Of all the senses, our sense of smell is probably the one that is most likely to evoke memories that can take us right back to our childhood. One whiff of something as we walk past a café can, almost magically, transport us back many years and to a quite different time and place. This aspect of our sense of smell was brought home to me a few weeks ago on a visit to Lundenwic in Aldwych.
Lundenwic was the Anglo-Saxon name for the settlement that was located between what is now Covent Garden and Aldwych. As time progressed and the population of Lundenwic decreased, the site became known as the old-settlement (Aldwic), from which we get the name Aldwych*. Lundenwic is also the name of a (relatively) new cafe that has opened up near the corner of Aldwych with Drury Lane (incidentally, originally called the Via de Aldwych*). The upstairs seating area is quite small but with Caffeine magazines on hand, and plants dotted around, as well as the bar, there is plenty to watch and to notice while savouring your coffee. The espresso based coffee is sourced from Workshop while the filter option (V60 based) features different guest beans. On the day of our visit there were two filter options available. Opting for the Kenya Kagoumoini AA, I waited for my coffee to be prepared while my cafe-physics review companion had a late lunch of a cheese and ham toasty which quickly filled this small café with the aroma of cooking cheese. The tasting notes for the coffee stated that I should expect “rhubarb and raspberry lemonade”, and while the taste was certainly of lemonade, the aroma seemed to me quite different, almost spicy.
The cooking cheese and the memories evoked by the smells, along with this difference between the smell and the taste of the coffee, suggested that smell ought to be the subject of this cafe-physics review. Indeed, smell turns out to be a very interesting sense. The nerve cells relating to smell are the only type of nerve cell that can regenerate†. It is this ability of these nerve cells to regenerate that recently helped a previously paralysed man to walk again. Nerve cells from his nose were transplanted into his spinal cord where they helped in the regeneration of his spinal cord (for reasons that are not yet fully understood).
But what about those smells in the coffee? That special aroma, that you breathe in and appreciate immediately after you have brewed your cup is due to a fantastic mix of over 1000 volatile aroma chemicals. If you let your coffee stand, those chemicals evaporate off, which means that the just-brewed aroma starts to change. One of the most important chemicals for this coffee aroma is called 2-furfurylthiol. It has been shown that the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol in the coffee decreases by a factor of 4 over the course of an hour‡. Even after as little as twenty minutes or so, the concentration of these complex aroma molecules starts to decrease significantly and so if you, (horror of horrors), were to let your coffee cool overnight and then zap it in the microwave in the morning, you would no longer regain that freshly-brewed smell that may have attracted you to the coffee in the first place.
This may also be the reason that the coffee at Lundenwic tasted differently to how it smelled. By inhaling the aroma and then tasting the coffee without exhaling (and so pushing the aroma back through the nose), our nerves are sensitive to different sensations. Although we may experience this while tasting many foods, occasionally it is crucial. A few years ago, Hasbean coffee were selling a very unusual coffee. The coffee, from Indonesia was called “Sidikalang”. Looking back at Hasbean’s “Inmymug” video, it is clear that it was very difficult for Hasbean’s Stephen Leighton to come up with tasting notes for the coffee which, in the end was compared with “durian”. The aroma of durian has been described as “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock” and yet in South East Asia it is known as the King of Fruits and is highly sought after for its taste. The aroma chemicals found in durian have recently been analysed (by the same group as studied the aroma of coffee). Nonetheless, the inclusion of “durian” in the tasting notes was extremely accurate (and did result in an amusing, if unconventional, attempt at opening one of the fruits in the video). It was accurate not only in terms of the experience of the taste/smell combination of that coffee. The actual taste and smell of the coffee was very similar to that of durian. A very unusual and interesting coffee that I have never yet had the opportunity to experience again.
However, to return to Lundenwic, how do the (lovely and inviting) smells that emanate from that café compare with the smells of the area that had been Aldwych before 1905 (when Aldwych was built, demolishing the slums that had existed there)? Some museums, such as the Canterbury Tales (in Canterbury), use the aromas (odours?) of medieval life to give visitors some idea as to what life was like in years gone by. Recalling a childhood visit to that museum, I would suggest that the smell of freshly brewed coffee and melting cheese is an almost unquantifiable improvement.
Truly we could say that at Lundenwic, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Lundenwic is at 45 Aldwych, WC2B 4DR
*The London Encyclopaedia, 3rd Ed, MacMillan publishers, 2008.
†”On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen”, Harold McGee, George Allen & Unwin publishers, 1988.
‡The coffee had been held at 80C in a thermos flask for the duration of the experiment. It may be expected that as your coffee cooled down, the volatile aroma molecules would evaporate more slowly than the time indicated in this study.