There’s a scene in the 1985 film A Room with a View, in which Eleanor Lavish (played by Judi Dench), a long-time resident of Florence, is leading her new acquaintance from London, the very proper Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), through the narrow lanes of the city. At a certain point she stops abruptly, and breathes in deeply. “Stop. Smell!” she says. “A true Florentine smell. Inhale, my dear. Deeper!” She breathes in again, an expression of deep satisfaction flitting across her face; Charlotte inhales obligingly, smiles encouragingly. Eleanor hurries on; Charlotte promptly covers her mouth and nose with a handkerchief.
Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell, say Eleanor next, in the brilliant EM Forster novel on which the film was based. Everyone who has travelled knows this is so true as to be axiomatic. Whether they smell good is a whole other conversation, and possibly a pretty heated one. On any given street corner in any city in the world, what makes you or me close our eyes and inhale deeply with joy could be the very same odor that someone else would cross the street, anywhere in the world, to avoid.
Smell is probably the most subjective of our senses. Though science shows we can mostly agree on the components of smells—rotten eggs=sulfur— the reactions we have to them are shaped by myriad other things, many of which might have nothing to do with those actual qualities. Our childhood, or family culture; our instruction; our exposure to the world and the people we share it with: all will affect whether a particular scent is filed away in our primary olfactory cortex under gorgeous or gross.
Take taleggio, the most polemic of cheeses—soft, smear-ripened, made in Lombardy for more than a thousand years. The actual taste of it is fairly mild, with a collection of appealing fruit-nut notes; it’s ideal both spread on good bread and stirred into risottos. But to appreciate it, you have to first get past its smell. “A pair of old socks after a day trekking in the Alps, hung to dry in a dairy stable,” was one Italian friend’s attempt at encapsulating it.
Then there is durian, so notoriously pungent it’s banned on public transport systems in many Asian cities. “The Kanye West of fruits,” declared The Guardian, in an article dedicated to its love-or-hate divisiveness. “Your breath will smell as if you’ve been French-kissing your dead grandmother,” said the late great Anthony Bourdain, who was a fan (and who also described it as smelling “like a pungent, runny French cheese”, which makes one think he was probably a taleggio guy, too). Natural wines, their conspicuous bouquets as much a calling card as the unexpected subtleties of their palate and mouthfeel, are a more recent talking point. In Singapore, there’s an excellent newish bar serving only natural wines; its name—Le Bon Funk—says it all: stinky, in a good way.
Some bad smells are good by association. I, for instance (unlike Forster’s Miss Bartlett), adore the bouquet of a Florentine street—that beautiful mineral marriage of hot sun and old cobblestone, with base notes of river bottom and a long drainy finish, which modernity has done remarkably little to change (a common hazard of cities with medieval foundations). On the face of it, not a pleasant assemblage. But for me it is suffused with memory and history; I spent two very happy years living in Florence. As for durian, I have friends in Malaysia and Bangkok who have studied or lived overseas, and found themselves scouring markets in Europe and Australia for the big, spiky-skinned fruits; they didn’t love how it smelled around the house, but it was ineluctably part of their childhoods, and thus they longed for it.
The chemical compounds of odors are empirical. It’s we who assign them value. Do you love or hate the smell of diesel exhaust (another delicious component, incidentally, of the Florentine street, with its swarms of mopeds)? Does a nose full of gasoline make your eyes water with pleasure or pain? Healing thermal muds and springs often carry the unmistakable kick of sulphur; somehow, that’s become part of the appeal of a soak in Saturnia, or a wrap on Ischia.
Sometimes the value we assign them is sense of place. On the central California coast, where I’m writing, storms agitate the ocean every spring, throwing huge nets of kelp up onto the beaches. As they slowly dry and decompose, their rankness permeates the sharp salt tang of the Pacific. I suspect none of our neighbors would describe the smell as objectively pleasant, but most of us would describe it as home; certainly I’ve never smelled anything precisely like it, in 15 years of travelling the world. And any Londoner will instantly recognise the deeply distinctive reek of a pub—or, more esoterically, the street just outside a pub. Part warm hops, part stale cigarettes, part ammoniac residue of some chap’s late-night relieving himself against a curb. Not exactly a room fragrance in the making; but it is, for better or worse, the signature scent of a deeply beloved, and totally sui generis, fixture of life in England.
The pith of the good thing that smells bad is meaning. With taleggio, the payoff of forbearing the funk is that subtle, sublime taste—so rewarding that the funk itself gains appeal, by virtue of being the precursor. In Florence, the city’s questionable olfactory essence is inextricably linked to its other, far more dazzling sensory assaults, from the incredible evening light to the musical pealing of church bells. It gains beauty by association. Worth bearing in mind, the next time you go to wrinkle your nose.