Many of the scents that surround us daily may pass largely unnoticed – until one triggers a memory of a person or place. The smell of smoke from braai fires in our neighbourhood, for example, takes me back to my earliest visits to the Kruger National Park. Even though gas is now used at the picnic sites there, visitors still tend to prefer braaiing their meat over an open fire when they are in camp.
As my fingers brushed the leaves of the tomato seedlings I was planting, my olfactory memory drew me to the vegetable garden at the farm of my childhood. It was packed with tomatoes, carrots, spinach, cabbages, leeks, beetroot and other vegetables – far more than we needed. I loved picking the tomatoes the most, especially gathering the small bright red cherry tomatoes for salads.
Growing lavender has become important to me over the years. I break off stems of different varieties from friends and hope for the best when I stick them into pots. Most of them grow and seem to thrive on little care once they have been transplanted. I enjoy bruising the leaves as I pass the lavender bushes growing both outside the kitchen door and the front door. Their scent reminds me of my maternal grandmother. Oddly enough, I do not recall any lavender growing in her Southbroom garden – an abundance of roses, yes – but she used Yardley’s Lavender scent and soap. To the very young me, this was the perfect ‘Granny smell’.
Vanilla biscuits also remind me of my grandmother; especially the aroma of freshly baked ones. She used to provide us with a tin of home-baked biscuits whenever we went down to the beach for a morning or afternoon.
Other fragrant memories include the pungent seaweed smell that calls to mind me walking along the Otter Trail and many of the subsequent holidays along the Tsitsikamma coast.
Another association with smell is that of dry veld grass that reminds me both of the grazing camps on our farm and of the many hikes I have enjoyed in the Natal Drakensberg.
The power of smell is intense: freshly baked bread takes me back to my mother baking bread in our kitchen at Sheba Gold Mine; for some reason diesel fumes on a damp day trigger memories of walking through London; and the delicious aroma of curry takes me home to my childhood – my mother made an awesome curry!
Petrichor, that pleasant smell of the first drops of rain after a long period of warm, dry weather, brings back the sense of relief that wafted over the De Kaap Valley after days and weeks gazing up at cloudless skies while the crops withered below.
I wonder what special olfactory memories you have?