Scents and Sensibility

Every morning when I walk out into the container garden on my stoop, I am greeted by the sweet scents of lavender, dill, basil, and rosemary. But when I try to describe these fragrances, I soon realize that my vocabulary is completely inadequate. What does lavender smell like, other than lavender?

It turns out that there are people in this world who have given the matter a great deal of thought. And some of the most knowledgeable are at McCormick & Co., the spice company.

At a foodie conference several years ago, I attended a session sponsored by McCormick on how taste and smell work together to create what we perceive as flavor. My favorite audience-participation moment came when we were all handed five tiny vials glued onto the flat side of a popsicle stick. We uncorked each one in turn and took a whiff. The first was clearly medicinal, redolent of tinctures in an old-fashioned doctor’s office. The second was delightfully minty, while the third gave the aroma of a pine forest. Fourth was something the audience could not describe any better than “earthy,” and the last smelled like “spring green.” It was hard to imagine how these scents could be connected—until we were instructed to uncork all five vials at once and sweep them, left to right, under our noses like an aromatic pan pipe. Suddenly the individual “fragrance notes” combined into a single, unmistakable scent—rosemary! “We do this presentation for food professionals and top chefs, and they’re always amazed,” says Silvia King, senior principal scientist and director of McCormick’s Sensory Center. “They think they know everything about food.”

As I sit on my stoop sniffing my lavender, I try to summon the same powers of analysis. Sadly, the best I can come up with is sweet, violet, and soapy. How would you describe lavender’s sweet scent?

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