A powerful smell

Years ago, before the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, I was visiting Budapest in Hungary with my friend the author, the late Michael Jacobs (he wrote Budapest, A Cultural Guide, published in 1998). We decided to eat dinner in a large restaurant called the Kárpátia, which was founded in 1877 and is one of the city’s longest surviving eateries.

cheese

The dining hall was very spacious. Its decor is Victorian Gothic revival. Diners are serenaded by a small band. As far as I can remember we ate well, as was often the case in Communist Hungary. One could enjoy the restaurants in Budapest if you were a western tourist, but for most Hungarians, who were low paid, eating in fancy restaurants was way beyond their means.  I remember eating a magnificent lunch at another restaurant and paying less than £5 for a gargantuan spread. When I told my Hungarian hosts that I had been to that place to eat, they could not believe that I was able to afford it. I was going to tell them what good value it was, but held my tongue.

At the end of the meal at the Kárpátia , I decided to try a cheese, which I had never heard of  and was on the menu. It was called Pálpusztai. I ordered a portion, and waited. The doors to the kitchen were at the far end of the large room in which we were dining. Our table was as far from the kitchen as was possible. Before the waiter re-entered the dining hall, a strong pungent odour could be sensed. The smell filled the entire dining hall. It was my cheese. Michael was horrified that first, I was prepared to try it, and then, second, that I liked it. Actually, I like most pungent cheeses. 

Pálpusztai is a cow’s milk cheese, which was first made by Pál Heller of the Derby és Vajtermelő Cheese Company in the 1890s. According to Wikipedia, the bacterium, Brevibacterium linens, that gives the cheese its odour is the same as that found on human skin, which contributes to body odour. Maybe, it was lucky I did not know that when I was looking at the menu at the Kárpátia!

Page or screen

Many readers are moving from the printed book format to the ebook format, where text is read on a screen instead of on a paper page.

Recently, we visited the small but magnificent book shop, Modern Book Depot, next to New Market in Calcutta. We passed a pleasant hour chatting with its charming and erudite owner, Mr Prakash. One of the topics we discussed was ebooks versus old fashioned paper books. Mr Prakash suggested that ebooks were a useful backup for paper books, but that they were no substitute for the latter. I agree with him.

Paper books engage more of the reader’s senses than ebooks. A ‘real’ book has its own smell. I am not alone in sniffing the books that I read. Each book has its own odour whether its the smell of the paper and printer’s ink or of where it has been stored. Books differ in their tactile properties. Different kinds of paper vary in how they feel. The weight of a book and its degree of flexibility (if it is a paperback) add to the reader’s enjoyment or experience. None of these secondary characteristics associated with paper books can be experienced while reading a text on a screen. Although they do not affect the primary property of the text, its content, they do affect the reader’s whole reading experience, albeit subliminally.

So, give me a paper book any day, rather than an ebook.

Book sniffing

As long as I can remember, I have been sticking my nose into any book that I am reading so that I can smell its pages.

I suppose that in brand new, recently printed books I am smelling the paper and the ink. Books printed in different countries often have distinctly differing odours.

As books get older, the smells of their pages change. This is both the result of ageing ink and paper and also a consequence of the environment in which the book has been stored. For example, if the book has been housed in the shelves of a reader who smokes, the pages acquire a tinge of the smell of tobacco and its smoke.

At first, I believed that I was the only person who sniffs the interiors of books, but now I know that I am not alone. The world of book readers is divided into page sniffers and those who do not poke their noses into books for reasons other than reading.

Garlic and parsley

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My late mother was a good cook. I know that you will think that often children praise their mother’s cooking however awful it is. In the case of my mother, her cooking was praised by many people, who still remember her skills in the kitchen many years after her demise at an early age. My mother was a keen disciple of the pioneering food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce Mediterranean cuisine to the British. Many recipes from the Mediterranean involve the use of garlic and parsley.

Although my mother did not permit my sister and me to cook in her kitchen, we were ordered to be in the kitchen with her either to keep her company and/or to do the washing-up. Our presence in the kitchen and proximity to a skilled cook engendered a life-long love of cooking in both my sister and me. When my mother died, I took over her kitchen and learned, by trial and error, how to cook. My sister did the same and ran a restaurant successfully for quite a few years.

Many of the dishes I cooked, and still make, contained copious amounts of garlic. This was not a problem until I qualified as a dentist, and moved to a practice in Kent, about 80 kilometres from London in distance, although it felt much further culturally and in many other ways.

Friends have often asked me whether the mouths that I treated emitted bad smells. The short answer is that although they might be malodorous occasionally, the dentist rarely smells them while treating the patient. However, the converse is true for the patient. In modern practice, the patient is often almost horizontal on the treatment chair. He or she can easily smell the dentist’s breath.

Soon after I began practising in Kent, I lived in local rented accommodation. I cooked for myself in the evenings, often preparing dishes with large amounts of delicious garlic.

One morning, Mrs G, a late middle-aged woman, attended my surgery. Soon after I had lowered the chair to a semi-reclined position, I commenced working on her teeth. In those days, the early 1980s, dentists did not routinely wear surgical gloves, nor did they wear facemasks. A paper facemask such as became ‘de rigueur’ after the beginning of the AIDs (HIV) epidemic, would not have prevented what was to occur after I began treating Mrs G.

After I had been at work for about a minute, Mrs G swept her hand in front of her mouth, and exclaimed: “Ooooh, Mr Yamey, you’ve been eating garlic.” I apologised, and from that day onwards I never ate garlic on a day before I was due to work.  

After I had been in practice for about twelve years, I began working in inner London instead of ‘extra-terrestrial’ Kent. My patients in London came from all over the world, and most of them ate at least as much garlic as I do. The garlic restriction that I exercised in Kent became unnecessary.

Parsley was another problem I faced when I first arrived in Kent. I used to buy my lunch at the local Tesco supermarket. Many of its employees were patients in the practice where I worked. In addition to sandwiches and potato crisps, I enjoyed eating something containing chocolate with my midday meal. Many was the time when the lady at the check-out till would hold my Mars bar or Crunchie up in the air, and then shout at the top of her voice: “Look what the dentist is eating.” I digress.

One summer’s day, I needed some parsley for something I wanted to cook. I entered the local Tesco and asked an assistant where this herb was kept in the shop. Surprised by my request, she answered: “Sorry, love, we only get that in at Christmas.” I was shocked. Only an hour and a half’s drive away in London, parsley was available throughout the year. The Medway Towns, where I worked, were trapped in a 1950’s time-warp when I first arrived there. By the early 1990s, when I shifted to London, the area was emerging gradually into the present.