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Under her nose
(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Under her nose

Our intrepid correspondent stops to smell the flowers - and the stinky cheese

Email|Print| Text size + By Meg Muckenhoupt
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2007

In the cooler months, when you have to close the windows and turn on the heat, indoor air quality suffers. That is to say, a lot of unwelcome aromas develop. And you have a choice: You can actually clean your home and find every last dirty sock, old banana peel, and pet-related disaster area, or you can search out sweet smells and give your nose some relief. We chose the latter.

Into the wild

Once upon a time, I had a house full of overgrown houseplants, which left my home smelling fresh and green. Several pets, three children, and a move later, they're all dead, except for a few spindly African violets with leaves full of puncture wounds from the cats' teeth.

My quest this day was to find places that would let me inhale the clean, healthy scent of growing things - from a place with reliable central heating. I set off for the suburbs, where wealthy widows with a fondness for flowers have endowed all manner of exotic plant zoos.

My first stop was the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College. Alas, the humid greenhouse rooms are designed to foster students' botanical educations, not their olfactory pleasures, and the place smells a bit like a wet rock.

I decided to try my luck with plants grown under less stringent conditions. A few minutes down Route 16 I reached the Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, stepped out of my car, and smelled the richness of a sun-warmed field in autumn. I started wandering the paths through the meadow, sniffing the overripe wild grapes, mugwort, and goldenrod, made my way through a pine-lined forest path and a pond filled with sweet pepperbush and blueberries - and gradually realized that I had no idea where I was, or how to return to my car. I resolved that, instead of following my nose, next time I would follow a map.

On a hunch, I drove to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston to visit the Orangerie, a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse perched on a hill with a view of Mount Wachusett. When I stepped into the vast glass-walled room, I knew I had reached the perfect indoor oasis. The smell of orange, lime, and lemon flowers was sweet, but not overwhelming - as though you had just laid down on a tropical beach and caught the scent wafting on an island breeze.

The spice islands

On my second trip in search of the perfect scent, I decided to explore our heritage as a coastal city: importer of exotic substances from the Orient, host to the spices of a thousand lands, and distributor of stinky cheese.

My first stop was Formaggio Kitchen on Huron Avenue in Cambridge, known not only for its selection of cheeses but also culinary curiosities like fennel pollen and juniper berries. Alas, Formaggio Kitchen possesses a formidable ventilation system that sucks out the fragrance of cheese and the preserved animal haunches hanging on the wall. I crept over to a little pile of Livarot, a cheese I remember fondly from an ill-considered purchase at the Paris airport some years ago. The memory of that cheese lingers in my suitcase still. And one close-quarters sniff of that pile confirmed that yes, Livarot is just as stinky as I recalled.

In a fit of inspiration, I decided to buy something that would make me appreciate my apartment's odor. I poked my head around the vast pile of cheese on the counter and asked a helpful clerk, "What's the smelliest cheese you have here?" After a moment's thought, she presented me with a Berthaut affine au chablis, which she assured me is the stinkiest stuff around.

On the march back to my car, I passed by Hi Rise Bread Company and popped in for a sniff. Contrary to expectations, the air wasn't roasty-toasty with baking bread; the place smelled moist and yeasty, like a conservatory for a particularly insidious sort of orchid. Onward!

I decided that it was time for a pure scent experience and stopped in Inman Square to visit Christina's Spice and Specialty Foods. Walking into the cozy store on Cambridge Street, I noticed a spicy, sweet scent. I stepped forward and the scent changed; suddenly, the air was minty, with a hint of cumin. I ranged around the store, sniffing the ever-changing odors - a bit of cinnamon here, more turmeric there. The spices were laid out on tables and stacked on shelves, along with teas, extracts, exotic salts, and large tins of Lion Custard Powder. I investigated the label, but there were no dehydrated gazelle or baboon bits on the ingredient list. Why would a lion bother with this stuff?

I contemplated that and many other mysteries on my way to the Taza Chocolate factory just over the border in Somerville. As I climbed to the third floor, a musky, earthy, bitter smell permeated the stairway. The kindly office staff informed me that the overwhelming fragrance was Dominican single-origin, 80 percent cocoa, solid chocolate. I was informed that the factory was not generally open to visitors, but that there would be several open houses in upcoming months. By then my chest was aching from the chocolate coating my bronchial tubes.

A quick walk down Windsor Street cleared my lungs, until I strolled happily into an invisible cloud of caramel air. I saw the nameplate for Cambridge Brands Inc., a division of Tootsie Roll, which sweetens the street with the fragrance of Charleston Chews, Junior Mints, and Sugar Babies. How many chemistry students down the street at MIT are inspired to start their own candy factories by this olfactory wonder?

Cleaning up on Newbury Street

There are times when I want something cleaner and purer in my life, something that binds my essential being to the mystery of the universe, something wild, beautiful, and rare. So I headed for Newbury Street, land of fancy soap shops and wild, beautiful tiny-sized clothes.

Exiting the Arlington Street T-stop, I noticed Exhale mindbodyspa; inside I detected typical spa-shop scents of wet hair and beauty products. Before I could escape, I was greeted by a dark-haired woman who puffed a mist of something called CoreEssence under my nose and told me that it was supposed to help anchor me to my essence. It was almost minty, slightly musky, and a bit astringent, and got my attention the way a cough-drop wrapper gets my attention at a solo flute concert.

I made my way down the street to Fresh, a clinical looking store with rows and rows of soap wrapped in what appeared to be origami-paper. I picked up a lump of pretty paper labeled "mangosteen," brought it to my nostrils, and smelled . . . mango! Sweet, luscious, juicy, wonderful mango. I grabbed bar after bar, sniffing freesia, verbena, patchouli, and something called "Hesperides," which smelled like an ecstatically delicious grapefruit, something tastier than any real grapefruit could ever hope to be. I slunk over to the perfume samples and slathered it on my wrists.

I regretted my decision the moment I entered Diptyque, the dignified French candle store next door. The place was filled with a mild, delicious smoky fragrance from the aptly named "Firewood" candle burning at the cash register. I stood before a table displaying 50 different scented candles, picked up the "Roses" candle, popped it out of its holder, and sniffed . . . grapefruit. Drat my stinking wrists!

By then I was in dire need of enlightenment, so I hopped the T to Brookline Village for a visit to Horai-San Book and Crystal Shop on Washington Street. Inside, I detected the rich, smoky scent of incense - perfect for heightened nasal awareness. I also detected what must have been a recording of the Tibetan Pirate Marching Band, a strange clangy, booming music punctuated by the occasional "Arrrrr!" Enlightenment was a bit noisy that day, so I made my way back out the door.

Across the street I spied Serenade Chocolatier. The shop smelled like homemade chocolate pudding, and there were free samples! I scooped up some creamy hazelnut-striped truffle bits and immediately purchased a box of candy to take home. If I couldn't find enlightenment, at least I could have chocolate - and the box will be there to sniff once the candy is gone.

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