The scent of the sea

There are scents that we would like to be able to capture in a bottle to be able to smell when we want to feel better, to escape or evoke special memories. 

The scent of the sea has a personal story for each of us, but it is usually accompanied by happiness and freedom whatever its shade. For many, the scent of the sea is one of hot sand mixed with sunscreen and maybe even coconut, and is therefore a sweet, enveloping and warm smell. For others, it's that unmistakable mix of salt, seaweed and iodine, a scent that remains on our clothes after a day spent at the beach even in the middle of winter. 

The scent has a chemical foundation that finds the roots of its formula right in the sea itself. There are three molecules that give the sea its specific smell:

  • Dimethyl Sulfide: is responsible for the salty, pungent, sulphurous odor. We also find it to a degree in the scent of truffles, in some cheeses and some beers. In the ocean it is produced by bacteria that digest a particular species of plankton; thanks to this smell, birds are able to recognize the areas richest in fish.
  • Dictiopterene: the sexual call of female algae... Pheromones, in essence. We can associate this melocule with the scent of dried seaweed and find it in some oriental cuisines.
  • Bromophenol: It is for this chemical compound that the sea has the strong odor of iodine. This is the scent that molluscs and crustaceans also carry with them due to the fact that they feed on algae and other organisms found in the seabed. This characteristic scent also allows us, if we have a trained and very sensitive sense of smell, to distinguish whether the fish we are eating is farmed or wild. In fact, only wild fish are rich in bromophenols, so much so that an attempt was made to add them to the diet of farmed fish to try to give them the same flavor as sea fish, but the desired result was not obtained.

There is therefore a "scientific" part in the composition of this scent of the sea that gives us all positive and relaxing sensations: its nature, as we have seen, is chemical. But the beautiful thing about the scent of the sea, its pungent, unique, persistent smell, is that for each of us it can take on specific and personal notes linked to our most beautiful memories.

In Italy, for children, the smell of the sea is sand, salt, ice cream and watermelon. For a teenager, it can be tanning oil for the days spent at the beach and pine resin for the walks by the sea in the evening with friends. For those who love to fish in the sea, the smell of the water will be indelibly linked to that of the mixture that is put into the boat's engine. For grandparents, it can be that of the sunscreen spread on the soft skin of their grandchildren, and the candies kept in a bag, to be given to them when their parents are not watching.

It therefore becomes natural to try to recreate or rediscover these scents even in everyday life, when the sea becomes a memory or a mirage. As we have seen, seafood or foods that use dried seaweed in their recipes, can help us a lot, especially if we love the “authentic”, pungent, savory scent of the sea as they are the vectors of that aroma which, either you love or you hate. 

Believe it or not, one of the same molecules responsible for the scent of the sea (E.g. DMS) is found also in wine and beer as a result of the fermentation process. The aroma it produces is usually very faint, and if overtly perceptible it constitutes a defect.

In wine tastings, the scent of the sea is sometimes even mentioned as a positive descriptor of a particular bouquet. Some use it referring to notes of medicinal herbs that are reminiscent of the Mediterranean scrub (and therefore the sea in a broad sense), others referring to the smell of the sea as we have described above. An example for all is the wine made from Vermentino grapes, grown mainly along the Mediterranean coasts. In this wine, the aromatic notes that recall the sea go well with the typical aromas of jasmine, citrus, white fruit and balsamic creating an appealing bouquet.


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