A perfume, on the other hand, tells a story. It’s far more complex, and if you are unfamiliar with the perfume, you never know who is going to arrive next, which note. It’s an orchestra. So you can be surprised and delighted by the unexpected. I think food, or more precisely, taste, is the same. Taste and smell go and in hand; they compliment each other, and one can only be realized to his full potential with the help of the other. The enjoyment we get from our food, if we love eating well, is enhanced by smell, both before we eat, to whet our appetites, and during the meal.
I am in Florence, Italy, at the moment, taking a weekend break from my Gelato studies in Bologna. And yesterday I had lunch in an ancient inn in the San Niccolo neighborhood at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo. I ate in the basement and enjoyed such a sample, fresh meal--salad of rocket, pears and brie, with the local olive oil and balsamic vinegar (and yes, I know Brie is not local to Tuscany but it was still mighty fine.) The accompanying bread was made without salt, very interesting, and not something I expected. The main dish was a butter and sage ravioli. The ricotta filling was impregnated with a perfect harmony of sage, and the butter seemed to have a gentle infusion as well. It was perfectly balanced, a wonderful journey, with a local Tuscan red wine, with its own symphony of notes, reds, blackberries, woods and spice. This with the butter and sage and the flat rough taste of the bread, following the opening notes fresh green and spicy rocket, sweet pear and cheese, in oil and balsamic was a gustatory perfume, a scent orchestra, a scent sculpture, as my friend Christophe says, if one ever existed. What else can you call it? My sense of smell was fully engaged, as was my sense of taste.
We can use essential oils in food, sure. Just be objective and critical in deciding which ones to use and make sure you have a good supplier. If you are eating your oils, even in the tiny quantities we must use, they are still going to be metabolized, so be smart. But don’t get crazy and start talking about “food grade” and “therapeutic grade” and all that rot. It’s nonsense. Nor does having the organic certificate mean all you want it to mean. If it’s a French oil, great. Organic certification usually means a great deal in France. But in India? Not the same. And our frankincense is not certified organic at all. However, the oils come from plant material that is remote and wild and clean. The reality of essential oils is usually going be different than what you might expect or hope. Not worse, but different. The cleanest oils in the world might not be certified and yet you might have a supplier who offers any old shlock with a good pedigree, which may be fake. This goes for many certifications, by the way, including CITES. So it’s up to you, and your supplier, to figure out what you want to use.
And we needn’t use only essential oils in our food. There are infusions, herbs, flowers, different ways to cook, hydrosols, aging processes, and the like. Your imagination is the only limit.
I started this post to write about gelato! As usual, I got sidetracked. Gelato and ice cream are ideal vehicles for an aromatic adventure into gustatory wonderland. When you start with a fresh white canvas, using fresh milk and cream, you have a perfect three dimensional bed to let your aromatic imagination run wild, and essential oils are a perfect and easy way to realize this.
This summer, why not try it for yourself? Countertop ice cream machines are readily available at any home store. Why not try making your own homemade ice cream using essential oils? Lavender, rose, lemongrass, lemon myrtle, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, peppermint, geranium......all these are extremely suitable for ice cream flavors. Or steep your milk in tea and add a little bergamot oil for Earl Gray ice cream. Steep it in coffee and add cardamom. The list is long and varied. And of course there’s chocolate.
Please bear in mind that we are prohibited by law to claim medical benefits from the oils, or to recommend internal use of them. Cooking and using them for flavor is different from taking them as a medicine but you’re still using them internally, so be smart.