Smells of London

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What does London smell like? In a quest to find the scent of our fair city, Time Out enlists the help of perfumer Roja Dove, the world‘s most famous ’nose‘

  • Smells of London

    Truffle honey at Borough Market. Click for more images of London smells

  • It’s Friday lunchtime and Borough Market is stuffed with hungry Londoners queuing to be fed. Roja Dove, dapper in a black Savile Row suit – a flower intricately embroided on the lining – and dazzling gold rings, strides through pungent pockets of steamy food to a smoked sausage stall.

    ‘Wait. It’s the smell of death,’ he announces. ‘It’s the scent of blood, decaying body.’ Now the chorizo doesn’t look so good. ‘This one,’ he says matter-of-factly shoving a huge curly smoked sausage the colour of beetroot under my nose. ‘It’s wet dog.’ It wouldn’t have occurred to me before, but it must be admitted his description couldn’t be more apt. My appetite has evaporated.

    If there’s one man to evoke the whiff of London in all its glorious and gory reality, it’s 49-year-old Roja Dove. Born and raised on the Sussex coast, Dove was obsessed with fragrance from an early age. His first recollection of scent was his mother coming to kiss him goodnight in a gold lamé dress when he was about six (‘I’ll never forget the scent of her perfume mixed in with the smell of her face powder’).

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    Dove gets a good whiff of freshly polished staircase at The Connaught hotel

    Early aromas

    As a teenager Dove started spending money on small bottles of scent, astounded by the fact such a heady fragrance could emerge from such a tiny bottle. He set about learning more, writing to the classic French fragrance house Guerlain, until eventually, both pestered and impressed by his interest, they offered him a job. Dove stayed at Guerlain for 20 years, becoming their chief ‘nose’ or ‘professeur de parfum’. In 2001 he left to launch his own projects (Dove now has three best-selling scents and the palatial Haute Parfumerie in Harrods). ‘It’s important to understand that you don’t smell anything with your nose,’ he explains, talking me through the intricacies of how we smell. ‘At the back of the nose is where you find the scent receptors (found on the mucous membrane) which are connected to the olfactory nerve.’ The olfactory nerve is directly linked to the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotion and memory – it’s why scent sparks nostalgia. Dove illustrates the idea by quoting Charles Baudelaire’s poem The Flask: ‘Of odours old and dusty fills the brain; An ancient flask is brought to light again. And forth the ghosts of long-dead odours creep…’

    Scents and the city

    But what about London? Beyond the putrid pissy alleys and reeking traffic fumes or malodorous McDonald’s? Dove leads us to the slightly more salubrious surroundings of Harrods Food Hall where his olfactory senses are working overtime. ‘You see, every counter has its own distinctive smell. He stops. ‘Right here, standing in the middle is quite extraordinary, a wonderful cacophony of scents,’ he declares theatrically. ‘It’s almost schizophrenic. On this side you have the smell of the ocean – you can smell brine and something very fresh and herbaceous and leafy with this wonderful undercurrent of warm, cosseting curdled milk from the cheeses.’ He picks up a great slab of fragrant cheddar: ‘You can smell the mould on the skin… you get that wonderful whiff of the decomposition itself, it’s nutty, it smells very bodily – like the inside of locker rooms.’

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    The Thames beach

    I wonder what he will make of the Thames as we head down to the little beach on the South Bank. Dove walks right up to the river’s edge with its blackened fringe, leans over, then inhales. Deeply. ‘Here you feel the aqueous sensation,’ he explains. ‘The volume of humidity, you feel the wind. It’s salty, oily, briney, but, hang on,’ he says and shoves his nose right up to the sand. ‘How unexpected… it’s like a damp basement.’ Damp basement? But again, he’s right – or else I’m seriously suggestible. I inhale and I’m strangely whisked back to the cellar in my childhood Victorian house.

    Back at Borough Market, despite the army of aromas all fighting for dominance, there are two of the very purest – and most uncannily natural – smells of the day. An octopus hanging daintily on the fish counter. ‘It’s the sea, pure and simply.’ I take a deep breath in with my eyes shut and feel like I’m on a Devon beach. We find another: a dead deer, beheaded and be-footed and hanging with its coat still thick and partially caked in blood from the wound that killed it. Dove, unselfconsciously, gives it a good sniff. ‘Pure feral. It’s like being transported straight to the country, don’t you think?’ Normally, I confess, I wouldn’t go around sniffing dead deer, but at his bidding I close my eyes and smell. It’s fresh, animal, a touch rabbit, and letting my imagination go I find myself in deepest, darkest West Country.

