Monday, February 23, 2009

Perfume and Pink Pepper

A reminder: Deadline for the samples drawing -- see February 11 post for details – is March 1st, midnight US E.S.T.! Leave a comment to enter.

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,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Perfume Ghosts

A recollection: I am standing beside a flea market-addict friend, holding her purse, while she sifts through dusty old junk, hour after hour. Such treasure she finds! A cardboard doily with some cartoon character on it! A broken table designed for a doll house! Scratched aluminum tumblers in the original colors!

As she picks through the leavings of others, I occasionally find objects that remind me that I’m, well, aging myself. Like my first-grade “Old McDonald” lunchbox. A Barbie doll head with a platinum bouffant hairdo, same as the one I had. Dishes just like my grandmother’s.

Finally my feet or back and patience give out. “For Christ’s sake,” I say. “Let’s go get something to eat.” She relents, but I still have to drag her away, her eyes sweeping frantically across the panorama of Junque Hell.

You know the punch line. This was before I discovered vintage perfumes.

Why, just the other day, I was at a flea market looking for a couple of useful objects, and a shelf of glittering little bottles caught my eye. Here’s what I got, never mind the useful objects:

A quarter ounce of vintage Rochas Femme, 99% full, deep, rich and skanky. A small bottle of old Norell parfum, a little degraded in the top notes, but I wore it yesterday and after it blooms it smells great. (My college roommate wore this, reminds me of her.) Boucheron EDP, one of those “I’m really a Countess” lush mixes, dark and sultry, a mini. Givenchy “pi,” which I’d never heard of but smells great, citrusy and rich with vanilla. A few mills of Molinard de Molinard, with that odd high – almost screechy – green note, strength unmarked, but I think it’s perfume. This is one I can wear to the gym. A half-bottle of vintage Rive Gauche cologne. I used to test this when I was in college, and found it awful; now, it’s intriguing, and definitely the version I remember. In other words, it’s as weird as ever.

I know this was an exceptionally good haul, especially for $33 – I’ve gone to these places and found nothing – but I’ve discovered that flea marketing is not a bad way to spend a couple of hours, even if I don’t find a thing. Because flea markets are kaleidoscope of a culture.

Each of these bottles has a back story. Who owned them? I bet someone gave someone that Rochas Femme. It’s quite old. Maybe the giver was thinking it would be some innocuous feminine floral, and the recipient wore it – once – was horrified at the skank, and put it in a drawer, where it remained until uncovered many years later.

The rest? Probably minis bought in sets from duty-free shops and carts. Ladies who didn’t wear much scent, sighing as they made more room in the dresser drawer for Christmas presents from grown children or clueless husbands. Or scents they did wear but didn’t have time to use up.

Most of the stuff in flea markets comes from estates. There are “liquidators” who will clean out a house for a nominal fee and the rights to anything really valuable they find. One of them once told me that they found a letter from Abraham Lincoln tucked behind an old framed painting. This, of course, is what keeps these companies in business, and what keeps “Antiques Roadshow” going.

Perfume is so personal, and some people find buying it like this to be a little, well, creepy. Others believe that objects somehow carry spirits. I’m not sure what I believe. In a way, these places are filled with ghosts. When I look at my growing collection of fragrance bought in this way, or, especially, when I wear the scents, I wonder about them. Make up stories about them.

It’s as good a way to spark imagination as any.
photo by "Retroholic" on Flickr.
Reminder: Deadline for the Rosine and Bulgari samples drawing is March 1; see previous post for details. Leave me a comment and you'll be entered: what was your first gotta-have-it perfume?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ways of Love and Roses

One way I know that something is going to be good – irritate, challenge and finally enchant me – is that I can’t stand it at first. This applies to music and art, and sometimes people. I’ve learned, finally, to embrace this odd form of judgment, to trust it, because it doesn’t fail me very often.

There was a time I thought I hated rose, even as an ingredient. But I thought I’d give it one more chance. I’d read about the Les Parfums de Rosine line, and, strictly at random, I ordered a sample of Une Folie de Rose.

I know that many, perhaps most, of you have had the experience of fragrance-lust at first sniff. (Others haven’t been so lucky, yet, but keep trying. I wish it for you.) I’d only had it once before, several years ago, with Bulgari’s Eau Parfumee au the Vert (which I now know contains rose). You know what I mean. When you just have to have it. For me, sniffing Folie was like falling hard.

