“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





20 October 2014


Treeferns at the falls in Possum Hollow in the Mount Worth State Park, Strzelecki Ranges, South Gippsland, Victoria ... photo James Mead

 The falls of Possum Hollow: 
it's a feeling more than a smell
and it goes in through our skin

An apocryphal yarn has the linguistically fastidious, but physically filthy 18th century English writer Dr Sam Johnson entering a carriage to sit beside a noblewoman. 

"Dr. Johnson, you smell," she politely complained. 

"No, Madam," he said. "You smell. I stink." 

Bold new science is revealing that the human body is riddled with the sorts of olfactory receptors which we always thought were limited to our nasal cavities. Now we know these stink detectors are all over us and all through us, as common as the Doctor's offending sweat glands. These clever little aroma laboratories constantly monitor our condition and our safety: it appears that as they smell and sniff, they play a major part in monitoring and controlling all our major organs.

Victoria's South Gippsland was a highly aromatic place to spend one's first decade. Given the acrid heat of this dusty old continent, those wet Gippsland hills were almost un-Australian.

Our farm, on the edge of the Mount Worth State Park in the Strzelecki Ranges, was an organoleptic orgy. Vegetable and decorative gardens after the British style, cattle, orchard, swamp, bracken, horses, dogs and florid Blackwood coppices offered a sensual rainbow of fragrance. Annual rainfall was between 1200 and 1500mm; summers rarely dry enough to see pasture brown off. It was moist, comforting, and heady - often too damp for cut pasture to become baling hay. We'd make silage instead, fermenting the grass to make a moist stockfeed.

One enemy of silage is oxygen, which causes buttery butyric acid to form. I find this acid alluring in tiny volumes in, say Hunter Semillon, but horrid when it overwhelms a poorly-made red. 

And there I was, detecting it as a toddler in cow tucker.

When we'd climb into the old Cyclops Rover and head over the range into the incredible Mountain Ash forest in Possum Hollow, with its floral canopy a hundred metres above, and its lyrebirds, treeferns and mighty waterfalls below, the smell knob wound right round to eleven. 

But even as an infant on my grandfather's mighty shoulders, I seemed to realise that the sensation offered by such a lush environment was more than aromatic. It was a rich, overwhelmingly natural feeling that came in through every pore. Its hypnotic seduction did more than explain why little boys tended to wander off through the dense understorey in search of that secure, mystical nirvana called Lost. 

Few such intoxicated, curious pioneers came back.

Fifty years later, the opposite feeling, the one that makes me cranky and wish like shit that dear old Pop would appear and carry me out, is the wine show hall. As my organoleptic receptors reach the peak of their analytical proficiency, that heady cacophany of fruit, wood, ethanol, industrial chemical additions, cardboard, tea towels, detergents and whatnot is an assault I'll do anything to avoid, even without the sophisticated stink of other people. It is not natural, and has nothing to do with gastronomy. And it is not just a smell that goes into the nose. It is indeed a feeling. It is all over me.

Take Canberra. Man, that joint might mount an impressive annual Floriade, but if you climb from the flying cigar tube through the airport lounge into a taxi and thence to any government building, like say, the Federal Parliament or the National Gallery, you'll smell a wall of chemical stink so toxic it'll make a man's balls shrivel.

No wonder our National Capital is swarming with madmen.

Following organoleptic science for 35 years has been frustrating: there's a dearth of good research. Fine art, architecture, urban planning and such have devoured a good slice of financial attention to please our eyes; the symphony and the incredible complexity of digital recording and playback is only the start of what we do for our ears; the textile industry, plastics, carpentry and so on are perfect indicators of how we reward our sense of touch ... and yet we know little of the two organs which just happen to be smack in the middle of the front of our heads: the mouth and nose.

Perversely, we now spend more time photographing our food than we allocate to the science of how we grow, make, absorb and enjoy it. Rather than properly learn about the building blocks that give us flavour and sustenance, we convert food to a digital currency that pleases and teases only the eyes. This is delusional, and the trigger for my 1980s invention of the terms 'magazine food' and 'gastroporn.' Perving on food photos does no more to help us understand flavour, smell and sustenance than a sesh of sadoporn assists inadequate males to understand women.

There could be a touch more honest punksterfication in modern gastroporn: the author savouring the coq au vin he made from a troublesome local rooster ... photo Satanika

But things are coming on in aroma science. In a discovery that gives me a rush of excitement nearly as good as the falls of Possum Hollow, Dr Hanns Hatt and his Ruhr University Buchum team in Germany have discovered olfactory receptors all over the human body. Those body management switches we normally imagine to be somewhere up our noses are actually in our hearts, lungs, livers and brains - all our major organs. Which includes the biggest organ of them all: our skin.

There was a frisson of juvenile excitement when Hatt's team discovered olfactory receptors in human testes and sperm. Once confirmed, I reported this here a year back, missing the simult├Žneous news of the USA National Academy of Science publication of a paper that showed that taste receptors in the testes of mice were so sensitive to destructive chemicals in the environment that they directly affected fertility by slowing sperm production.

Dr Hanns Hatt: smelling with his nose for a change

So Big Pharma and Big Agrochem can directly limit population. Combine all this with the lastest from Dr Hatt, and we're getting closer to understanding why Possum Hollow was a turn-on for little Whitey, and why the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia's wine show hall feels like such a threat to the bigger one. 

As Alex Stone reported last week in the Science section of the New York Times, Jennifer Pluznick, an assistant professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University discovered in 2008 the vital role played by olfactory receptors in the kidneys of mice: they manage blood pressure and blood filtration rates in reaction to the smell of the blood.

There's more to smell than meets the nose ... illustration by George Grainger Aldridge from Wines of Great Depth (Evidence of Vineyards on Mars, Aldridge and White, 2013)

Amongst these and many other wonders, Stone reports that in June 2009, the USA National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health Journal of Biological Chemistry published a paper that showed that when exposed to the odorant beta-ionone, olfactory receptors in human testes reduced cancer cell proliferation. Beta-ionone is a primary factor in the bouquets of roses and violets, aromas which I just happen to find in some of the most beautiful wines.

Emory University's Grace Pavlath has shown that Lyral, a perfume made to smell like Lily of the Valley, influences olfactory receptors in human muscle to the extent that it causes stem cells there to convert to muscle cells and build new tissue. And now Dr Hatt reports that Sandalore, a synthetic perfume that mimics sandalwood, hits one olfactory receptor in human skin with such a blast that it hastens the repair of broken tissues.

All of which bolsters my suspicion that aromas go into us everywhere, and are much more important to our survival than the stuff that gets in through our ears and eyes. It begins to explain asthma, and how a few drops of lavendar oil on the temples and forehead can soothe headache and induce slumber. It will unlock the secrets of aroma therapy massage, and confirm the direct threat that ancient herbal and aromatic medicines present to Big Pharma.

Brilliant scientists like Hatt will explain why we pay such high prices to enjoy the thrill of certain wines and foods. [A $1-per-snap tax on food photographs would pay for their research.] They'll explain why the best way to enjoy great wines is at a picnic in their healthy, petrochem-free vineyards, where the whole body feels and inhales the entire locality's ambient aromatics, and combines those with what's in the glass, and what's in our bellies, infesting the bouquet of our blood, and surging it around the whole big stack of bones, meat and aromatic receptors which is what we call us.

Prepare for the post-nasal trip.


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