Category Archives: Food

The magic of Irish mince pies

After a warm-up in Co. Durham before Christmas with my short pastry and a friend’s filling, I have now made 36 mince pies of my own this season. My Irish pies have Powers single pot whiskey in them rather than the brandy many English pies contain. I also use Irish butter (Kerry Gold Unsalted) not margarine. A special ingredient that sets my pies apart is candied peel and fresh juice from fruit freshly harvested the day of making from my father’s orange tree in Lexington, Kentucky–the tree overwinters indoors. I grate my own spices, as seen below top left and right with aromatic fresh citrus zest.

The final mince (below, bottom) contains Granny Smith apples and zest for tart, mixed fruits for sweet, and nuts for crunch (the trigeminal component that  makes a perfect match for taste and smell!). The whiskey and butter hold it all together in a perfect matrix of deliciousness!


The final step is short crust which takes time and can be frustrating to roll. Still, the fatty floury pastry is a perfect complement to the mince. Here they are almost ready to go (left) and done (right)!



Filed under Food, Senses

Consider Smell: Arctic Edition (Behind the Scenes Sneak Preview)

Join #considersmell this Friday in Fairbanks Alaska for an Arctic Edition of a travelling series of events that explore smelling, and other senses, through time and space. Come to the Ursa Major Distillery on Parks Highway from 5-8 for a multi-sensory experience!

prepartySome tools to get us started: the smoking gun! We use this to create foods from local trees (well, mostly!) Sadly, we can’t serve that yummy leek ash pasta on Friday!

a walk

the team


Our team takes a break! A walk in the woods to contemplate the light, the art, the science, and to smell things (we brought a pro along for help!).


a blue ballThe installation explores the synergy of art and science. Actively engage your senses and travel the interlocking sensual pathways that lead to perception. Explore molecular cocktails (we love the Arctic blueball mojito-see blue ball photo!), neurogastronomy, olfactory art, smell masks, a sound installation, 3D odor molecules, and photography enhanced with bespoke smells.The first thing installed is calm!


read meThe exhibit is partially up! First goes the calm–that and the cocktail (thanks, Rob!) helped make the vinyl cuts even more fun to put up! A few photo nooks masked out and the rest up tomorrow!


Here’s a sneak peak of some things on offer–photographs with smells created, curated, and distilled!

earth-fall-k isovalericSmell fall in Fairbanks…

rural-super snow-j snow


Winter in Fairbanks…

urban-harringey-urban decay
Urbanity in Haringey…

urban-banksy-j urban decay

or the Banksy’s stone canvas at Turnpike Lane.

Maybe sweet Chinese incense along Regent’s Canal after an afternoon on Primrose Hill.

Or the fresh air of Whitstable Seafront!



Smell Masks! They tell a story unique to an individual–a bespoke blend of smells crafted collaboratively. Come and smell the narrative of the Yukon Crossing and the Arctic Change.smell mask

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Filed under Alaska, Food, Olfaction, Science, Senses

The chirality of smell



As I prepare the first half of my Science of Smell online class, I am having fun looking for various examples of all things biomolecular, biochemical, and genetic related to olfaction. If I were a taste and flavour chemist or a molecular gastronomist, I’d probably be interested in somehow exploiting the chirality of biomolecules in food and drinks!

Chirality refers to the non-symmetrical nature of some molecules. Non-symmetrical molecules are like our right and left hands: they appear the same in reverse but you cannot superimpose the image of one over the other in the mirror nor can a left-handed glove fit a right hand. In the pharmaceutical industry, chirality is very important because the enantiomer of a biomolecule that produces a positive outcome (like reducing morning sickness using thalidomide or hyperactivity using Ritalin) may cause a harmful effect (birth defects) or no effect. The handedness is determined by the stereocenter of a molecular. Those with ‘right’ handed stereocenters are ‘R’ or + enantiomers and those with ‘left’ handed stereocenters are ‘S’ or – enantiomers (the S comes from sinister, Latin for left).

Our olfactory receptors are clever things: they can tell the difference between the right and left hands! The two most common examples are of carvone and limonene.  The R-carvone/(-) carvone is recognized as mint and its enantiomer as carraway. R-limonene/(+) limonene smells ‘orange’ and its enantiomer is lemon (see image to the right). So next time you smell oranges and lemons at the same time, recognize the power of your nose to be ambidextrous by distinguishing between the two biomolecules!

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Filed under Food, Olfaction, Science, Senses, smell of the week

Black diamonds

The genome for the Périgord truffle was published in 2010. Considering that these special truffles go for 1000-2000 ($1300-2700) an ounce, the genome has been under-exploited by culinary scientists and molecular gastronomists…until recently when specialists in bioinformatics and proteomics got together to mine the secrets of Brillat-Savarin‘s “diamond of the kitchen”. The resulting paper, released today in the Journal of Proteome Research, seeks to unlock the “puzzling biology of the Black Périgord truffle Tuber melanosporum“.

As ectomycorrhizal fungi, truffles exist in symbiotic relationships with tree roots (black truffles like both oak and hazelnuts). Cultivation first occurred successfully in France when phylloxera destroyed viticulture in France (temporarily) and made available huge tracts of land for the creation of truffle groves. Much of that knowledge was lost in the wars that followed and the trees eventually reached the end of their truffle-producing life cycle. Attempts to start again today are rife with price control politics.

I was amazed to find that I LOVED LOVED LOVED truffles because I dislike mushrooms (something about their texture turns me off). I had truffles for the first time in a town called Stenay in Lorraine region of France. They were tender and aromatic and meaty without being meat. There wasn’t anything that I had eaten that compared to them and they filled a distinct niche that nothing else had in my vegetarian diet.

