Apr 30, 2014

The Art of Capture

Sitting in Laurent Severac's kitchen in Hanoi, Vietnam while he and his assistant sorted through a pile of rose geranium leaves, I wondered about scent and its ability to locate us in a time and place. Smelling the green, rosy fragrance of the geranium leaves brought me instantly back to last spring, when I concocted a drink at the café where I used to work, made of pureed cucumber, lemon and rose geranium syrup. It was refreshing and aromatic; perfumed but not cloying. I used the same recipe as a base for a punch at my brother's wedding. Suddenly this plant was connected to a whole host of memories.

In a BBC article a couple years ago, journalist Tom Stafford explained some of the science behind memory and scent, including how ancient the relationship is to life on earth:
"What we know is that smell is the oldest sense, having its origins in the rudimentary senses for chemicals in air and water – senses that even bacteria have. Before sight or hearing, before even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them." From the BBC online, 13 March 2012 Why Can Smells Unlock Forgotten Memories?
Severac's work in Vietnam involves collecting as well as growing unusual aromatic plants to make essential oils that are used in the perfume industry. But he also makes unique and evocative spice blends from the many herbs and spices he grows and collects throughout Vietnam. One of them, called "Hanoi Old Quarter" somehow captures the smell of street food as you walk through the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter—sweet with star anise like a bowl of steaming pho, spicy with pepper and cinnamon like seasoned pork sizzling away over hot coals. Had I not walked these streets just that morning—would the spice hold the same meaning for me? I don't know. But as Severac told me about this blend, "If I close my eyes [and smell this spice], I can be in Hanoi."

Before stumbling on blends like this, I really only thought perfume could act to transport us to a time and place. Perfumes play the role of "transport" by creating an experience reminiscent of a time or a place or a person through a combination of scents—pipe tobacco like the one your uncle used to smoke sitting in an armchair reading the paper, lily of the valley like your mother would pick in the spring and put in a vase by the kitchen sink. Maybe perfume isn't always so literal but rather more imaginative and suggestive, intended to capture "femininity" or "playfulness" or "sensuality." Here's a great example from a perfume site called "LuckyScent" describing a perfume called 'Gulbadan' by Tola,
"A light autumn breeze carries the scent of fresh flowers from some ancient courtyard, while a singularly gorgeous rose seems to elevate above the rest, offered perhaps by a handsome young suitor too young for guile or games."
Though I haven't studied perfume extensively, I think my understanding of perfume has benefited my understanding of spices, as perfume could be the liquid version of spice that humans wear on the body (or, I suppose, spray in the home.) But what I like about raw spices and spice blends is that they have the ability to physically represent a place by being made up of the ingredients used there (as in the star anise that flavors the broth of pho) or grown there, whereas perfume simply represents them. This is, of course, assuming the perfumes (unlike spices) are made up of synthetic scents, which most are. The exception is all-natural perfumes which are made up of plant oils.

I've only come across a couple other spice blenders who treat spices like perfume, as in blending scents and tastes to evoke either a memory or a place or a person. In France, there is a spicier named Olivier Roellinger of "Epices Roellinger,"and in the U.S. a man named Lior Lev Sercarz of "La Boite Epice" who actually studied under Roellinger at one time in France. And then of course Laurent Severac who produces both scents and spices.

What do all these three spiciers have in common? They're either French or connected to France (Lior is Israeli but studied in France). And what is it about France and these spice blenders? Well, it's really France and perfume that we owe to this relationship, as France became a major producer of aromatic flowers and plants during the Renaissance, when perfume was popular with royalty. The idea of creating a "perfume" (or spice blend) you can use in food would be an easy concept for someone who grew up or studied in a country where the art of perfume making has deep roots. I believe the French put a great deal of attention on sensual awareness; I envy these men that grew up there or studied there, not even having to think about it as it was all around them, in the bread, cheese, wine, herbs. Maybe I can be an honorary French woman. Young francophile seeking a career in sensuality.

Throughout my travels in Asia these past four months I confess that one of the reasons for collecting spices is simply for the pleasure of remembering where I've been. Ceylon cinnamon from the hills of Sri Lanka, minty pepper from southern Cambodia, sweet vanilla and cassia from the coast of Vietnam. They are like plant postcards, trinkets of memory that contain fragrant molecules to transport me back.

Like my mother who collects vials of sand from all the beaches she's been to, I collect spices. But now as I meet experts in the field like Severac and begin to delve into the art of blending and cooking, I understand how spices can be so much more than just memory cards—they can be medicine and comfort, a nod to culture or a reference to history. Or they can just exist as they are, and remind us how great it is to live on earth. 

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