Harold McGee on Taste and Olfaction : Flavor and Fragrance


While working on a new project, I have been delving deeper into the chemistry, the science of olfaction as well as taste. During my weekend reading of Harold McGee’s Food & Cooking: an Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture, I came across a quote that explains the relationship between taste and olfaction in a very clear and simple manner. “The olfactory receptors in our nasal passages can detest many hundreds of volatile molecules that are small and chemically repelled by water, and therefore fly out of the food and into the air in our mouth. The sensations from our mouth give us an idea of a food’s basic composition and qualities, while our sense of smell allows us to make much finer discriminations” (270).

As a side note, I cannot recommend Food & Cooking: an Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture highly enough. I was given the book as a present by a fellow foodie to consult as one would an encyclopedia, that is, to read bits and pieces as the need would arise. Instead, I started reading this 800 page volume cover to cover, without losing my interest and all the while being amazed by McGee’s incredible knowledge. The book also provides enough fascinating information to those who are interested in fragrance. Can you guess what Serge Lutens’s Bois de Violette and Pinor Noir have in common?  Read on for an answer…

The answer is ionones, the violet scented aroma-materials, which are widely used in perfumery and which give Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon their voluptuous violet notes.

McGee, Harold. 2004. Food & Cooking: an Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture. Hodder & Stoughton, London. (on amazon.com)

The Lady and The Unicorn tapestry representing the sense of smell (more interesting information).



  • Peter: I am a big fan of Harold McGee’s work. I haven’t tried Bois de Violette but Pinot Noir has some violet nuances. So, am I right? 😀 January 15, 2007 at 3:40pm Reply

  • Madelyn E: Dear Victoria,
    Thabk you for this most valuable resource ! It is always a joy to be so consumed (play on words ! ) by a book – as to read it nonstop . what a divine inspiration for anyone who seeks out exceptional taste and scent!
    I will look up this wonderful compilation by Harold McGee .
    Also. dear Victoria, does he discuss coffee by the way. There has been much discussion paid to tea notes in fragrance. I was wondering what brand of coffee do you like – and how do you prepare it . percolator, drip. (dare I say instant ? Noooooooooooo).
    I love Cafw La Semeuse (regular) and the Costa Rican , and Ethiopian too)
    For over 20 years I love the Gevalia – Cafe D’Oriente ( Madrid , Spain)
    I got the Upton tea catalogue as a result of your post on tea ( a la Ms. Kreel Kydd )/
    Madelyn E January 15, 2007 at 5:16pm Reply

  • Elle: I must get that book. I’ve got his The Curious Cook and love it.
    I shall wait for your answer on the BdV and PN connection. 🙂 January 15, 2007 at 9:42pm Reply

  • Madelyn E: Dear Victoria,
    Hi ! So you are more of a tea drinking kind of gal ! I am a coffee lover – anytime of day or night. I need the caffeine to stay awake and do my work. However , I also crave tea. And not just any kind. May I recommend since you sais you like Ethiopian coffee : Cafe La Semeuse . They are a Suiss company . they are online Cafela semeuse.com (in Brooklyn I think ) AND they offer a delicious Ethiopian coffee ! It i aromatic and robust – ! I really savor it – hope you might too !
    Madelyn E January 16, 2007 at 12:56pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Peter, you got it. The violet note is the common link. January 16, 2007 at 12:02pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Madelyn, coffee is the topic I am researching right now. It is interesting for many reasons.

    In general, I am not a big coffee drinker. However, there are days when I crave it. If so, I make Ethiopian coffee in a Biletti type apparatus (percolator). I am always looking to try something new, however. January 16, 2007 at 12:04pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Elle, just posted it! 🙂

    I cannot recommend the book highly enough. I have a feeling that you might enjoy it as much as I did. January 16, 2007 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Julia: Victoria, I bought this book after seeing him on the Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie on PBS. It’s really a great resource that speaks to more areas besides food. As a foodie, I found it very interesting and just like you I found it helpful in my perfume selections. Please keep the great reviews coming. Thank you. January 16, 2007 at 2:27pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Madelyn, thank you very much for this recommendation. I am jotting it down, and I shall report back. January 17, 2007 at 12:38am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Julia, that is very true–he goes beyond food in his book. Moreover, his passion is very obvious, and it is wonderful to observe.

    Thank you! January 17, 2007 at 12:39am Reply

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