Many people have asked how they can learn to “smell” more proficiently. While each of us is born with the techniques of smelling (smelling through the nose and smelling through the back of the throat – the latter being lumped together with the sense of taste – actually only the sensations of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami (savory)) – we seem to think that improving our ability to smell requires something magical and probably well beyond our “normal” capabilities. That is not so. Smelling better – improving our ability to be more discriminating and more capable of identifying odor types as well as specific odors – is mostly a function of experience. Practice and more practice is the key to learning how to become better and better at it.
Start with things that are fun and that are easier to access such as fruits like bananas, grapes, raisins, strawberries, blueberries, different types of apples, peaches, plums, apricots, etc. When tasting the banana, close your eyes to better “focus” on the smell/taste and ask yourself if this seems more or less like you thought a banana should “taste.” If the banana is more ripe, the sweetness due to increased sugar content and the increased content of the fruit’s “esters” will prevail; if the banana is “greener,” the sweetness will be partially offset with a tartness that underscores the lesser amount of the same “esters” as well as greater “firmness” of the fruit’s fiber structure requiring more chewing to release the “trapped” sweetness. Do the same with other fresh fruits.
Next try different uncooked (but clean) food items such as raw vegetables and learn how they smell/taste: tomatoes, carrots, celery, radishes, for example. How does the smell/taste develop? Is it instantaneous or does it take a while? Does texture effect your sense of smell/taste? Can you even tell whether it does? What about when you close your eyes?
Try smelling flowers: the many, many varieties of roses; lilies, tulips, geraniums (is there a smell or is it just a lack of floralcy that fails to cover up the smell of the “earth, dirt” in which the geranium grows?), lavender, gardenia, jasmine, iris, etc. Any surprises? Did you smell any differences from your previously remembered smell memories/experiences of flowers? Always be mindful and aware of everything olfactory in this process! Don’t ignore anything.
Warning: Make sure there is NO Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac in the cut grass you are using! Then…
Smell fresh cut grass (in season) within a few minutes after it has been cut – this brings vivid memories of childhood summers for many of us; then, rub a small amount of this fresh cut grass on the back of your hand and immediately smell the back of your hand. You will get much the same smell but a residual odor will start to develop and deepen as the more volatile top notes of the grass escape. Smell the back of your hand again over the next hour and you may be quite surprised as the odors shift toward those reminiscent of a “manufacturing plant that is processing raw plastics” – very un-Nature-like. Nature’s odiferous creations cover a wide range of smells – some good, some bad, some better when they are intact and contain all of their ingredients, and some less well-regarded when key ingredients start to dissipate.
Having completed these initial “smell exercises” using rather simple “smell targets” take stock of what you have learned and let us know about your experiences!
Best wishes and happy new year!