"The Fourth Taste" By Luca Turin
At my first piano lesson, the teacher played two very short and easy pieces, one by Haydn, the other by Bartók and asked me to choose which one I wanted to learn. It felt like an important decision, possibly laden with long-term consequences. I went for Bartók, partly because of the beautiful reddish-brown cover of the Mikrokosmos edition, partly because to me the two pieces respectively tasted sweet and bitter, and I liked bitter. Years later, Bartók still feels like musical Fernet-Branca. His disdain for schmaltz, and the speed with which he pounces on his own lyrical lapses give his music an odd moral quality. But what, if anything, is moral about Fernet-Branca ? Simple: the bitter taste modality has evolved over millions of years to warn us of alien molecules that will cross into the bloodstream and do things inside you, good or bad. You won’t know which till you’ve tried. Bitter is the taste of things that are eaten not as food but as medicine for body and soul. It is the taste of adventure, of risk. If sweetness is sin, bitterness is virtue.
Not surprisingly, in our fearful, cozy culture, bitterness has a bad press, nowhere more than in perfumes ruled by sweet vanillin, lactones (peach) and more recently by the candyfloss note of maltol. Guerlain, the great virtual konditorei who started it all with Jicky in 1889, only ever did two totally unsweetened perfumes: Djedi and Sous le Vent. The former was reissued a few years ago and was a tremendous animalic vetiver, correctly described by Guerlain’s Roja Dove as “the driest perfume of all time”. But dry isn’t necessarily bitter, and vetiver, with its liquorice aspect, does not quite carry the menace of a true alkaloid.
A friend recently sent me a small sample of vintage Sous le Vent, however, and that was a revelation. Faced with Coty’s austere Chypre (1917), Jacques Guerlain first succumbed to his usual temptation, and added peach to get Mitsouko (1919). When he revisited the problem fourteen years later, he pushed in the opposite direction as far as he could and obtained the bitterest, most uncompromising marvel. You could add two drops of it to a glass of gin and quaff it on the verandah. Amazingly, Guerlain plans to reissue it next year, though whether such manifest poison can slip by EU safety rules remains to be seen.