Notes on: It’s a Matter of Taste & Smell (Albi 1980-1991) By Jacques Maugein
Translated by Nick Groleau
In the eighties the French culture boundaries literally exploded under then Minister of Culture Jack Lang.
Until then only traditional nineteenth century bourgeois arts (such as literature, theater, classical music, dance, painting, sculpture, and possibly architecture and advanced contemporary music) were considered worthy of attention by the intelligentsia. Since then fashion, design, graphic arts, comics, photographs, cooking, and wine have been recognized as an integral part of the French culture and often its prime ambassadors abroad.
If such a thing exists as the “French way of life”, it is now anchored in the artistic domains once receiving no consideration rather than in painting or sculpture, which have been downgraded to nostalgic memories or glorious but long gone movements (surrealism, cubism, impressionism…)
In this context the recently created Cultural Center of Albi, France has focused on live performances as well as local culture, primarily the Gaillac wineries and local cuisine such as tripoux (tripe), magret de canard (duck magret), and foie gras de canard (duck foie gras).
It is at that time that Jean-Louis Bonnin, Director, and myself, Administrator launched a project called “It’s a Matter of Taste & Smell” (Du goût et des odeurs). We enrolled the help of our graphic artist Jean-Jack Martin, formidable character, truculent, gargantuan, iconoclastic artist, great wine, mushroom, and cooking aficionado.
Why taste & smell? Because one cannot discuss flavor without associating the sense of taste with the sense of smell.
There are only four basic flavors (salty, sweet, acid, and tart) that are the objective inputs to taste (there are specialized receptors in our mouths for each one of these four basic flavors). But taste is not sufficient to fully appreciate or recognize a flavor: the sense of smell completes the experience. Millions of smells exist but we have no specialized sensors for each one of them. Only memory can guide us, locate for us, compare a smell, and therefore a flavor. Taste is therefore a culture. It is a purely oral culture. Learning it requires sharing in the knowledge and experience of prior generations. There are very few ways, if any, to catalog, classify, and preserve smells in museums except for perfumes and flowers, which remain volatile and ephemeral.
We have decided to spend one month every year reflecting on and experimenting with this fascinating subject. We have blended and overlapped the points of views of artists, musicians inspired by food, poets and writers, plastic artists using the materials or the inspiration of the kitchen or its ingredients, with the work of chefs, winemakers, bakers, cheese makers, wine experts, sommeliers, and smell chemists…
The public’s enthusiasm caught us off-guard…though it shouldn’t have since this theme is so clear to all because it is integral to daily life.
We worked for five passionate years with passionate people. I can only present a few experiences and artists. They continue to research, invent, and practice their art. They are likely still available and motivated to share their experience with the rest of us.
A few landmarks:
- Out friend Jean-Jack Martin, mushroom expert, graphic artist, and boulimic eater, now an active retiree on the banks of river Loire.
- Michaël Moisseeff, researcher, flavor sculpture, who created perfumed telephone booths, impossible smells (a banana that smells and tastes like cold cuts, and vice versa), an exhibit of international smells (one smell per country) and perfumed art (Manet’s “Luncheon on the grass” with all the smells…). He does regular work for the food industry, which uses an increasing number of artifacts, and artists, including the street theater company: Royal de luxe.
- Patrick McLeod, researcher and thinker at Cité des Sciences de la Villette in Paris.
- The French Institute of Taste in Tours with which we’ve organized initiation classes, and taste tests for children.
- Jean Lenoir, and his formidable Bourgogne accent (a riot when he speaks English) who organized extraordinary wine tastings, and authored several books (Wine nose, Mushroom nose, and Spice nose) and ties texts and references to experiences (a hundred or so smell capsules are included in the cover of each book).
- Michel Belin, chocolate maker, who put together an unforgettable chocolate day, and his master:
- Yves Thuries, from Cordes who created and edited “Thuries”, a unique must have encyclopedia of art and bakery.
- Dorothée Selz, plastic artist who works with sugar.
- The Wine university of Suze la Rousse and its flavor organ instrument.
- Manuel Vasquez Montalban, from Barcelona, author of suspense novels in which Catalonia cuisine plays a large role and whom we invited at “Fifi’s” restaurant to taste the dishes described in his novels.
- Jean-Marie Laclavetine, author, who spent an entire weekend with other wine nuts drinking and inventing crazy slogans and labels for improbable bottles.
- All the chefs we have invited (from all European countries, including England!) who delighted and surprised us.
- The Albi restaurant owners where these dinners were offered as culinary shows and who provided the presentation of each dish, bread, and wine.
- All the winemakers who brought their passion, their knowledge, and their joy in a bottle…
- And many others whom I am forgetting by name and made me dream wide-awake through their talent and inventiveness…