Thursday, July 30, 2009

Off Topic - Rock and Roll, Chap. 11

Psssst...wanna win a sample of vintage Mitsouko? Leave a comment. Scroll down to the last post for the details.

Faithful readers of “Olfactarama” -- and I know there are many -- may remember that your pal Olfacta was once a music, um, queenpin. I worked for a legendary punk record label, and my job involved calling indie record stores like the one in “High Fidelity” (which if you haven’t seen you must rent right now) and talking up records, meanwhile gleaning information about bands everywhere. In this way, we broke some and found new ones. I got to be a cultural cattle prod and, honey, it was the best job I ever had.

Now I’m a few, uh, years older. The seeds I plant grow, well, plants. I take much better care of my nose, now that it’s perfume I prefer. Not that I’m all so very settled, or so I thought, but then we went to see Tool.

Tool’s been around for quite awhile, so they’re still a cult band, but the cult is Really Big. Big enough to draw people from multiple states, as I saw from the license plates all around me in the monumental traffic jam outside the parking lot. (Waiting in one of those is something I once said I would never, ever do again but hey, never say never.) Big enough for even me to be searched and wanded at the door. Now that’s big.

If I had to describe this show in one word, the word would be “robotic.” The singer was up on a riser behind the drums, in silhouette the whole time, in front of a long, rectangular screen the width of the stage, on which played amazing images of fire, light, and bizarre films of alienlike figures. (The next day I called my nephew, 26, in California. “Oh, yeah,” he said, all serious. “That’s what he does. No one ever sees him.”) So he wasn’t so much a singer as he was a symbol of a singer.

It was all very Nuremberg-like, with the audience on its feet punching the air from the first second, and LOUD. Assault-like loud. Listen, I’ve been to loud shows before, which is why I have to turn up the TV now when “True Blood” comes on. This one, though, vibrated my whole body. You know that buzzing you get in your chest, when it’s really, really, really loud? It was like that. The. Whole. Time.

The visuals were really the best part, horrifying scary, sometimes just light, lots of veiny things, faceless creatures, visions from a bad trip. I started to analyze, sober as a judge. What kind of future are we leaving these people, this audience, twenty to thirty-fiveish? Not much. So here they are, on their feet, saluting a nightmare.

The music was alternately crashing or dronelike, what they call “noise” now; psychotic prog-rock. Not for me, but who cares?

On the way home I said to the DH, you go to these shows for a transcendent experience; we used to anyway. The right combination of substances paired with the right volume and visual. If you hit it just perfect, you could feel your head explode. Go up like a roman candle. I saw lots of ecstatic dancing at this show, by the boy-men, the worm boys; the guys who grew up with their noses pressed to a screen. More than anything this felt like the best, most blazing video game ever. A simulacrum. Inside that hall, there was no other world.

I didn’t feel so old as I felt apart. This was the first event I’ve ever known to be beyond my experience. It made me realize that I live in a different world than these people do now. The volume was nihilistic; who cares if you can hear when you’re old? Chances are we won’t make it that far. The whole show was. (I can hear voices saying, “Really? Ya think?)

This is where we started; the nihilism of punk has morphed into Tool. There’s no going back.

The torch has been passed.

"Tool" visual image from Treaked at, used without any sort of permission whatsoever.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Perfume's Grail

“....the Holy Grail,” says Paul Theroux in his travel book ‘The Pillars of Hercules," the real thing....carved from greenish agate (chalcedony), as is the base, an inverted cup set with pearls and emeralds, with gold handles, and it is held together by a gold post and jeweled bands....This simple cup might have acquired the gold and jewels since Jesus used it. The authorized Cathedral pamphlet offers all this conjecture as fact.”

“It is venerated,” he continues, quoting Grail expert J.A. Onate. “It ‘receives a continuous growing cult....The cup is very ancient work and nothing can be said against the idea that it was utilized by the Lord during the first eucharistic consecration.’”

Nobody gets all that close to this cup, Theroux also points out. The godless tourists wanting to peer at it are allowed to enter its chapel only when a priest is saying mass. They must then sit or kneel to listen to the sermon, which goes on continuously whenever the chapel is open.

Reading this made me think about Mitsouko.

All the combinations and permutations of Mitsouko-worship separate the perfumista from the masses. Saying you don’t like Mitsouko in this particular culture is as much a heresy as a film student’s denouncing “Citizen Kane.”

How many Mitsouko grails are there, though? There is the modern EDT, one of the first classics to be reformulated. Then there is the modern EDP, grudgingly considered by the cognoscenti to be acceptable, to a point. There is the old EDT, in the big round bottle, and I suppose there is an old EDP, although I’ve never seen it. Finally, there’s the modern extrait, and, ultimately, the agate chalice: vintage Mitsouko perfume.

