What I eagerly await at the beginning of June here in Switzerland is the sun-ripened strawberries from Thurgau. They are nothing like those imported from the greenhouses of Spain in February; Thurgau strawberries are sweet, fruity, and possess the nuances of fresh pineapple and dulcet apple. Yet, the acidity therein provides a refreshing contrast. Paired with the deep bitterness of molten grand cru chocolate slivers from Sprüngli, and one arrives at pure decadence. As I enjoyed these two deceptively complex sensory profiles of strawberry and chocolate, I reflected on the fascinating craft of perfumery and flavours.
Whilst we can easily say that something smells like strawberry or chocolate, the chemical make-up of these two entities are much more complex. There is no single character-impact compound that says ‘strawberry’ or ‘cocoa’. A strawberry comprises hundreds of volatile compounds, of which possibly twelve contribute to the characteristic ripe fruit. Of note is the naturally occurring Furaneol (HDMF, 4-hydroxy-2,5-dimethyl-3(2H)-furanone), which is sweet and caramel-like, and found also in pineapples, tomatoes, and buckwheat. As for cocoa, the beans are made up of nearly six hundred compounds, and some of these are found in cooked cabbage, raw beef fat, and sweat — not the most appetising combination, surely. In any case, the specific olfactory and gustatory profile of strawberries or chocolate also depends on factors like varieties, maturity, post-harvest conditions, and treatments. Re-creating these two simple foods can be a feat.
But thanks to the craft of perfumery, we do not need as much as a dozen or six hundred chemicals to make our brains perceive strawberries or chocolate. Sometimes, we do not even need a naturally occurring component of these. For example, the fruity aldehyde C-16 (ethyl methylphenylglycidate or ‘strawberry aldehyde’) is a popular compound for the reconstitution of strawberries. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, however, begs to differ and suggests a simple strawberry accord of the strong exotic fruity note of Fructone and the crème caramel of ethyl maltol. Add the sweet berry accent of the methyl anthranilate, and one arrives at the intense smell of wild strawberries. For chocolate, the perfumer simply weaves together vanillin and the sweet, chamomile-like isobutyl phenyl acetate. And, to this accord, patchouli can create unsweetened chocolate. Whereas a trace of civet conjures a creamy ganache, orris concrete gives a cocoa powder. Other effects like orangette or minty chocolate thins can be rendered with the help of orange essence or spearmint oil, respectively. Such successful combinations have much to do with our innate ability of perception, and perfumery taps into that way we are wired. Our neural interactions allow us to perceive a new odour sensation, even if the individual odorants stimulate the neurons for very different smells. We smell chocolate from the vanilla of vanillin and the sweet charmomile of isobutyl phenyl acetate. The sensation created is an illusion of sort. The result is more than the sum of its parts.
Instead of two, one plus one equals to three — that is the magic of perfumery.
Sources: Journal d’un Parfumeur
- André Schiefner, Quirin Sinz, Irmgard Neumaier, Wilfried Schwab and Arne Skerra. Structural Basis for the Enzymatic Formation of the Key Strawberry Flavor. J. Biol. Chem 2013, 288:16815-16826.
- Frauendorfer, F and Schieberle, P. Identification of the key aroma compounds in cocoa powder based on molecular sensory correlations. J Agric Food Chem, 2006 Jul 26;54(15):5521-9
- P. Schieberle and T. Hofmann. Evaluation of the Character Impact Odorants in Fresh Strawberry Juice by Quantitative Measurements and Sensory Studies on Model Mixtures. J. Agric. Food Chem., 197, 45 (1), pp 227–232