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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Pleasure of the senses - As you like it

After a few years of just growing...
our lilac is finally bearing flowers!

Just like money, pleasure cannot buy happiness... but it helps!

In a life that can be full of vagaries, the best way to pursue happiness is to go for sources of contentment that are internal and durable as opposed to external and ephemeral... but sometimes, a little indulgence in the immediate pleasures of the senses can really do a great job at bringing joy to our days.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason happiness eludes us is not exactly that: we have lost contact with our senses. We don't pay attention to the stimuli that come to us (from outside or inside) and in turn we fail to appreciate what's right in front of us as much as we fail to address what's not going so well.

Our senses are more powerful than we think, as illustrated by the madeleine episode of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time): the sense of smell in particular is a potent memory trigger. I know I am taken right back to the Africa of my youth every time I smell a lime (we had a tree in the backyard).

There is a reason spice trade flourished and stimulated travel for centuries: without spices, food is bland, and without stimulation of the senses in general, it's life itself that becomes dull.

Even the selection of a potential mate is highly influenced by the sense of olfaction. One well-known study has shown that women will "recognize" and prefer the smell of a t-shirt that has been worn by a man whose genes are most dissimilar to theirs. It's Mother Nature's way of making sure genes mix!

Fresh herbs ready to be picked...
a simple way to pamper your sense of smell.

Not easily separated from the sense of smell, of course, is the sense of taste. We might have access to a wide variety of foods, I'm far from certain that we fully appreciate them most of the time. Simple ingredients assembled in the right proportions can yield extraordinary results in the mouth, as proven by the delicious meal I had today for lunch: an arctic char gravlax accompanied by crostini, fresh cheese and a citrus salad enhanced by a hint of cardamom.

I need to mention at this point that this meal would not have taken place if it wasn't for my lovely friend B. I had just finished translating some documents on a new, promising drug, when B suddenly showed up unannounced at my door. "Happy Birthday!" she exclaimed with her usual enthusiasm. "Gather your stuff and follow me! I'm taking you out for lunch!"

Not one to argue in such circumstances, I hopped into her car, and what ensued was a wonderful meal in the company of a wonderful friend.

B, always happy, and our food, just as pleasant.

This was just the beginning of a series of pleasurable moments for the senses. A few hours later, the family and I went out again for another lovely meal in another lovely restaurant, this time in the Halifax Harbour.

As we got out the car some traditional music of the Maritimes made its way to our ears and put us in the mood for an oceanic meal.

I had fish again (there was just no escaping it!) This being my birthday supper, I also ordered wine. After all, as Robert Louis Stevenson would say, "Wine is bottled poetry". That is, as long as you chose the right wine. There is a steep learning curve, but once our palate, taste buds and nose start accumulating experience in the matters, drinking wine becomes much, much more than just drinking wine. The time spent picking just the right one, admiring its robe (color), swirling it in the glass, smelling it, smelling some more... is time well spent. After all that, drinking is just the cherry on top, and small quantities suffice. I can be entertained for quite a while trying to distinguish the various notes in a sip of a carefully crafted nectar. For example, I have fond memories of a Meursault I paired with oysters on a fantastic night at a fantastic restaurant, about two years ago. It was so overwhelmingly good I almost passed out. And that was just at the first sip! Great wines, as you might know, not only get better with time, they also get better with each sip you take, revealing more and more of their delectable secrets.

I would much rather drink a great wine occasionally than drink an ordinary wine regularly. One of those days, I will write an oenologic column and share my discoveries. After all, wine tasting is an art (or is it a science?) Even Sancho Panza (Don Quixote) knew it. Here he is, quoted by Hume retelling the episode in The Standard of Taste:

It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgement in wine: this is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favor of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leather thong tied to it.

That Pouilly-Fuissé was not bad at all...
You can't really go wrong with Bouchard Père et Fils!

(Notice I took a half-bottle; I was the only one to drink
and the goal is pleasure, not ethylic coma!) 

Of course, one cannot neglect another pleasure-inducing sense: hearing! Upon our arrival to the restaurant,  tonight, we were able to savour a song I cherish, and that goes so well with a slow-paced meal:

After the meal we stepped into a very nice wine shop next door and I let my jaw drop in front of a couple of nice bottles for a while. You know you've learned a couple things when the following happens to you: one wine label particularly caught my eye (not the design but what it actually said: name, winery, vintage). I thought to myself, "Hmmm... that's a VERY interesting one". Then I looked down at the price, and discovered it was merely...

... $500,00!!!

As my mother would say, I've got taste.

I did NOT buy that wine, but I did gather a few nice, more affordable bottles. Then once I got home I Googled them to see if I had made the right choices. Based on some of the reviews, I now can't wait to open my Château Aney Haut-Médoc 2009:


On the way back, a beautiful, colorful sky fulfilled our sense of sight... and in a few minutes I will happily get in bed, making sure to notice the feel of the soft, fresh sheets on my skin so that my sense of touch does not feel left out!

How do you indulge your senses? Don't you think it does a great job at filling your "happiness bucket"? Would you like to share some wine discoveries?


  1. Happy Birthday !

    Can I hire you for some wine tasting demo ? :-)

  2. Happy Happy Birthday, Julie!!!

    That all sounds so wonderful!!

    You deserve nothing less!!

    And what a wonderful dress...my poetic friend :-)

  3. Aaaaah..... you certainly know how to enjoy life !! We all should do it more !

  4. I so love your blog, as a music lover especially! So glad you had a wonderful birthday!

    1. Thank you Linda! I hope you will be back! :-)