I started with a sample of the EDT, as most do. I was expecting an epiphany. What I got a sharp, strange and yeasty scent. I kept waiting for it to “develop.” It didn’t. My husband came home and said, “What’s that funny smell?”

I soldiered on. I thought, no, I knew, that the perfume bloggers and forum fans just had to know something I didn’t. After all, no one is born liking Parmesan cheese. I obtained samples of the EDP, and finally the modern perfume. All of these were better, by degree, than the EDT I’d tried at first, but none were the l revelation I’d expected.

The next step was inevitable; find some vintage. First, the expense. How could I justify it, when I wasn’t sure, buying unsniffed, as they say? Then came the time-consuming fleabay search. The checking of the feedback. The comparisons of bottles. Of labels. All the frustration and doubt which comprise authentication. Then, the hair-raising bidding process.

Ultimately, this was a matter of faith. As with the Spanish priests who believe that Christ drank from their agate cup, I finally just had to believe that the vintage quarter ounce of Mitsouko I ordered would be real.

The bottle came, nestled in with a silk scarf, which lined the box. In my haste to open the package and sip from the chalice, I cut a slit in it. Not a good omen; I held my breath.

The perfume was so...smooth. Peaches preserved in Olympian cognac. Somewhere, there was a hint of wood smoke, and there was beer, too, but this time it was monastery beer, made only by the abbot for his favored few. It was deep and rich, but not sweet, and it held together beautifully on my skin.

Here is the question. Had I ordered this bottle a year prior, would I have been able to appreciate it? Or was this a simple agate cup, tarted up with the pearls and emeralds of cognitive dissonance?

I’m not going to go on comparing old to new, note to note; there is plenty of information out there. But I am going to give up a decent sample of my vintage Mitsouko, about three quarters of a ml, and about the same amount of the modern extrait, to one lucky winner. I’d like to hear what you think. Was the vintage version All That for you? Did it make the earth move? Or is the Emperor really just naked?

Leave me a comment by Wednesday, August 12, midnight US EDT, and I’ll pick the winner (at random, of course) of perfume’s agate cup. I’ll throw in a few other samples of my vintage favorites too.

The Holy Grail is said to be held by the St. Mary of Valencia Cathedral in Valencia, Spain.

Quoted passages are excerpts from “The Pillars of Hercules -- A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean” by Paul Theroux, ISBN 0-399-14108-1.

The photo is from Wikimedia.

Synesthesia: Fragrance and Color

And the winner of the "My Sin" and "Arpege" pure perfume samples is:  Send postal details to me at olfactarama at att dot net and I’ll send you the samples posthaste!

Back in June, artisanal perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz graciously sent me a set of nine fragrances she calls the CHROMA Collection. She explores fragrance as a synesthete -- someone who is able to cross sensory fields such as color and scent. I’ve been interested in synesthesia for some time and have finally had the time to evaluate these properly.
The term “Synesthesia,” if you look it up, describes an involuntary brain condition. Sometimes it results from brain injury, while some are born with it. The form I’ve seen mentioned most is “seeing” letters or numbers in color, as in 1234567. There are other forms, too: visual/auditory for example, like “seeing” musical notes.
Studies on olfactory synesthesia are sparse. The sense of smell is still taking the back seat to vision and hearing, pretty much everywhere, but there have been some efforts made. One, from What the Nose Knows author Avery Gilbert and partners, identified a link between superior odor perception and the ability to conjure imagery when presented with an odor. In other words, those of us who are constantly evaluating and identifying “notes” in perfumes should be able to visualize them as colors easily. I can, fairly easily. (This does not make me a synesthete, though. The condition “Synesthesia” is involuntary, whereas I have to think about what color a scent might be.) But do we visualize the same colors as others? Would I “see” the same colors the perfumer saw?
So, in a spectacularly unscientific experiment, I covered the labels on the nine bottles so I could not see the name nor the color of the juice, then mixed them up. I numbered nine scent strips and got to it, applying fragrance to the strips, smelling them twice over a 5 minute period, and writing down my guesses (and the “right” answer, afterward), in real time. Here’s what happened.
# 1.  I’ve smelled this before. It smells like cherries, fruit. Red. Cherry Red. (Answer: “Quinacrodone Violet,” based on the very bright and very synthetic artists’ pigment of that name, which is a sort of fuschia.) 

#2.  Peppery and green, not like leaves, but a warmish blue-green. (Answer: “Celadon.” Very close!)

#3. This is very green, foresty. (Answer: “Blue-Green.”) 