    London, I am discovering, is one big olfactory adventure. Dove reveals how he would have loved to smell 1950s London: ‘the smell of bohemian Soho meeting the aristocracy of Regent Street.’ Apparently Soho used to be the only place you could buy garlic, add to that the smell of drunken debauchery, cigarette smoke, Italian coffee… ‘It must have been so extreme. I love the idea of some woman spilling out of this chauffeur-driven car in furs and diamonds with her perfume rolling out after her as it crashed into the scent of some garlic-laden, debauched Soho reveller.’

    Later we swing by William Clark Flowers, Dove’s favourite florist, for a sniff of the freshest jonquils in all their yellow glory, but Dove reveals: ‘I love the smell of flowers just before they die – it’s as if the flower gives its very last breath to you – you get that slight sense of decay.’

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    Ah... the smell of hot fat

    The pong-master’s plague

    As much of a poet, it would seem, as a professeur de parfum, I wonder what it must be like for Dove, the man who has been known to ask an air steward not to come near him as her perfume was so offensive, using his nose so continually and so intensely. ‘It can be a terrible plague,’ he says. I’m beginning to know what he means. By the end of the day, I’m analysing absolutely everything I smell from packets of crisps to magazines to the tube (which according to Dove is: ‘the smell of grease, dirt, bodies, excrement, oily hair, ghastly chemical scents in a hot air that cooks it up like a stew’). Eugh! But it’s at the newly refurbished Connaught hotel, where old-school elegance collides with new money and expensive perfume, that our olfactory journey comes to a neat and cosy conclusion. ‘It’s cosseting, comforting, quintessential London,’ he says sniffing the newly polished wooden staircase. ‘It is the smell of safety.’ In the lobby, the scent of Chanel no.5 lingers with newly opened Champagne and fresh paint. From right here London is positively fragrant.
    Senses at Harrods runs from February 18 to March 28. Take a scented lift up to a consultation with Dove and design your own bespoke fragrance. Haute Parfumier, Harrods, 87-135 Brompton Rd, SW1 (020 7893 8797/www.urbanretreat.co.uk) Knightsbridge tube. Open Mon-Sat 10am-7pm.

    Roja Dove’s olfactory journey through London

    Harrods Food Hall Smells like ‘the ocean and the cow’ (020 7730 1234/www.harrods.com).The Thames beach Smells like ‘damp basement’(South Bank SE1).Borough Market Smells like ‘hot fat’, ‘wet dog’ and ‘feral animal’(www.boroughmarket.org.uk).William Clarks FlowersSmells like ‘new season jonquils’(020 7402 3399/www.williamclarkeflowers.com).The Connaught hotel Smells like ‘cosseting, comforting and quintessential London’(020 7499 7070/www.the-connaught.co.uk).Eau de London‘London is an olfactory cornucopia, a maelstrom of elements that attack and delight the senses: at once repelling and compelling us into a blissful, schizophrenic frenzy.’

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    Columbia Road Flower Market

    London’s best smells

    Columbia Road Flower Market, E2 offers exotic blooms, fresh coffee, deep-fried tiger prawns and fresh-baked cupcakes. Regent’s Park’s fragrant rose garden in June competing with London Zoo and its strong waft of monkey business. Neal’s Yard Dairy has more than 70 different cheeses infusing the nearby streets – the slippery, washed rind types are the smelliest. W Martyn of Muswell Hill is a local grocer roasting coffee beans in-store for more than 110 years. Southall is blanketed in a low-lying curry cloud. Turkish bakeries are clustered along Kingsland High Street at 4am in the morning. Camden Lock Market provides sweet incense and pungent leather.

    And the worst

    Nottingham Court, WC1 is the original piss alley. Also where Trafalgar Square sausage merchants would keep their ‘product’ overnight, in a cardboard box. The Thames’ fishy fragrance at low tide. The Tate & Lyle glucose refinery gives out malty, to stale fry-up, to eggy gas wafting over Silvertown, Greenwich. Post-smoking-ban pubs, clubs and music venues reek of disinfectant and urinal cakes. The Euston Road belches toxic fumes.
    Tell us what you think are London's best and worst smells

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