Here I sit eating the most robust salad imaginable. Today is Saturday and with the slow arrival of Spring, the market up in the Place Aux Aires is starting to look more like a market in the south of France should with a number of local small farmers displaying their beautiful produce. I brought home a huge curly leafed cabbage and a head of lettuce that should really be included in a still-life painting. This is what I am now munching on, finely sliced and topped with Sicilian lemon juice and organic local olive oil so sweet it barely tastes like olive oil at all. (This I got at the market also, from the farmer, in a one litre wine bottle- price-14 euros) Top this off with a glass of chilled organic sweet Gewurztraminer from the region of Alsace, and I think my dinner qualifies as gourmet! Actually this is the appetizer, to be followed by lightly blanched baby broccoli and boiled organic eggs, also drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt from Normandy.
And what of the stinky cheeses, you ask? Well, so far, the most pungent one I’ve had was a ewe pecorino from Corsica which was delicious but challenging in its fragrance. My favourite so far is still the Manchego from Spain.
I haven’t really spoken much about school lately because every week has essentially been the same since classes began. Three days per week studying the synthetics and two, the naturals. Now however, we are approaching the end of this section, which likely, was the most difficult of the whole year. We have now studied about 200 raw materials, learned them mostly by heart (the process of memorizing never really ends), and I am feeling quite happy with my memory skills. Considering I have always struggled to remember place names, people’s names, and the like, I am very relieved that my olfactory memory is good. That said, I do notice that my memory recall in other areas has improved. It’s true it seems that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise. My sense of smell has certainly improved greatly. It is a skill that can be learned, and this is intellectual, but also biological. At the beginning I could barely smell some of the materials that were unfamiliar to me, especially the synthetics that I had never smelled before, but now, I am registering them much more clearly and I am able to pick up more nuances every day. (especially lately, there seems to have been a sudden breakthrough in my olfactory system) I have to be careful because it’s like having to deal with a whole new set of materials as my sensitivity increases. I love the feeling of this sense becoming so much more acute. From what I understand, more receptors in the olfactory system are being activated through use and exposure to new molecules, perhaps ones that I have never tapped into before.
Synthetic musks offer a very interesting example of this phenomenon. Musks are quite large molecules and can therefore be difficult to smell. There were two that I was not able to smell at first (musk ketone and musk T- so I took a tiny vial of each home with me to work on and found that by rubbing a bit into the back of my hand, I could begin to smell it.) Now, when one appears in a test, I can smell it quite clearly and am able to identify which one it is. Still, day to day, the sense of smell can come and go and be irritatingly fickle. It can also depend on the order of the materials that we smell. Materials can vary in their scent according to what you smell just before them. Complicated and fascinating!
Another little bit of information that I love because, to me, it is incredibly interesting- is this- when you smell a fragrant flower, you are smelling its ‘headspace’. This is composed of the lightest most volatile molecules that the flower contains. The chemistry of this scent is quite different from the chemistry of the essential oil (water/steam extraction) or absolute (solvent extraction). Capturing these light diaphanous molecules is almost impossible and often replications are done with synthetic chemicals to copy the chemistry of this so-called headspace. For some flowers, such as lilac and hyacinth, any extraction is impossible and the only way to achieve their perfume is to copy their headspace with chemical formulations. (there are sensitive machines that can identify main components of the perfume given off by a respective flower placed within it.) Well, to somewhat copy their perfume, since the volatile chemistry of plants is so complex that science has yet to identify all the components of any given oil or for that matter, headspace. The more they identify and can successfully replicate, the more naturals will be replaced with synthetics. Because of their incredible complexity, the eradication of pure naturals is not going to happen any time soon, thankfully! Besides, like I mentioned before, with the work being done in Russia and elsewhere, it is now known that there is a life force (or factor x) within natural molecules that cannot be reproduced in a lab.
The next section of the course will be chemistry followed by formulation. Discovering science through a medium that I am already enamored with is fantastic! I am definitely falling in love with chemistry.