If I were to take a poll and ask what smell people associate most with breakfast, I am sure the most common answer would be ‘coffee’. However, this is a smell I only associated with mornings relatively recently. As a child, coffee was not consumed in my house because my mum really dislikes it, especially when it is milky. When on holidays with my French grandparents, I was allowed to have a sugar dunked in my grand-mother’s coffee at lunch time (she called it a ‘canard’ – a duck). To this day, I still have sugar in coffee to remind myself of this wonderful treat. I only really started to drink coffee (in small quantities) when I was pregnant with my five-year-old son. I took a very strong dislike to the taste of tea. This took me by surprise: I had loved tea so much for 28 years of my life! Six years later, I have still not recovered unfortunately.
Can you imagine your life without the smell of coffee, or that of tea, ripe tomatoes, melting chocolate, vanilla, or sugary caramel? I cannot really, but that would have been the situation in the ancient European world. All these products are ‘recent’ introductions to Europe. Coffee, in particular, was still a luxury in the eighteenth century (see here for more on the history of coffee). There are many interesting works written on the introduction of these goods to Europe, but I often feel they lack a certain appreciation of their impact on the ‘smell landscape’. But then again, smells are so difficult to describe, as the great physician Galen (second century CE) noted:
For we sometimes say that something has a sharp or pungent smell, but we do not say that it has an astringent, sour, salty, or bitter scent, but we bring back most things smelt to two appellations: pleasant and unpleasant. Galen, On Simple Remedies 4.22
Even those who, like me, have a strong sense of smell, ways to describe odours can be difficult to find. Last week, I found myself in a situation where I could not define a smell when I experimented with a recipe for an ancient deodorant. I found the recipe in Metrodora’s collection. If you want to have a look at the manuscript, you can do so here (this recipe is on folio 18v).
Nice-smelling [lozenges] to sprinkle on the body: dried roses, 40 drams, pure myrrh, 20 drams, root of iris, 10 drams. Crush these with sweet-smelling wine and mould lozenges. When you want to use these, crush them with sweet-smelling wine and anoint yourself after the bath. [See below for a tutorial on how to prepare these]
The smell of this preparation was unlike any deodorant or perfume I had ever smelt. I cannot even say whether I liked it or not. Iris, myrrh and rose notes are to be found in various modern perfumes (all three in Opium), but modern perfumes are such complicated affairs that they cannot compare with this simple yet extremely fragrant preparation.
At first I thought this was a ‘lost in translation’ issue. It might be easier to describe this smell in French. No luck there. I asked my friend Lorna, and we came to the following conclusions. This smell is earthy and sweet, but the myrrh adds some pungency. It is also a powdery smell, with hints (Lorna tells me) of parma violets. It does recall oriental scents, but is perhaps less heady. So many words for one single scenting experience – baffling eh!
While writing this post, I drank one cup of coffee; changed one stinky nappy; and inhaled the smell of my lozenges.
How to make Metrodora’s lozenges:
I divided the proportions by ten and expressed them in grams. You will need
– 4 gr. dried roses
– 2 gr. myrrh (I found this quite easily online)
– 1 gr. orris root (I used powdered orris root, as I do not have access to irises – unfortunately)
– Some wine (I used some Shiraz, which I find smells very nice)
Crush all the ingredients in a mortar.
Add a little bit of wine (you will need very little).
Using two tea-spoons mould some lozenges. You will make between 4 and 6 lozenges.
In order to dry the lozenges on a wet winter’s day, put them in the oven on a very low setting for a while (between half an hour and an hour, depending on your oven), turning them over once or twice.
The next day, crush one of your lozenges in some wine and apply. I applied some to my armpits. I will let you know if people complain of a vinegary smell…