The smell. The lovely smell of good truffles–so good that Peter Mayle describes a truffle breakfast eaten with one’s head under the napkin to better capture the aroma. Amazingly, the new article reports that only nine enzymes are responsible for creating over 90 different odorants associated with the unique aroma of the black diamonds of Périgord! The authors note:

It is hardly surprising that such low numbers of enzymes were shown to be involved in the production of over 90 volatiles considering over 70% of the proteome is yet to be annotated. The potential to discover novel enzymes that could be of economic, medicinal, or other uses remains a tantalizing possibility.

Attempts have been made to capture this aroma to cheaply produce ‘truffled’ food. There is even a truffle-scented vodkaThe food industry uses two  chemicals (DMS and 2-methyl-1-butanol) predominant in the odor profile in order to produce a truffle flavour. A chemical called 2,4-dithiapentane is used to simulate the aroma in olive oils. Both DMS and 2,4-dithiapentane are derived from methanethiol, which is the key odor produced in human urine after metabolism of asparagus. The ability to detect this compound has a genetic component. I wonder if this influences one’s preference for truffles…something I am exploring in my on-going research on food preference, odors, and genes! 

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Filed under Food, Olfaction, Senses, smell of the week

Is there a connection between dietary repetition and food preferences?

A Science News Post (brought to my attention earlier in the summer by @elizabethjrowe) presents research trends in food science: the pairing of retronasal olfaction and taste reception in studying flavour and the knowledge pairing of culinary experts and scientists within a relatively new journal Flavour. I am glad that food sensation (for lack of a better word to describe the complex process of perception, taste, smell, hedonic value, and preference) is getting increasing amounts of attention! From an anthropological perspective, however, the evolutionary and cultural underpinnings of these studies is still missing from the dialogue–something I hope to rectify in the coming years!

The article leans towards the idea that repetition is the driver of food preference–and it starts in the womb. Support for this idea is presented by referencing the study on babies whose mothers ate anise and garlic during pregnancy (and therefore were not averse to the odors post-natally).  I assume the reference is to Schaal et al. 2000. That paper was great and is a start to exploring cross-cultural differences in the interaction between odor perception and food preference–but there also might be variation in olfactory receptors within the sample from the Alsace region (where anise is a common food additive but the population history of which is complex).

A taste and smell scientist is quoted as supporting the idea of repetition shaping diet: “What makes lasagna loved is that the odors have been paired to a source of calories.” Odors stimulate appetite but arguing for a causative relationship among odors, loving a food, and its caloric value is premature. We have so much yet to learn about the genetic architecture of individual and population odor profiles, which ligands bind to which receptors, odor processing, perception, and consciousness let along variation among all these things. All these known unknowns make olfaction a great place to work (and the unknown unknowns exciting things to be discovered)!

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Filed under anthropology, Food, Olfaction, Senses

The piggy smell of Eurasian genetic landscapes

Between 6000-4000 years ago (according to study published in Nature Communications), indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers acquired pigs from Neolithic farmers immigrating to Europe. I have been interested in Pleistocene pigs for a while (and their continued association with humans into the Holocene). The reason for my interest is that pigs produce a lot of androstenone (a sex steroid), especially males, and humans vary in their genotypic/phenotypic perception of androstenone.

Human variation in androstenone perception depends on two non synonymous SNPs (Keller et al. 2007), R88W and T133M. These SNPs appear to play a role in meat preference: Lunde et al. (2012) found that wild type humans (RT/RT) rated the meat of non-castrated male pigs less favorably than those with variant alleles (RT/WM and WM/WM). HapMap and 1000 Genomes are great resources but do not capture the variation local human populations, let alone the anthropological underpinnings of variation. In my lab and using a wide mix of global human populations, I found significant variation in androstenone perception frequencies, with higher frequencies of mutations throughout Eurasia–an area heavily invested in pig meat throughout human prehistory; in Japanese and Northern Europeans, the frequency of homozygote recessive mutations is much higher and these areas have a rich history with pigs–especially Japan.

Currently, I am working through the archaeological data for human-pig interaction in Europe and Asia (with a special focus on Asia as the origin of all pigs–see here and here for starting places) to interpret the results of the genetic data. Both the archaeological data and genetic data are thin when taken across such a huge space but they are a starting point; a neat study would be to find a locale with a rich archaeological record, human population to test for the gene and perception, and a good ethnohistory on the relationship with pigs–something I am working on right now.

Combining data from the archaeological record and the genetic history of human populations adds depth to what could, on their own, be interesting but uncontextual datasets. Taken together, these datasets can paint a more detailed picture of the evolutionary inter-relationship between genes and diet.

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Filed under Analysis, anthropology, Anthropology and Evolution, Food, Olfaction, Senses

The taste of meat and myoglobin

Myoglobin is an oxygen binding protein found in vertebrate muscle tissues that imparts a pink color to fresh meats (though this can be produced through a controversial treatment using carbon monoxide). The pinkness or darkness of meat is associated with muscles involved in sustained activity (e.g, legs)–these muscles require more oxygen to fuel activity and, therefore, are enriched with blood (and myoglobin). Short intense bursts of activity do not require such enrichment and tend to be light or white in color. The richer taste that some prefer in darker meats derives from the more intense package of nutrients (e.g., zinc, B vitamins etc) associated with tissues containing larger amounts of myoglobin. But, a huge portion of the eating experience is derived from olfaction and yet myoglobin doesn’t seem to impart much odor to the meat…

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Filed under Food, Uncategorized