#4 . Fresh. Freshness. I can’t see this as a particular color, but I know it’s from the cool end of the spectrum. (Answer: “Viridian,” the pigment being an intensely blue-green pigment that isn’t very strong in mixes. How interesting! 

#5. This one’s tough. A yellow? (Answer: no. It’s Cyan, the blue used in printing and in light. Well, I sure got that one wrong.)

#6. Ginger? No, licorice. But something about this reminds me of a natural yellow ochre, a warm earthy yellow. (Answer: it’s “Prince,” which Hurwtiz says in her notes was a textile color from the 17th century, an indigo-blue-black shot through with crimson red.”) I would never have guessed black. Never.

#7. I see purple. A cool, blue-purple. (Answer: Wrong again! It’s “Sienna,” which is a warm, coppery brown.)   This is a spice, woody kind of scent. A brown. We’ve already done Sienna. Is it an umber? (Answer: Yes! It is, in fact, “Umber.”)

#8. Okay, this is a citrus. Um, Orange. (Answer: Yes! It’s “The Color Orange.”)
# 9 This is a spice, probably brown. (Answer: Yes! The name is "Umber.")

Category #9 represents a confound (or perhaps just a very badly designed experiment.) I know Hurwitz wouldn’t use the same color twice in a 9-bottle collection. So, if I did this one over again, I’d wait and smell the strips before unveiling the bottles. And I would get a naive subject -- somebody who doesn’t know and/or doesn’t care about perfume -- to test these. 
As perfumes, my decidedly non-objective preferences are # 2 -- “Celedon” -- and # 7 -- “Sienna,”  but all are interesting and unique. 
Do you “see” perfumes as colors? Do you have to think about it first?
(Note: Reference DSH’s descriptions on her website).
The Avery Gilbert reference is from “What The Nose Knows -- The Science of Scent In Everyday Life” by Avery Gilbert, Crown, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6) p. 132.  The original paper appeared in the American Journal of Psychology, 1996 Fall; 109(3):335-51.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gone Fishing

Well, not really. But I do need a little break from the self-imposed deadline. I'll be back Monday July 27th, with some (I hope) pithy prose and a real good sample drawing!

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Estate Sale

We’ve all heard the estate sale stories. So-and-so got a giant mint bottle of vintage Tabac Blond for $2. All I ever find is scary Seventies stuff like, say, an orange crock pot, missing the cord, its receptacle caked with cat hair and cobwebs. But I saw an ad in the paper yesterday for a sale in a very nice part of Atlanta, near the Governor’s Mansion. Maybe, I thought, they’ll have some decent perfumes. It seemed promising enough.

There was a line out front. I eavesdropped on the conversations around me. Many of these people knew each other. They seemed to be part of the subculture of estate-salers and resellers. Early birds were already carrying the antiques out when I arrived. And many of the people had that old-time Atlanta accent, in which “there” is pronounced “they-ah.” This accent is unmistakable to a native. It tells everyone who knows enough to care: “A’hm from he-yuh, as was my muth-ah, as was huh muth-ah.” You hardly ever hear it any more. I didn't expect to hear it here.

Finally, they let me inside. It looked as though the hearse had just left. The books were still on the shelves. Other than a few tables heaped with costume jewelry, and other ones with dinnerware, the belongings were untouched. The house was dark, dusty and dirty. Someone had turned the air all the way up, too, so it was tomb-like cold.

I began moving through the rooms. There were racks and closets filled with clothing that looked like it had belonged to a New Orleans madam, or maybe a nightclub singer. It was all sequins, and jeweled tops, rhinestones and satin and stained silk, glittery caftans, stockings -- imagine people picking through your stockings! -- and gloves. I saw tables filled with odd ceramic knicknacks. There wasn’t any lingerie, thank God, but there were shoes, at least 75 pair, all tiny -- size five or six maybe -- spike-heeled and expensive. And there were bed-jackets. More sequins. More glitter and glitz than I’d seen in decades.

It was the last sort of clothing I would have expected to see in this staid old Buckhead house.

The place had already been picked over, and if there had been any good perfume, it was gone. But there were at least a dozen empty bottles, big ones, of Bal a’ Versailles. I can’t imagine how one person, in one lifetime, could have used them all.

Who was she?

I didn’t linger long enough to read labels. The clothing was flashy, but certainly not couture. I saw no men’s wardrobe or things, just women’s, all this flimsy finery bursting out of closets and drawers, the bathroom a shambles, even the makeup for sale. What was her name? I kept thinking of something like Estrella, or Lila or Blanche, like Blanche du Bois, a faded Southern lady, hanging on to whatever kind of past had required her to own all this. Was she someone’s mistress? The companion to a wealthy man who went home every night to a single strand of pearls and a discreet dab of Chanel? Did she spend her days lounging around on velvet sofas, dressed in chiffon, reeking of Bal a Versailles, waiting, always waiting?

