This is probably going out on a limb a little, with a somewhat tenuous link to reality, but please try to bear with me for a few minutes, if you wouldn’t mind.
With that out of the way, here’s a question: what is the smell of a country?
The answer, for most countries, is probably too diverse to pin down. But even then, I suspect, there are certain fragrances which one is more likely to associate with a certain area.
For me, the perfect example of this is Ireland, which is forever associated in my nose with the smell of burning peat. Walk around pretty much anywhere on a chilly evening, and you’ll smell it. It’s rich, and pungent, and absolutely wonderful.
Mongolia’s love-hate affair with mutton isn’t too far off that, but for obvious reasons it’s not quite such a clearcut thing as to whether that’s a positive association or not.
South Africa doesn’t have a single smell, but comes close with the Sunday afternoon braai. Nothing beats it, though – just having a constitutional on a sunny day is enough to get your mouth watering.
This was being mulled over in my head while cycling the length of England, and I admit that I was occasionally found sniffing the breeze to try and discern the local flavour. The varieties are endless, though – England doesn’t have a unifying theme on the olfactory front. Well, not quite. Because most of the scents that you do come across are farming related – horse, sheep and cow. And occasionally (thankfully), pig. Once you’re used to these, they lose any offensive edge, and become attractively rustic.
But what I did discover was that to all of these, there’s an overriding modifier which does seem to be entrenched countrywide – I initially identified it as the smell of wet. Horse manure is one thing, but wet horse manure has a slightly more intense, sourish tinge to it. That touch took me a long time to nail down and identify, but I got there in the end. It’s the odour of compost – that rich, earthy, smell of healthy, positive decay.
I think I’ll end there, before I get accused of producing any metaphorical constructs.