Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Dr. Leslie Vosshall

Meet Dr. Leslie Vosshall. She's smart, beautiful and fierce in the science lab. Dr. Vosshall is a molecular neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University Vosshall Lab. She and her team investigate genetic codes and traits associated with olfaction, a branch of study known as neurogenetics. In addition to being a scientist Dr. Vosshall is quite the perfumista. She shares a few of her eau-pinions in her response to the Glass Petal Smoke Sensory Questionnaire.

1.  What does your sense of smell mean to you?

Everything. There is never a time when I am not sampling my environment by sniffing, forming opinions and thinking about smell. I am happy to have transmitted this obsession to my 9-year-old daughter, who regularly declares  “it smells like celery”, “it smells like cardboard,” and she is always dead-on in her sensory evaluations!

 2.  What are some of your strongest scent memories?

Impossible to answer except to say that my whole life is anchored to different scents, so every memory I have has a scent association.

3.  What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking  and your environment)?

 Pine, violet, jasmine, lily, skunk, dirt [earth], and ozone.

4.  Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?

I think the smell of skunk is one of the best scents on earth.

5.  Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.

Every cooking smell except meat is my favorite: garlic, onions, and leeks with olive oil. This may seem a bit cliché, but truffles smell pretty great—truffle salt on baked butternut squash bits. I could go on for pages…

 6.  What smells do you most dislike?

I detest pyrazine and 1-butanol, which were a daily feature of my life at the bench as a lab scientist. These are very pungent solvents we used to synthesize DNA oligonucleotides and make layers of acrylamide stacking gels, respectively. Now that I run a lab, I am a bit distanced from these smells (and time has marched on, so we outsource oligonucleotide synthesis and purchase pre-made acrylamide gels, so my scientists probably have never smelled these odors).

Outside of the laboratory, badly crafted mens’ cologne puts me in a bad mood for hours. Unfortunately, 90% of mass-marketed men's fragrances are awful. How much better would the world be if we could fix that?

 7.  What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?

As a child, I did not eat any fish or seafood, but have come to love the subtle faint smell of raw oysters.

 8.  What mundane smells inspire you?

Any place in the world after the rain. The damp earth releases all sorts of good organic fungal earthy green scents, regardless of the location on the planet.

9.  What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
This answer is very clichéd, but anything that smells of my American grandparents’ very old house in Connecticut; also the scratchy plastic carpeting on the stairs of my German grandparents’ house.

10.  What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?

My mother wore Fidji by Guy Laroche alternating with Shalimar by Guerlain. She was a banker’s wife and so would get dressed up, get perfumed up and would sweep out the door as the babysitter arrived. Very glamorous. I appreciate but do not wear these perfumes, but they are a great reminder of the 1970s world I inhabited as a child in Europe and New York City.

11.  What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?

Love’s Fresh Lemon by Dana. I started to mail-order fragrance when I was about 10 and this was my favorite. So simple, so yellow, and such great rounded plastic and glass packaging.

12. What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?

Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermes. When I bought it and smelled it, it was a perfect copy of the smell of sitting in the gardens at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat while playing hooky from a scientific meeting mid-June sometime in the early 1990s.

13. Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.

Buck L, Axel R. A novel multigene family may encode odorant receptors: a molecular basis for odor recognition. Cell. 1991 Apr 5;65(1):175-87.

Probably not the literature you were thinking of, but this primary scientific article won a Nobel Prize for the authors and caused a revolution in the science of smell that is still unfolding today.


Photo of Dr. Leslie Vosshall by Chester Higgins Jr. Used with permission. Rights revert back to the photographer.

Smell My World is a DVD in the "The Five Senses Series" by Braincandy.

Katheryn Vermillion's painting, Pipelines and Magnolias, is part of her Louisiana Map Works series. Limited edition prints are available on the artist's website. Rights revert back to the artist.

Photo of Viola odorata by Hazel L. Topoleski. The photograph is featured on the American Violet Society website. Rights revert back to the site.

Pepé Le Pew is the charming French skunk featured in the Warner Brothers cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons. The episode is available on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume I (2003).

Photo of "Onerous Vapors" and "Oyster" by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

Image of "Odorant Receptors and the Organization of the Olfactory System" from The image illustrates Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck's award-winning discovery.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chew on This: Mastic Gum and Evergreen Flavor Notes

Imagine you are at a restaurant waiting for the bill. You are presented with a miniature plate of resinous crystals by your waiter who enthusiastically proclaims that they are, "derived from the sap of the Chios mastic tree and infused with characteristic evergreen flavor notes." He tells you it is chewing gum and hands you the bill. You start to reflect on last year's Christmas tree and don't recall eating it. Foodlore tempers reason with meaningful details that charm taste buds out of assuming the worst (i.e. this could be unpleasant, make me sick or perhaps kill me). Understanding a little chewing gum history will put the evergreen spectrum of flavor and mastic into perspective (eliminating the need for a death scene in this imaginary scenario).

