’s Abbey, has been producing Chrism for over 30 years. The formula for the anointing oil is as secret as the identity of the Chrism maker; a single monk in charge of meeting the Chrism needs for half of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in the United States. Mysterious ways are common among monks and nuns involved in the manufacture of products that sustain the livelihood of their religious order. For example, knowledge of the formula for Bénédictine liqueur, an aromatic elixir that includes at least 27 herbs and spices, is possessed by only three monks at a given time. Similarly, the formula for Chartreuse is kept by two Carthusian monks.

"Our recipe for Chrism is not made public because it was developed here by the monks over a period of time," says Brother Emmanuel, a monk at St. Joseph's Abbey for over 26 years. "They are proud of it and would not like to see it copied by a for-profit company."

Brother Emmanuel’s explanation is similar to the unspoken sentiments of fragrance manufacturers who keep their perfume formulas locked inside protected vaults despite the fact that nearly any fragrance can be copied with 75% accuracy using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. When it comes to Chrism there is a distinct difference regarding fragrance philosophy; perfume is worn for pleasure whereas Chrism is used to anoint an individual with the Holy Spirit, a transcendent act devoid of vanity and attachment to the material world.

The scent of Chrism is sweet, spicy, woody and balsamic. It is difficult to ferret out the ingredients by smell alone, but Patchouli is definitely a base note in the formula. Like Frankincense, inhalation of Chrism steadies the breath and makes it more expansive (especially when smelled before the ritual addition of olive oil). One can feel what the monks intended to create at first sniff; it is as if everything in the physical world loses its power to distract one from the inner voice of the soul. Fragrance lovers who are fond of single raw materials understand this effect, which has nothing to do with manipulation and everything to do with the unique character of each aromatic ingredient.

The best way to experience the aroma of Chrism in the Roman Catholic Church is at the Chrism Mass, which takes place every year on Holy Thursday during Holy Week (the week before Easter). The Sacred Chrism is consecrated by a Bishop who breathes over the Chrism as part of the ritual; an act which pays homage to Christ’s breathing the Holy Spirit over the Apostles after his resurrection. There are three oils made at the Chrism Mass; Sacred Chrism, Oil of the Infirm (for the sick) and Oil of the Catechumens (for Baptism). Different blessings are recited for each. Once the oils are blessed, they are distributed to churches in the diocese and are used in baptisms, confirmations, ordinations of clergy, blessings of new/existing church buildings, and at the bedside of the sick and dying.

The connection between the ritual of anointing and the breath of life is enthusiastically articulated by the Very Reverend Archimandrite Paul Menevisoglu in The Holy Myrrhon in the Eastern Orthodox Church, (published in 1972 by the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki). “In the first breathing, God filled Adam with the breath of life. In the second breathing, our Lord Jesus Christ filled His Disciples with the Divine Breath of God—the Holy Spirit Himself! Through this miraculous in-breathing, Jesus showed that He is the Source of Eternal Life and the Mediator of the Holy Spirit to the world.”

Chrism is known as Holy Myrrhon in the Greek Orthodox tradition, and Holy Muron/Myron in the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. Eastern Orthodox churches make their holy anointing oil during Holy Week. Unlike Chrism, Holy Myrrhon is not made on a yearly basis. Its creation is consecrated by a Patriarch (or a Bishop appointed by him). There have been nine consecrations of Holy Myrrhon in the last 100 years, the last two of which were performed by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in 1992 and 2002.

The origin of the word Myrrhon comes from the word myrrh, which refers to the raw material and/or a fragrant oil that is the essence of a plant. According to Brother Emmanuel, Holy Myrrhon “... is far more complex than our [Chrism] and has a long ritual for mixing that takes several days.” Holy Myrrhon is more gourmand in character than Chrism, revealing an aroma that resembles exotic spiced doughnuts. Reverend Father Mark Arey’s translation of The Holy Myrrhon in the Eastern Orthodox Church includes the 57 ingredients used to make the anointing oil. The formula, which is Mediterranean in origin, includes:

1. pure olive oil
2. red wine
3. flower extract
4. rose extract
5. pure mastic
6. almond resin
7. primula flowers
8. aloe of Barbades
9. pepper (long)
10. nutmeg
11. malabathrum
12. angelica herb
13. extract of styrax
14. pure myrrh
15. pepper (black)
16. fragrant snap ring
17. balsam resin
18. sweet calamus
19. Florentine lily
20. saffron
21. aristoloche
22. fruit of the balsam tree
23. cyperus rotundus
24. sweet bay
25. Celtic nard (valerian)
26. black cassia
27. pressed nut oil
28. cardamom
29. clove
30. cinnamon
31. wild nard
32. fragrant mace
33. Venetian terebinth
34. white resin
35. pure nut oil
36. marjoram
37. ladanum
38. Indian nard
39. incense of Lebanon
40. white ginger (of Ceylon)
41. zerneb
42. fenugreek
43. helenium

After the above have been boiled and mixed, then is added:

44. oil cinnamon of Ceylon
45. oil of clove
46. congealed oil of nutmeg
47. balsam of Mecca
48. rose oil
49. mace oil
50. lemon oil
51. oil of balsam fruit
52. oil of marjoram
53. oil of bay-tree
54. oil of rosemary
55. oil of lavender
56. Indian musk
57. true amber

The original formula for anointing oil was given to Moses in Exodus 30:22-30.33 and contains five ingredients; myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and olive oil. The instructions come with a caveat; the formula is never to be used outside its religious context as this would violate the sanctity of the anointing ritual. Though Chrism and Holy Myrrhon are inspired by the same biblical tract, history, belief and culture have uniquely shaped formulations used by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. These differences leave room for further exploration of the religious use of aroma, an expression of the soulful essence of humankind.

Special Thanks & Notes:

Holy Spirit is known by other names in different religious traditions. Those familiar with Hinduism know it as prana, the "life force" related to in-breathing. No matter what your religious beliefs are, or are not, there is no denying that without breath life cannot exist. When seen from this perspective, one can ecumenically embrace all belief systems for what they symbolize best; the oneness of humankind.

Brother Emmanuel is a monk of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. The Order follows the rule of St. Benedict and is committed to seeking God in solitude, silence and manual work. For Brother Emmanuel, "...the monastic life is a journey of self-knowledge. We cannot know God unless we first know ourselves."

Reverend Father Mark Arey is the Director of Inter-Orthodox & Ecumenical Relations at The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in New York City. He has generously provided the English translation of the formula for Holy Myrrhon. Reverend Father Mark Arey's profound intellect is matched by a refreshing generosity of spirit that smashes stereotypical notions of rigidity and narrow-minded thinking one may occasionally find in organized religion.

Special thanks to Dr. Santina DiLuoffo, a Glass Petal Smoke reader who planted the seed for this story in March of 2008. This article would not be possible without the assistance of Karen Doherty, a fan of the blog who digitally introduced Glass Petal Smoke to Father Robert J. Robbins, Director of the Commission for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, and Pastor of Church of the Holy Family at The United Nations Parish.

Photo of Chrismatory Set from Catholic Church Supply.

Photo of a Bishop breathing into Chrism oil is from Whispers in the Logia.

Photo of His Holiness Karekin II pouring ingredients into Holy Muron is from the Mother See of Holy Etchimadzin website. His Holiness Karekin II is head of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian recipe for Holy Muron includes 48 ingredients and is made every seven years.

New York City is Home to St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, a landmark Armenian institution located at 630 Second Avenue, on the corner of 34th Street. It is an incredibly beautiful building; inside and out.