Monday, February 23, 2009

Perfume and Pink Pepper

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Two of the most esteemed perfumers working today – Jean-Claude Ellena and Geza Schoen, who creates scents for Ormonde Jayne – use a lot of pink pepper. This is one of those surprising ingredients of perfumery. I remember sampling a bit of Ellena’s Rose Poivree, passing wrist under husband’s nose and hearing “Is that…pepper?”

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

Pink pepper (shall I bore you with the botanical name? Oh, ok: Schinusterebinthifolius Raddi), like other peppers, is technically a fruit borne by a tree. The pink pepper used in perfumery and cooking is cultivated on the island of Reunion, a French territory near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Pink peppercorns get their "heat" from the terpene carene, which is similar bur not exactly the same as piperene, the “heat” in black, green and white pepper.

Mammals like us have a special nerve tract that responds to irritation while eating or sniffing – the trigeminal nerve. The brain then interprets this irritation or pain as “heat” and, in many cultures, pleasure. Capsaicin, the heat in New World peppers like Tabasco and cayenne, fires it up spectacularly. (Carbon dioxide, the fizz in soft drinks, stimulates it too.) The piperene or carene in peppercorns produces a more subtle heat, complemented by other flavors existing in the fruit.

Primary research (taste): Upon smelling a container of whole pink peppercorns, I get mostly a haylike scent. Upon biting into a few, there’s a burst of pepperlike flavor and a little heat – the piperine/carene – then sweetness. That is quickly eclipsed by a bitterness and an odd, pinelike note, then fruitiness. As I chew, the bitterness returns. Then the fruitiness. The various flavors don’t ever really meld; they continue to appear in sequence, until finally only a sweetish, slightly fruity aftertaste is left. It lingers for a long time. Ultimately, only the mild pepper taste remains, with a slight bitter edge.

The two fragrances that I most associate with pepperiness are Ormonde Jayne’s “Zizan” and L’Artisan’s “Poivre Piquant.” (I don’t currently have a sample of the latter, but definitely remember it!)

Primary research (smell): It is clear to me, on sniffing the top notes of the Zizan, that there is a slight but pleasurable irritation, which has to be involvement of my trigeminal nerve. (There is a similar, but more subtle, effect with “Man,” another Ormonde Jayne scent using pink pepper, and “Isfarkand.”) A quick look at some research on olfaction and trigeminal response reveals that they are linked, and do influence each other; in fact, trigeminal response is usually lowered in people with no sense of smell.

So we have another kind of stimulus entering the fragrance gestalt – slight irritation of a nerve tract that the brain often reads as pleasure. This expands olfactory enjoyment in what seems to me a most modern way.

I’m not sure who the first perfumer to use pink pepper was, or what the first scent to use it was. The tree grows all over the temperate world. My guess was that it was first culinary and then adopted for perfumery. Certainly, it appears in some of the most interesting and innovative scents.

I wonder what they’ll think of next.

Some fragrances using pink pepper (Basenotes lists 82) are: Ormonde Jayne’s Isfarkand, Champaca, Man, Orris Noir and Zizan; A Rose Poivee, Eau de Merveilles and Angeliques Sous la Pluie, all by Jean-Claude Ellena, Timbuktu and Poivre Piquant, and Red Tea by Bulgari.

In culinary terms, pink pepper can be used on or in almost anything, including chocolate.

Photo of Brazilian pink pepper from Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages,


BitterGrace said...

I love the taste of pink peppercorns, but I've never found a perfume where the note pleased me. Haven't sniffed Champaca, though--that one sounds as if it might do the trick.

The food writer Eugene Walter says that imported pink pepper is indistinguishable from the fruit of our native Rowan tree, but I'm not sure whether he's right about that.

mark42 said...

Pink Peppercorn trees grow wild around here (in fact, they are considered a pest) and I have made a tincture of the dried fruit. The tincture is very bright, sharp, resinous and peppery. Interestingly, I have found that tropical or fruity notes can be made by creating accords with florals. EG, pink pepper tinct. + ylang = feijoa

I'm hoping to get hold of some pink pepper essential oil to see if that does the same.

Olfacta said...

Hi M!

The research I did for the post mentioned that the pink pepper tree, which is invasive especially in Florida, can have an irritant componet which the cultivated fruit from Reunion Island seems to lack. Apparently it can irritate the gastric lining as well as skin. I ran across an agricultural article cautioning people to wear gloves, sleeves, etc. while cutting the trees down. So maybe that's why we don't see much native pink pepper.

Thanks for the comment!

Olfacta said...

Hi M42 --

You sound like a budding perfumer!

I guess there's a reason why the Reunion Island pepper is used instead of native varieties. Read the comment above for the info. Not sure what kind you have in Australia. The Spice Pages (link in blog) contains all sorts of info about the componets that make up the smell and taste of pepper.

Good to hear from you!

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do pheromones work said...

Uhmm! It sounds interesting I want to taste this pink peppercorns and to found perfume too. Anyway,will certainly visit your site more often now.


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