making sense baldinini

I’d never heard of him until after reading an article in the latest Gambero Rosso email. His name is Baldo Baldinini, and he’s one of the first master perfumers in Italy. By all accounts, Baldinini has a remarkable sense of smell. He can recognize almost 50,000 scents, and is in high demand as a perfumist. He also advises some of Italy’s top chefs, including Niko Romito, Massimo Bottura, and Igles Corelli.

Baldinini grew up in his uncle’s barbershop. The latter had a passion for perfumes. In the shop, Baldinini became familiar with various bottles of perfumes and lotions. In high school he began to recognize his classmates by their scent. One smelled like garlic and tomato from the lunch their mother had packed for them. Another smelled like the lavender her mother put into the clothes drawers at home. Baldinini says that, to him, all memories are linked to “pleasant and unpleasant aromas.”

What makes Baldo’s smell memory all the more remarkable is that he has a form of color blindness called achromatopsia. Baldinini sees everything in shades of gray. Perhaps his extraordinary sense of smell—and smell memory—is a way that his brain compensates for a lack of color perception. But there’s more. Baldinini represents smells, including accords for the perfumes he creates, with symbols on a musical staff, describing this process as writing “aromatic accords […] I link smells to musical notes, which is why I write formulas on musical staves.”

How does someone equate aromatics with written musical symbols, much less recall almost 50,000 different scents? No surprise: Baldo is a synesthete. He says that “over time, I discovered I have a sort of synesthesia: some people link sounds to numbers, I do it with smells.”

No surprise his system of musical notation for aromas and accords—groups of aromatics in perfumes—is not only proprietary, it’s a zealously guarded secret. As for an accord written as musical notation, Baldinini has the following to say:

“It contains symbols indicating the elements to include in a particular product, like cinnamon, schisandra, marjoram, pepper, orange peels, lemon, nutmeg, and in what quantities. Additionally, the method is indicated: for example, distillation if we’re talking about gin; infusion if we’re talking about vermouth, etc. This nomenclature is my own invention, a personal indication.”

The interviewer asked Baldo how he works for creating accords. He replied:

“I always say you need to “listen” rather than inhale; I find it softer. If we’re talking about an essence, I inhale directly from the bottle; if it’s a raw material, I first inhale then chew, or I put it in alcohol and listen after hours.”

As for working with chefs, Baldinini found it to be a natural progression in his work:

“As I grew up, I studied perfumery, and then at some point, I thought of combining perfumery with gastronomy. Perfumery only concerns the sense of smell, gastronomy also concerns taste, and combining them is the ultimate: two senses coming into play together.”

Baldinini’s remarkable ability to smell makes me think of the saying “making sense of things.” It’s a phrase for how we process our experience of the world using internal extensions of our five senses, especially visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Our language reflects this: something can look good while something else may not sound right. And we trust our gut when it comes to making important decisions. Thus, the recipe for thinking seems to involve responding to external experience using internal sensory filters. Also involved in this equation are perception and recognition, followed by sorting information for relative importance. The last one is particularly important for noting things like the difference between occupied and unoccupied space.

In the previous context, Baldo is an anomaly—an outlier. He’s a true synesthete who experiences involuntary cross talk between the senses. I think we all experience similar as far as associative memory goes. But in Baldinini’s case, the interaction between his sense of smell and internal auditory happens constantly, with aromas being converted to musical notes and chords/accords. And he’s developed a special shorthand to describe and track it.

Baldinini’s gift also makes me think about how humans process smell and taste. It’s not so much that we perceive these senses—that’s our nasal-cranial hardware at work. Instead, it’s how we recognize an aroma when out for walk after a spring rain or something savory in a glass of wine. These examples exist in different contexts to be sure, but we use the same sensory software and internal sequence for both. This linkage goes back to the idea of using internal extensions of our five senses. Per that, all of us have what behavioral scientists call a dominant internal representation system. For most—including me—processing is predominantly visual. Most people think in pictures and movies.

The wine experience is no exception. Yet unlike Baldinini connecting aromatics to sounds, I use images to internally represent what I smell and taste in wine. As I smell wine, I’m generating images on the fly in my internal IMAX theater. To that point, I think smell is the most important aspect of the wine experience. I spend far more time smelling a wine when assessing it than actually tasting it. And when I do taste, I don’t keep the wine in my mouth for very long. I’m more interested in what the wine does after I spit it out. Additionally, by the time I taste the wine, I only have two goals in mind; confirming what I’ve already smelled, and assessing the structure (acidity, alcohol, phenolic bitterness, tannin).

I think any expertise in tasting wine relies on a combination of skill and talent. Practically everyone has the ability to smell and remember aromas. However, skill at the professional level requires a hell of lot of work on developing this ability over a duration of time. That said, some people are born with innate talent at smelling and tasting, which brings us back to Baldinini.

No doubt Baldo is a genius—and a savant. I’m not sure what he does could be modeled for other people to use, especially knowing his work is highly secretive and proprietary. As I read the article on Baldo, I hoped to learn that he was sharing his methods in some way. Turns out this was not the case, as Baldo noted: “Mine is a job full of secrets, done behind the scenes, which is also why there isn’t even a photo of me online.” However, Baldo is training his now ten-year-old son to follow in his footsteps. But he will only reveal a portion of his methods, saying, “It’s right that some things get lost in oblivion.”

In genius, we find room to disagree. I’m of the mind of sharing everything I learn about processing the wine experience. It’s the old adage of more knowledge raises the bar for everyone. Otherwise, two thoughts in closing. First, at this stage, one of the most important things to me is how smell and smell memories makes us feel. How getting into a favorite smell memory, be it a glass of amazing Burgundy or the time I walked through the spice market in Istanbul, can bring joy that is hard to describe. Second, I hope Baldinini changes his mind and decides to share at least some of his methods and secrets. I’m reminded of a quote from Muhammed Ali: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”


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