I sampled on, and found one other Rosine I craved, Poussiere de Rose. By that time, I had been around the Rosine block, so to speak, with a glittery little organza bag full of samples. My initial love for Poussiere wasn’t quite the all-encompassing passion I’d felt for the Folie. It was more…comfortable.

Une Folie de Rose is a Chypre. I don’t know what it is that the Chypres do for me, or why, but it is the combination of sharp, sweet and finally bitter-edged that appeals to my senses like no other fragrance family. The odd thing about my instant had-to-have-it impression of Folie is that I had no idea it was a Chypre. My power of analysis disappeared with first sniff. Without going into romance-novel prose, it was a lot like that stranger-across-a-crowded-room phenomenon we all know and, like the reasons for other choices of that kind, never really understand. In other words, I wanted the Folie. I didn’t give a damn what was in it.

With the Poussiere, I wanted to know. It was a different kind of attraction, the kind that is, well, smarter, but maybe not as much fun. I found out that “Poussiere” means “dust.” I even figured out how to pronounce it. I researched the notes and the fragrance’s history. I studied the plummy, lush top notes and considered similarities to perfumes I already owned. I even ordered a second sample – I had to be sure – and then I started shopping for the best price. I ordered the 50 ml bottle instead of the Folie’s 100. When it arrived, I didn’t rip the package open and spray madly, as I had with the Folie. I tried bits here, a little there. Tried it on skin, fabric and even my hair. I got to know it gradually. Then I put the seat back and got ready for a nice long ride.

It has occurred to me that these are the two polarities of loving fragrance – and of love.

I have a bunch of other Rosine samples and I plan to write about them. But these two will be the bookends.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’d love to know what your first gotta-have-it fragrance was. Tell me in the “comments” and I’ll do a drawing: one lucky winner will get samples of “Une Folie de Rose, Poussiere de Rose” by Les Parfums de Rosine and “Eau Parfumee au the vert” by Bulgari. Deadline is March 1st, midnight U.S. EST.

The illustration is a photo composite of the Georgia O’Keefe painting “Abstraction White Rose 1927” with an overlay of red silk, by (you guessed it) me.

The notes for “Une Folie de Rose” are those of the classic Chypre: coriander, bergamot, ylang-ylang, jasmine, iris, sandalwood, oakmoss (listed as “evernia prunastri extract” on the box, which I believe is real oakmoss), vetiver and patchouli. The rose notes are tea rose, Bulgarian rose absolute and Turkish rose absolute.

The notes for “Poussiere de Rose,” classified as a “Woody Floral,” are plum, apricot and ylang-ylang, rose, incense, tea, cinnamon, sandalwood, cedar, opoponax, benzoin, amber and musk.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Randomness

“Kath and Kim.” Last night’s episode, concerning celebrity-worship, was the best ever. I thought it was going to be one of those celeb circle jerks, but those bits featuring Kath in the actual presence of a Really Famous Person should be put in a time-capsule for anthropologists of the future to shudder over.

(That’s Selma Blair as “Kim,” pictured at right.)

Star Trek Scents! Captain Kirk! Vulcan dating rituals! Redshirts! I’m in awe – awe I tell you! (Think I’m kidding? Here’s the link:)

IMO they’re missing the boat, though. They should’ve waited for the next TNG movie. (That's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" to all of you so-not-Trekkies out there.) They’re so much more…uptown. I actually watched TNG.

But what would Data wear?

Bulgari Black and the Borg Queen. Has there ever been a better match, anywhere?

Fully functional.

Thanks to Helg at Perfume Shrine (link to the left) for reviewing Jacomo’s “Silences.” An unsung classic 70’s green that is cheap, cheap, cheap but doesn't smell like it. Cheap as in under $35 for 100 mls EDP including shipping. I will be trailing clouds of this as the weather warms up.

(If it ever does.)

Wonder what Rush wears? Any guesses out there? My guess? Whatever the maid brings home. Megadittoes, you has-been gas-bag!

Mediadrones: Lay off Michael Phelps, willya? He’s a kid.

(Remember: 20 is the new 10.)

I liked – didn’t love – Guerlain’s classic L’Heure Bleue at first try. But now something in it is making me gag. I thought it was heliotrope but now I’m not sure. Similar experiences, anybody?

