Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Two From the Tropics

When I was six, I moved with my family to Japan.

Like most children of that age -- at least way back then -- I simply accepted this and, in fact, saw it as an adventure. (This became even more adventurous when the plane lost an engine over the Pacific and we had to bunk on Wake Island for a couple of days, but I digress.) When we finally arrived in just-before-statehood Honolulu, at the rickety old wooden terminal with ceiling fans, a smiling Hawaiian girl came up to me and hung a lei around my neck.

In all my short life, I’d never smelled, or felt, anything so delicious. The flowers, just out of refrigeration, were cold and their petals were stiff. I’d never seen anything like them. They were white, and yellow and pink, and surrounded me with a fragrance I never forgot.

I realize now that this was my first perfume experience.

My mother put the lei into the little refrigerator in our hotel room. Each day of our stay there, the petals deteriorated a little more, browning around the edges, ultimately losing the freshness of their fragrance to a note of creeping rot, and when we left for Tokyo, she threw it out. I whined like a baby.

This memory came back to me when I smelled Manoumalia (Les Nez) recently, and again when I tried Amaranthine (Penhaglion) last week.

Interesting how, as the cold gray winter descends over North America, the perfume blogs and forums are all alight with tropical florals. We go from pining, in late summer, for the heavy ambers and musks of fall, and then out of nowhere comes this. Amaranthine, which seems poised to reinvigorate the staid old house of Penhaglion, was done by Bertrand Duchaufour. I believe it is his first for them. Manoumalia, the very definition of a “niche” fragrance, was made by Sandrine Videault, who lives and works on the Pacific island of New Caledonia.

Of the two, the Manoumalia is the more interesting to me. Tropical flowers are all about taking care of business -- the business of reproduction -- quick. This is the evolutionary reason for their strong and heavy fragrances. Manoumalia opens heavier than most perfumes end; sweet, almost like chocolate, but not too sweet. Videault, who was one of Roudniska’s last students, knows what she’s doing. More olfactionary artist than commercial perfumer, she designed this scent as a sort of tribute to the Wallisian tribes that populate her area, using a common shrub flower, fragrea berteriana, along with tiare and ylang-ylang, but then took it darker with sandalwood dust, vetiver, and an amber. (Most Hawaii leis feature frangipani, also the name of Ormond Jayne’s tropical scent, which I wrote about a few posts ago; it’s gorgeous, too.)

Amaranthine, which clearly is a commercial scent (although a very fine one) comes in quite a bit lighter and a lot greener. Looking at the notes, I see green tea, cardamom, freesia and banana leaf. There’s your tropics. I love not-quite-ripe bananas, with their nearly green skin. Smelling the two side-by-side, the Amaranthine has the “throw” and longevity which marks the use of at least some synthetics; while I don’t know this for sure, I’d bet that Manmoulia is composed primarily of natural essences.

Does this make Manmoulia better? Some would say so; not me, though, because I think they’re both amazing. My scent-eating skin loves the mixture of synthetic and natural best, as the synthetics work to “set” the scent, thereby making it last more than an hour or so, which is the fate of most naturals on me -- not that I’ve tried them all. Far from it. But even now, as I write with one on one hand and one on the other, the Manmoulia is nearly gone, after an hour, while the Amaranthine is still going. (On blotters, however, the Manmoulia is still almost as strong as the Amaranthine.)

So we’re all different. Different skin. Big news? No.

I haven’t been back to Hawaii since I was a child. It seems to be such a Resort Vacation Destination now. I know that there are back roads and undiscovered places and so on, but to get there, you have to do the packed-like-sardines/tin can/bus/hideous American airport thing, and I think I’d rather remember it like it was. New Caledonia, now, that’s another story. It’s been on my list for years. The one Pacific island I’m dying to see, and now there’s this beautiful scent from there, too...and, one day, I will.

Thanks to Perfume Shrine and Now Smell This for information on these scents.

Manoumalia’s notes include Fragrea Berteriana, ylang-ylang, tiare, sandalwood dust, vetiver and amber accord.

Amaranthine’s notes include green tea, white freesia, banana leaf, coriander, cardamom absolute, rose, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, egyptian jasmine absolute, carnation, tonka absolute, musk, sandalwood and condensed milk.

Vintage Hawaiian shirt fabric image copyright Ron Chapple Studios. Used under license from Dreamstime.com.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Here’s a scenario for you: it’s years hence. Fragrance as we once knew it is harder and harder to find. Supplies of the banned substances have dried up -- why produce, say, real jasmine if you’re not allowed to sell it? Some of the niche companies have survived by quietly hooking up with the big boys. Others are gone, or working under the radar. Watered-down “vintage” perfumes are sparking insane bidding wars on the auction sites. Oh, you can still get the good stuff, but it’s gone underground, as have the materials used to make it. You have to know somebody, and be prepared to pay big bucks.

Or you can go down to the perfume counter and get the screechy synthetic pinkish water with some celebrity’s picture on the box. Meanwhile, a supermodel is slithering around in the back seat of a limo in the advertising. Wear this, she purrs: you’ll look like me, smell like me, be like me, have my life.

Yeah. Right.

It’s this dim future that makes me want to hoard. I’m resisting the impulse with mixed success. I mean, c’mon, the collection I have is quite enough, thanks, to last me the rest of my life and, by perfumista standards, it’s a small one (collection, not life). But I still think...what if. What if I can't get any more of it.