I thought: Tennessee Williams would’ve loved this.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

My entire haul, by the way, was a few samples of vintage edp that would be considered “old-lady” -- Je Reivens, Rive Gauche and Shalimar. I can still smell them on my wrists.

They are the perfumes of a ghost.

Estate sale photo used under license from

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ingredients: Basil

I remember the rise of basil.

In the early Eighties, Americans became aware of food, particularly that of Europe, especially that of Italy. This was the era in which the green table shaker of Parmesan “cheese” met its well-deserved demise. It was replaced by a wedge of well, something called “Parmesan” cheese (but also made by Kraft). That was then usurped by real Italian Parmesan-Regiano, and Pecorino made with unpasturized milk -- something that once would have been unthinkable to a people raised on the slick, orange, plasticine substance known as “American cheese”.

This happened first, as most things do here, in California, and has spread across the land like spilled olive oil. At some point Americans also became aware that basil is a plant, to be used lavishly, not something dried and sprinkled from a jar. By the late Eighties, anyone who cooked seriously attempted to grow a basil plant or two. In my city-apartment patio garden, I had several; lemon, purple, Opal, Thai and finally Genovese.

Basil is a variety of mint, the Labiatae family, with square stems and tiny, hairlike oil glands. The aroma molecules produced by these include 1,8 cineol, methylchavicol, methyl cinnamete, linalool, citral, and eugenol. Sound familiar? The last three are common perfume ingredients. I didn’t know how common “basil” was as a perfume ingredient until I looked it up; "Basenotes" lists 254 fragrances that feature it!

Some are Brut, Denueve, Eau de Guerlain, Eau Sauvage, Frankincense & Myrrh, Habit Rouge, Givenchy’s Insense, the original Polo, CDG 3, Rosine’s Zephir de Rose, Boucheron by Boucheron and...surprise, surprise, as I wear this often in the summer but had no idea: O de Lancome.

Looking at the pyramids, most of the time basil is in the “top,” alongside those citruses. It is interesting that basil itself contains citral, some varieties more than others. The “lemon” variety is full of citral. Some, like my favorite Genovese variety, contain a stronger clove note, presumably from the eugenol. In perfumery, my guess is that there is a good melding of basil with citruses, as the citral molecules are present in both, but that basil essence adds a missing herbaceous quality to the volatile top notes. My beloved O de Lancome, for example, hits you with full-force lemon at first and then there is something else, not immediately identifiable as “herb” as thyme or lavender would be. My guess now: basil.

Like so many herbs and spices, this one is so ancient that the Sanskrit name -- tulasi -- has no obvious entymology. In Latin, basiliscus referred to a fire-breathing dragon. The Greek word basilikon means, roughly, “royal”; in old Arabic, basil was known as “al-habaqa.” There is a word for this plant in nearly every language.

The oils from basil produce a cooling effect in the mouth, but those substances are ephemeral at best. They don’t take to cooking well, as heat destroys them. So does oxygen, and cold, as anyone who has ever put fresh basil into the refrigerator only to retrieve black, slimy leaves the next day will attest. There is really only one way to use basil, and that is raw and fresh, from the garden or a real farmer’s market. It grows best in the ground; some varieties will grow to several feet. Native to Africa and Asia, it loves heat, humidity, sun and water. Give it all that and you will be rewarded. Or put bought basil in a glass of water, like flowers; it’ll keep for a day or two.

If you stack ten or so basil leaves atop one another, roll them up into a tube and cut that into narrow strips, you’ll have a “chiffonade” of basil, which you then strew across...well, whatever you want; pasta, tomatoes, a salad. Or here is a classic recipe for pesto, from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”:

2 garlic cloves
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons pine nuts
sea salt
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

Briefly soak the basil leaves in cool water and dry thoroughly (pat with paper towels).

Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic and a pinch of salt into a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. (This mixture can be frozen.) (Ms. Hazan much preferred doing this in a large motor with pestle, btw.)

Transfer to a bowl, and mix the cheeses, and then the butter, in by hand. (If using the previously frozen mixture, thaw and then add the cheeses and butter.)

For pesto pasta, mix in a couple of teaspoons of the warm water the pasta was cooked in.

What says “summer” better than this, white cotton sheets, and citrusy colognes?

Much of the information on basil’s background came from Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages

Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” copyright 1992: ISBN 0-394-58404-X.

The basil photograph came from the Burpee catalog, which lists at least a dozen varieties of basil.