A tip: Neutrogena’s Body Oil (unscented of course) “grabs” fragrance like nothing else I’ve tried, and really does make it last longer – even Vol de Nuit EDT.

Even Osmanthus. (I said “longer,” not “long.”)

I went a couple of days without fragrance, just to see. What a colorless existence the unscented lead.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Let's Play Samples Jeopardy!

After a few months of MUA swapping, I’ve got samples all over the place. They’re on the nightstand. They’re in little boxes here and there. They’re in my handbag and in my pockets and on kitchen counters. The other day I found one in the refrigerator.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if my house ever got searched. What would the cops make of all these little zip-loc bags, hundreds of vials, inch-high screw-top bottles (let's not go there), pipettes, eyedroppers and teensy-weensy funnels?

My derriere would be hauled off to the slammer, that’s what. Intent to distribute, well, I’m sure they’d figure out something.

I’m not the best at identifying “notes.” I’m in awe of those who can, with one delicate and refined sniff, say, “Ahhhh. Of course. Hyacinth. Ambrette seed. Isobutylquioline-hydrocitralcellu-benzodiazapine-18.” I’m not there. Actually I don’t think I’ll ever be there.

But I wanted to really kinda grok* these samples. So I made a whole bunch of little watercolor paper strips – one 18 x 24 sheet of Arches will provide a huge supply – and applied a drop from each sample. These hold onto the notes for awhile, as the paper is thick and fibrous (and besides, I’m not painting on it much these days anyway). I thought, I’ll sniff a random few of these and see if my nose has improved any lately. So I did, recording my impressions, and then went to Basenotes to see if I’d been right. For brevity here, let’s call Basenotes “Alex” and I will be “Contestant # 1,” a.k.a. “C1.”

Guerlain Chamade
C1: “Hmmm. Something woodsy, something sweet. Kind of dry. Classic, powerful. Smells kinda like a Guerlain. I want this.”
Alex: “The answer must be posed as a question! Ylang-ylang, blackcurrant bud! Woods and balsams!”
C1: “Uh, yeah. Right.”

Tauer Reverie du Jardin
C1: “Is it lavender, Alex? Sweet grass? Some kind of floral?"
Alex: (Impatient grimace) "and fir balm, galbanum, bergamot, orris, frankincense, rose absolute, ambrette seed, oakmoss, vanilla, cedar, amber and sandalwood!”
C1: “Oh!” (Slaps forehead in frustration) “How could I have missed those!”

Malle Angeliques Sous La Pluie
C1: “Ummm…herbal? Cedar? Is it cedar, Alex?” (Sniffs strip again) “Wait a second…it’s gone!” (Scratches head.) “I know! Is it a Jean-Claude Ellena?”
Alex: (presses buzzer) “Pink pepper. Juniper. Coriander. Yes…cedar. But I don’t see any…judges?” (Waits.) “No, no uhjohnclodelena. Not a note. Sorry.”

Tauer Lonestar Memories
C1: “Wow. Tar. Chilly air. Is that WD-40?”
Alex: “Not tar, Tauer. Sorry. Tobacco. Leather. Wood. But you were close!”

CDG Hinoki
C1: “Wait…don’t tell me. Hamster bedding! Is it that stuff you use to line a hamster cage?”
Alex: “No, dear. It’s perfume. Cedar and ginger…” (buzzer sounds)

DSH Special Formula X
C1: “Um…dirt?”
Alex: “Musk.”

Yves Rocher 8eJour
C1: “Wow. It smells kind of like Mitsouko, only sweeter. Maybe it’s me…though, is it Mitsouko, Alex? Chypre and, uh, what’s that stuff, persicol? A reformulation maybe?”
Alex: (riffling though papers) “Judges?” (Waits) (Waits) “Yes? We don’t have record of this substance? What is your ruling, then?” (Waits)

“Close enough? All right.” (Turns to contestant C1) “We’ll accept your judgment. And that means that YOU, C1, go home with fifty dollars and a lifetime supply of “Covet” by Sarah Jessica Parker!”

Of course there are more samples. Many more. And I know I’ll find that vial of Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger one day. Wait a second…maybe it’s under the bed?

See you next time!

*The word “grok” means, roughly, “to understand fully and completely.” It’s from Robert Heinlein’s Sci-Fi classic “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and is one of the few words from the Sixties, unlike “groovy” and “peaking,” that is still actually useful.