In the U.S. the most popular flavor chewing gum is mint because it freshens the breath and cools the mouth with a stimulating sensation (the latter is due to the response of the trigeminal nerve to the presence of menthol molecules). Mint's flavor is a shadow of the evergreen spectrum of taste found in mastic; the original chewing gum that is also the root of the word "masticate" which means "to chew." Mastic is not as cooling as mint; it is camphoraceous, verdant, slightly woody and possesses a faint trace of floralcy. The organoleptic quality of woodiness is comparable to cedar.

Historically speaking, tree resin was the first chewing gum in several cultures. American Indians chewed resin from Picea mariana (black spruce) trees. The gum was cultivated in the same manner that frankincense has been for centuries; by cutting the bark of the tree and allowing the sap to flow and form hardened tears. Native groups in Mexico chewed chicle, a type of latex which is derived from the tropical evergreen tree Manilkara zapota. Chicle was used by Charles Adams when he created the first American chewing gum in 1869 and started a gum chewing rage in the States, much to the consternation of schoolmarms and the etiquette-obsessed.

The earliest record of tree resin being chewed as gum goes back to A.D. 50. At that time ancient Greeks chewed a resin from the evergreen Pistacia lentiscus commonly known today as mastic. Chios is the fifth largest of the Greek islands situated in the Aegean Sea and it is where the finest mastic in the world grows. Natives of the Mediterranean island are familiar with a religious tale attached to their precious mastiha. Saint Isidore was tormented and beheaded because he confessed to being a Christian and refused to revert to the pagan beliefs of Rome. According to legend, when the dead body of Saint Isidore was thrown among the mastic shrubs of Chios they shed tears of sorrow. These resinous tears were transformed into the healing tears of mastic.

The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides may not have had a chemistry lab, but he possessed knowledge of the bacteriostatic properties of evergreen tree resins before the advent of modern science, as did other tree resin chewing native cultures and their designated healers. Folk medicine became fact in 1998 when research at the University of Nottingham proved that mastic gum kills Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria which cause peptic ulcers. In 2006 scientists at the Hellenic Pasteur Institute identified the active ingredient as isomasticadienolic acid (a triterpenic acid which is also found in certain species of Frankincense trees).

Modern chewing gums are carbohydrate syrup-plasticizer compositions inspired by tree sap ancestors. If you want a true mastic experience you can purchase Chios mastic online or at Middle Eastern groceries (it is sometimes stocked behind the counter). Putting a tear of mastic resin on your tongue may seem odd at first, but it easily softens with the heat of the mouth and is quite chewable. The texture is slightly waxy and the flavor is woody and evergreen, possessing a gentle pine-like resinous quality. Sharawi Brothers, a 46-year-old Jordanian gum manufacturer, makes their mastic gum using mastic flavor and a modern gum base. Sharawi Brothers Mastic Gum is less camphoraceous tasting than pure mastic and has notes of lime and under-ripe orange blossom. The sweetness in the gum fades quickly, but the mastic flavor lingers.

The application of evergreen flavors is not limited to chewing gum. In Turkey, Greece and the Middle East mastic is added to ice cream as it lends a supple texture and enhances flavor. Shatila in Dearborn Michigan sells Kashta ice cream which is made with mastic and flavored with rosewater. Mastic's presence is detected in the supple pull of the ice cream, its evergreen flavor notes sublimated by cream and delicate rose. A halwa version of Shatila's Kashta ice cream is sold in-store and is not available by mail-order. If you visit Shatila be sure to taste it; the addition of fresh walnuts and pistachios is exquisite.

Trygve Harris of New York City's Enfleurage makes a wonderful frankincense ice cream that riffs on the pine spectrum of evergreen flavor notes. It is decadent, refreshing and possesses a lingering sensual mouthfeel due to the application of food grade gum arabic which is dosed to texturize the ice cream a little more intensely than mastic. The experience of eating Ms. Harris' frankincense ice cream is akin to being kissed because of the way you have to negotiate the frozen confection when it is melting on your tongue. You have to eat the ice cream to understand this as words fall short of translating the actual experience. You also need a little luck when it comes to finding Frankincense ice cream at Enfleurage; it is only served at special events in the store. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio sold frankincense ice cream last year, but you'll have to wait until Christmas 2012 to see if they will offer their frankincense flavor again.

