By Jo Rittey


But what if you couldn’t? Wake up and smell the coffee, that is. Well, you could wake up, but you couldn’t smell the coffee, or anything else for that matter. What would that be like?


Most of us take our sense of smell for granted and many of us don’t realise that our sense of smell is what governs our concept of the flavour of food. We can mistakenly believe that our tongues’ tastebuds are the ones doing all the clever distinguishing, when in fact the mouth differentiates only rudimentary information on sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami. It is, in fact, our sense of smell that is all-important in deciding on how good or bad something tastes. Odour molecules from food rise to the olfactory epithelium and supplement the information from the tongue with much more sophisticated data.


Not being able to smell is a lot more common than we realize. Up to 5 per cent of Australians – more than 1 million – could be suffering from smelling disorders. A loss of the sense of smell can result through head injury, from a virus as simple as a winter cold or as a result of some medical conditions.


Those with normal smell function may not grasp how crucial smell is to everyday life and not being able to appreciate aromas can affect both physical and mental wellbeing. Our ability to smell means we can ascertain when food and drink are good or bad, when things are cooked or burned and the sense of smell has the power to unleash emotions and memories. If we are no longer able to smell, what happens to those memories and associations?


French novelist Marcel Proust was the first to use the term involuntary memory in his novel, A la recherche du temps perdu (In remembrance of things past). He describes an incident where he was eating a tea-soaked madeleine and a childhood memory of eating a tea-soaked madeleine with his aunt is suddenly triggered and along with it an exquisite sensation of joy and a series of memories about his childhood home and town.


When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered… the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”


Some of our greatest joys come from smelling something and being transported to another time; unexpected moments where we unwittingly unleash the essence of the past. A coffee could be a portal between the present and what has gone before.


Tomorrow morning when you wake up and smell the coffee, savour that moment. Sit with it a while and be thankful that you can.



Jo is a French teacher, a freelance writer and needs good coffee to start her day. Armed with an exotic New Zealand accent and a winning (hopefully) smile, she likes nothing better than roaming the streets of the northside in search of new and old food-related wonders.





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