The Big Question: Edward Carr believes the best smell starts with flour and water

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

From sweet peas to sour milk, every smell is a combination of synapses and electricity. Molecules fire up receptors in the membranes of your nose and signals stream through a delta of neurons into the dark recesses of your brain. By some alchemy, action potentials and dopamine can render an entire world.

There’s one smell that casts the same spell in the physical world. Flour and water incarnate blankness. They are empty sheets of lined paper. But mix them with yeast and knead them and heat them hard and they are filled with sublime verse. The object starts with flour and water and the mind with chemicals and electricity, but at the apex of both is the poetry of bread, baking in the hearth.

Advertising planners and estate agents, who know how our minds work, have staked a claim over bread. Supermarkets pipe the aroma of baguettes and split tins into their shops to whip up trade. One British company will sell you a spray that distils the welcome of baking bread—it was the first smell they put in a can. If you have a house to flog, you can buy a twin-pack: coffee for upstairs, they say, where people wake, and bread for down, where they eat.

But I want you to shut out the marketing men. Bar the door, draw the curtains and gather round the fire. And imagine the house plump with the smell of rising dough, tingling with the first hint of crust, and then a crescendo of deep, toasty notes filling the air as the loaf browns. Listen to the snap and crackle of the bread as it cools, and imagine the anticipation of sawing off a doorstep and smothering it in butter—if you’re lucky the bread will still be warm and the salty butter will soften and melt in your mouth.

The smell of bread is the smell of home and of motherhood. In a cynical world, those things are scorned as sentimental. But when your head is full of baking bread, you are hungry to believe that everything will turn out right. Psychologists have found that we are more likely to help a stranger when we are outside a bakery. I have found that bread in the oven fills me with hope. When we speak the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing we ask for is bread. And when a loaf is baking, we live in a "house of bread"—a Beth-lehem.

What do you think is the best smell? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Ann Wroe on Wild roses, Rose Tremain on New-mown hay, Philip Pullman on Bacon, Ian Jack on an Indian railway platform and Robin Robertson on Rain.

Edward Carr is the editorial director of Intelligent Life and foreign editor of The Economist.