Now that you know the story of mastic perhaps you'll be inclined to add "evergreen" as a descriptor to your culinary lexicon via personal experience. Evergreen flavor notes began bubbling up in the foodie world a few years ago. Heston Blumenthal rocked the Christmas table in 2009 using frankincense in a holiday entree. René Redzepi, chef at the Scandinavian restaurant Noma, made evergreen notes chic in several dishes and Fir a flavor to be reckoned with (a fact not lost on Clear Creek Distilleries in Oregon which makes Douglas Fir Brandy). Drinks flavored with evergreen notes of frankincense are already finding their way into a variety of mixologists' cocktails and frankincense bitters are commercially available in the U.K.

Mastic is a refreshing member of the evergreen flavor trend and is less terpenic (pine-like) than frankincense. Skinos Mastiha. a Chios mastic-based spirit, adds a gentle but complex evergreen twist to cocktails, with a faint woody floralcy that hints at violet. Mastic's ability to affect texture in foods by acting as a gumming agent is something chefs enjoy experimenting with so you can expect to hear more about innovative culinary applications of mastic in the future.

Notes & Acknowledgements:

"Luqum al-Qadi and the Porter" is a culinary tale in The Thousand and One Nights. In this story Scheherazade spins a tale about a humble gentleman who chooses dessert over a beautiful woman. If you can relate to this story pick up a copy of The Sweets of Araby: Enchanting Recipes from the Tales of 1001 Nights by Leila Salloum Elias and Muna Salloum. You can make some terrific sweets to accompany Kashta ice cream from Shatila.

If you are a gifted in the pastry making department you might want to prepare Culinary Flavors' Mastic Scented Galaktoboureko with Kataifi Phylo. If frozen delights are more to your liking Ice Cream Nation has a great recipe for Mastic Ice Cream. The pinnacle recipe for mastic ice cream is Nordljus'  Rosewater, Cardamom and Mastic Ice Cream.

Mastihashop is the official brand and store of the Chios Mastiha Growers Association. They sell raw mastic tears, mastic water, mastic essential oil (food grade), mastic flavor extract and other mastic-related products. Glass Petal Smoke recommends Chios mastic as inferior or adulterated mastic (made from almond trees and flavored with mastic oil) are sometimes found in the marketplace.

Thanks go out to Elena Vosnaki of Perfume Shrine. It was Elena who first introduced me to true mastic gum from Chios a few years back. The flavor has haunted me ever since.

The Chios Mastiha Growers Association website is rich with information on mastic. The recipe and research sections are worth a visit.

Photo of Chios mastic tree resin from a story by Diana Farr Louis on Kerasma: Greek Mediterranean Gastronomy. [The website is no longer live.]

Sharawi Chewing Gum Factory is based in Amman Jordan. It is common to find two spellings (Shaarawi) of the name as is indicative in the photo of the gum included in this post. They are one and the same. The gum can be purchased at Amazon though more competitive pricing is available in Middle Eastern groceries. Photo of gum by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Shatila will ship Kashta ice cream anywhere in the U.S. There is a four quart minimum order and other flavors to choose from. Their Kashta ice cream is priced at $7.00 per quart. Once you taste it you'll be glad there are three more quarts waiting for you in the freezer.

Photograph of pastry and Kashta ice cream at Shatila by Matryoshka. Her Tumbler page is enchanting; one can literally spend hours there. Rights revert back to Matryoshka. [The Tumbler page is no longer active.]

Master of Malt Frankincense Bitters are sold in the U.K. They can be purchased online.

Skinos Mastiha can be found at upscale liquor stores. Look for it in the section where you would typically find Ouzo and Arak. Some mastic spirits are made with anise seed and taste like Ouzo. Skinos Mastiha is not in this category which makes it all the more interesting to imbibe.

The allure of the exotic plays on the notion of pleasure and undiscovered territory.  Leon Samoilovich Bakst was well acquainted with this idea and it is evident in the costumes he designed for Serge Diaghilev in the Ballets Russes' production of Scheherazade (set to the music of Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov.). The image of the Odalisque accompanying this post evokes this notion brilliantly. It is the openness of the Odalisque and her sensual glance that invites imagination and appetite. 

UNESCO recognized Chios Mastiha as part of World Culture Heritage in 2014; two years after this article was published on Glass Petal Smoke.