Every baker knows that the smell of hot bread and pastry is a powerful lure for customers. When the VAT legislation was being formulated in the UK, bakers successfully argued that hot meat pies should be VAT-free, as the main reason for having them hot on the premises was to create an enticing smell. Real estate agents have a similar trick, and say that the smell of coffee helps sell a home.
In the words of Alan Hirsh, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago “Odorants are potentially more efficacious than any other modality in increasing sale ability of consumer products”. In simpler words: “smell sells”.
Why is it so? One reason is that smell has a powerful alliance with memory, which always comes with a lot of associated emotion. All it takes is a whiff of something familiar – so small as to be almost un-noticed by the conscious brain – to trigger a whole flood of nostalgia, so that the smell of bread or coffee make us feel at home, or drawn to a comforting feeling of what a home should be.
The other, more primitive, reason why smell sells is that we are hard-wired to believe that whatever smells good will also taste good. This makes sense of course, because our sense of smell IS intimately tied to our sense of taste. We are all familiar with the lack of a sense of taste that goes with the lack of sense of smell when we have a cold, and the party trick that fools you into thinking you are eating an apple when your eyes are closed and your nose pinched shut and someone puts a piece of pear in your mouth.
Our taste buds can actually only distinguish four basic “tastes” – sweet, sour, salty, and bitter - or five if you include the controversial “umami” or “savoury”, as researchers are increasingly inclined to do. At least 70% of the flavour that we perceive as “taste” actually comes via our sense of smell, and although humans are very limited in comparison with dogs, we can still discriminate between 5-10,000 different odour molecules. In all sorts of permutations and combinations these molecules detected by our noses make up all of the “tastes” beyond the basic four (or five), so that when we taste the “spiciness” of Christmas cake or the “earthiness” of mushrooms, or the sheer “apple-y-ness” of apple pie, what we are actually doing is smelling it.
It makes sense then, to consider carefully the smell of baked goods, and how this might be used to make them even more delicious. We can use flowers for example – and there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in using flowers in food over recent years. We can learn (or re-learn) a great deal from the past in this regard, when flowers were much more freely used - partly it is true, on account of their supposed medicinal qualities, but also for the sheer joy of their colour and fragrance.
We usually associate rose-water with the sweet foods of the Middle East, but in medieval times until the end of the eighteenth century it was a common ingredient in England in many foods, both sweet and savoury. One recipe for “lamb stones” (testicles) sprinkled with rose-water comes to mind, but I think it unlikely it will become a trendy dish no matter how popular flowers might become in food.
Rose-water was particularly freely used in bread and pastry dough, partly because being distilled, it was clean and pure, and without the muddy taint of water bucketed out of the well. The other reason of course was that it tasted (smelled) good. Rose-water and rose-oil were made in the still-rooms of grand homes, often from roses grown on the estates specifically for that purpose, and the preparation was an occupation of the Lady of the household.
One such Lady was Elinor Fettiplace of Appleton Manor in Berkshire, who left us her handwritten cookbook dated 1604. Rosewater appears in many of her recipes, and in this one for sweet bread it is clearly added because it would make the bread more fragrant and delicious – not overpoweringly and obviously rose-scented, as this quantity of dough is sufficient for five large loaves, but it would surely provide a lovely floral note to underpin the nutmeg and sweet buttery flavour.
To make buttered loaves.
Take the top of the morning milk, warme it, &c; put thereto three or fowre spoonfuls of rose water, then run it, and when it is hard come take some flower, the yolks of two eggs, the white of one, &c; some melted butter, &c; some sugar, &c; some nutmeg, then temper this together with the milk, &c; mould it up into loaves, then set them on paper, &c; so bake them, if you make five loaves as big as manchets, you must put half a pound of butter to them, when they are baked, straw some sugar upon them, &c; so serve them.
Quotation for the Day.
The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)