You’ve probably experienced a “food flashback” of some kind - a mouthful filled with overwhelming nostalgia. Perhaps the caustic sting of vinegar whisks you straight back to a cone of chips at the seaside, or you realise it’s summer when you catch the scent of BBQ on the breeze. This curious sensation is often referred to as the “Proustian phenomenon”, a philosophy named after author Marcel Proust, who spoke of the childhood memories that came flooding back to him after the aroma of a tea-soaked madeleine.
Smell, memory and feeling are tightly knotted together, but what happens when fragrant essential oils are paired with food? We headed to Scent Chef Louise Bloor’s Essential Oils Supper Club at Lush Studio Soho to find out...
We’re greeted by a powerful lavender perfume as we walk in the room. A master mixologist explains that the drink he is preparing incorporates lavender in three different ways. Aside from the cocktail containing lavender essential oil, a small amount of lavender concrete (a jelly-like substance with a heavy herbaceous scent) is placed along one half of the rim of the glass. As a final flourish, we are handed a tiny glass tube of lavender absolute to be swept along the hand holding the glass. The flavour is surprising, an almost effervescent citrus tang hits first, before revealing deeper aromatic lavender. The scent of the lavender concrete and absolute elevate the cocktail - making the aperitif distinctive but not overpowering. Although many praise lavender for its sleepy quality, these magical martinis seemed to do the opposite, encouraging conversation and letting us mix with other foodies easily.
With palettes prepared and eager to explore more essential oil infused, vegan eats, we are asked to head into the dining room, through a colourful hanging flower wall. Long wooden tables are set up with rustic candelabras, copper cutlery, colourful glasses and jasmine-scented origami doves.
Louise introduces the plant-based menu, which includes the same food-grade essential oils used in Lush products, while we are served our first of five courses - a homemade sandalwood roll and simple artisan bread accompanied by a rich sandalwood dipping oil. At first the flavour of the rolls is subtle, but slowly the woody aroma intensifies. There is a comforting, musky undertone to the bread and the addition of the spicy essential oil gives an almost smokey flavour. It is as though the roll has been cooked in a woodfired oven, or over hot coals, while the slightly balsamic back note compliments the syrupy dipping oil - a rich and luxurious combination.
The evocative dishes trigger deeper discussion than the usual dinner table chit chat - we discuss past experiences and the people in our lives. The golden dipping oil instigates a conversation about a tour of Italian olive oil farms, the nostalgic nourishment giving everyone a common experience in which to share and enjoy.
Between courses, our waiters acquaint us with the essential oils that feature in the meal. We learn how the sandalwood tree grows parasitically on other plants and that its prized essential oil is extracted through steam distillation. These added narratives and facts ignite more discussion at the table, but also add to the ambiance in the room that suggests this meal is the product of thousands of years of history.
As we get to know our neighbours, a white bean and rosemary soup is placed in front of us, fragrant steam rising from the bowls. The soup is served with a fresh length of rosemary which we clap between our palms to release the essential oil. The scent is immediately evocative of English herb gardens, or the familiarity of a home cooked roast - making the soup undoubtedly nostalgic. The slightly chalky taste is counteracted by sharp rosemary, and a sprinkling of satisfyingly crunchy croutons offers contentment with every mouthful.
Lush Essential Oils Buyer Agnès Gendry shares tales of her travels across the globe to source exotic essential oils that grace our plates. One such ingredient is found in the next dish - a rose scented hyderabadi biryani transports us from quintessential England to the bustling streets of Southeastern India. The balance of spices within the dish have been artfully added to leave just a hint of heat on the back of our tongues, while the addition of rose scented cutlery gives the dish a heady, dreamlike quality.
Every element of the meal is related to the intoxicating world of essential oils, with glass bottles of Dalston Cola served up to accompany the dishes. The sweet cola is made with real kola nuts, lavender, citrus and spices, which adds new dimensions to the ambrosial biryani.
To cleanse our palettes ready for dessert, coffee infused fans are handed around the table creating a dark coffee zephyr. A geranium and lime sorbet arrives in a miniature cup and saucer, accompanied by a vial of boiling geranium infused water. The verdant but floral mist rises around us and we are asked to pour the water into the saucer of our desserts. We purse our lips at the incredibly tart nature of the lime sorbet, while the botanical scent from the geranium steam alters the flavour, giving it a beautiful subtlety. It’s evident that this crisp frozen treat is clearing the way for the big finale.
The closing course is placed before us - a ylang ylang meringue companioned with a seasonal rhubarb compote. Made from aquafaba, the meringues are vegan, but look and taste completely the same as egg meringues. The cream coloured meringue makes the pretty pastel pink rhubarb pop on the plate and adds a little acidity to the sugary dessert. Ylang ylang adds a sweet honeyed taste, and once the meringue has fizzed away on our tongues we are left with an uplifting floral aftertaste.
Perhaps it was the food we consumed or perhaps it was the effect of so many stunning essential oils, but there was a sense of calm around the table. The connection between guests had grown; conversation flowed easily and we felt at ease despite sitting in the company of strangers.
A whole new world of flavour had been opened up through the medium of essential oils, and we left the supper club wondering whether we would ever view food in the same way again. One thing’s for sure, next time there’s a hint of lavender in the air, or delicate rose graces our taste buds, we’ll be transported back to this moment, with new friends and delicious food.
Discover more about essential oils at the Essential Oils Hub.
If you’d like to try the vegan ylang ylang meringues for yourself then click on the video below!