It might be struggling for air at the moment, but bread remains fundamental to our culture – and most of us have warm feelings about the stuff. The word companion, after all, comes from the Old French word compaignon – ‘one who breaks bread with another’. Bread even provides the name of this blog.
And if smells are the key to unlocking memories, it is hardly any surprise freshly baked bread has been named Britain’s favourite smell, in a poll of 2,000 adults commissioned by decorating brand Harris.
You only have to glance down the top 50 top smells – which include the non-specific ‘scented candles’ at number 14, and ‘aftershave’ at 29 – to see this survey isn’t necessarily a beacon of scientific rigour. But there can be little arguing with the homely, mouth-watering scent at the top of the list.
Reading about the poll got me thinking. Since becoming an adult, I have not baked my own bread. Unlike many of us, Mary Berry hasn’t really got under my skin. My main interaction with bakery smells has been in the supermarket – most commonly, in the sort of convenience format small enough that the aroma permeates the entire store, inescapably.
And it dawned on me that it is not one I enjoy. Far from conjuring crusty, doughy carbs in my mind, the experience of walking into one of these shops in the wrong circumstances can be cloying and nauseating. The scent of supermarkets in other European countries is even harder for me to handle. And yet, as I think about the smell of baking bread I’m salivating all over my keyboard. Why is this?
To get to the bottom of this incongruity, I spoke to Cardiff University’s Professor Tim Jacob, who carries out academic research on ‘everything related to smell’. I was hoping he could offer a simple explanation of what was different about the smell in a supermarket bakery section compared with the kitchen at home when my Mum used to bake a loaf.
It is, however, a complex area, and we struggled to pin down why the smell of supermarket bread didn’t work for me. One possibility was the ‘freshly’ in ‘freshly baked’ – because the aroma contains volatile compounds that break down quickly, I might simply be picking up stale odours. But it was also likely that my own associations played a part: I might perceive the same smell differently in different contexts. And it could simply be that a hot oven is not what my brain wants to be thinking about when I’m browsing the chiller aisle for fresh meat and dairy.
I may be on my own here - and clearly the smell of fresh baking has the potential to draw in customers and increase the time they spend in store. But Jacob had a word of warning about the dangers of going too far.
“The risk with fragrancing a room, whether it’s artificial or natural, is overdoing it. And people sometimes don’t know where, or how to stop. Getting a smell in there is one thing but removing it is quite another,” he says, adding that if a smell gets too strong it can adhere to surfaces and fabrics. “I think we’re heading for trouble, because as more people market products and services using smell it can get a bit like lift music – there’s going to be smells everywhere.”
And, he warns, unlike lift music you can’t turn down the volume of a smell.