So when I saw an interesting post on Perfume Shrine about making’s one own scents -- not trying to be perfumers, we know we’re not, no need to get the knickers in a wad fellas -- I thought “sounds interesting.” Because you can walk into any well-stocked natural food store and find a fine array of oils, designed for aromatherapy, and I’m sure it has occurred to you: what if I bought some of that, and some of that, and put them together? What if I added a drop or two of a favorite scent to that, and used it to scent my hair, or bath or pillow? I bet you’ve been doing it already.

Before I got into this, I owned a little cache of essential oils, and used them in a room diffuser. Upon becoming a blogger, I got an olfactionary to help me identify “notes” in commercial perfumes, so I wouldn’t show my ignorance in quite so obvious a way. Right away I had a brand-new chemistry set to replace the one I had in second grade (which contained stuff to make gunpowder, fergodsake, and guess what I’m still here; how did we ever survive our helicopter-parent-less childhoods)?

The general gist of this event, which was birthed by the new and somewhat rad ‘fume blog Under The Cupola, is that maybe we can do a decent job cooking up some homebrew. Let’s try some and do one of those name-drawings where everybody gets the name of a complete stranger and sends them a gift of same. I mean, we have a pretty good idea of what this is all about, right? None of us is expecting to make the Next Big Thing, but we could make something nice, something we would give ourselves (and probably have).

My own previous experiments turned out decently. A classic floral, a green floral, a spice souk, a dirty, leathery musk. (They don’t have much longevity, but I’m working on that.) Carried my cache of essential oils up to my studio and began, with the vials and the droppers, to concoct some more. It’s kind of fun. I’m working on a dirty floral, a violet rose and a chypre base. Some lucky recipient will get a largish vial of the best of my efforts, come December, and I’ll get one from somebody else.

We know this territory, maybe better than we think. Can’t stop what passes for progress, but we might have a little fun making something decent, and sharing it with a like-minded new pal.

For details on how to enter the fray, go here and/or here.

If you haven’t read Mandy Aftel’s classic book “Essence & Alchemy -- A Natural History of Perfume,” well, why not?! (Actually, I just recently got around to it myself, which is such a shame.) It’s a perfect guide to concocting, and a wonderful read too. It’s out in paperback, reasonably priced, and the ISBN is 10:1-58685-702-9.

Photo composite by Olfacta from photo used under license from Dreamstime.com.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

America's Most Olfactory City

When driving to New Orleans, you begin to smell the base note many miles away. It’s the smell of Swamp. A millennium's worth of muck. Eons of decay.

Does this photo make you recoil? Chances are you won’t like New Orleans.

I used to say that this city wasn’t really part of America, and I still say that. Certainly it wasn’t treated as part of America -- CleanAmerica -- after Katrina, which the Gulf Coast people simply call “The Storm,” as if there hadn’t been and will never be another one like it. It was as though the Powers of the time simply cut the city loose, hoping it would drift out into the Gulf, with its polyglot population, its aura of decadence, its social problems, its reputation as a place one goes to do things one doesn’t do at home; hoping that it would simply sink from their view. But it didn’t. It’s not the same -- will never be -- but it’s still here.

I’ve always loved the place. I’ve been there many times. But it’s not for everyone. If you like tidy, cleaned-up, charming historic districts, try Charleston. Because New Orleans isn’t tidy in any way.

We only had one night and day, this time. Not long. Just long enough to walk a bit, ten blocks here, four there; dinner uptown, one night at my favorite slightly-tattered, musty old hotel -- once a hospital during the Civil War, now reputed to be haunted -- on Chartres Street.

Truth be told, many of the smells of New Orleans aren’t nice.

Old cities, old sewers; it hangs in the air, sweetish and sour, the odor of humanity. It’s always there. You smell it as soon as you get out of the car. There’s garbage, too; piles of it, waiting for the plow, and manure from the horses that pull buggies filled with tourists around the Vieux Carre.

We walked ten blocks or so down Chartres, to a place I had heard had good muffaletas (Italian bread soaked with “olive salad,” or marinated green olives, onions, peppers and garlic, then filled with sliced Italian deli meats -- salami, ham -- and provolone cheese. They’re essential here.) It was around noon. We were famished, and that walk was filled with the steamy smell of seafood boil -- spices, like white pepper, cayenne and thyme, added to cooking water -- and crabs simmering in it. That scent poured out of the restaurants and stands as the city got ready for its (long) lunch break. I could smell shrimp and oysters frying, too. That seafood smell mixes with the swamp and river and the sewers and the garbage, and it is that which is, for me, the quintessential smell of the old Quarter.

Since I began exploring the olfactory world through perfumery, odors that used to bother me don’t any more. Human body odor, for example. There’s lots of that in the Vieux Carre -- street performers, many of them shockingly young, who clearly don’t get to bathe enough, and hawkers, and frat boys on Bourbon Street benders. It’s the smell of living. Lots of that here.

For me, the first extra-spicy Bloody Mary and the first cup of gumbo makes me feel at home. Gumbo is New Orleans in a bowl. I’ve heard that many places almost never start it from scratch. They just keep adding to the pot, which never has a chance to get cold. There’s the dark roux, a paste of flour and oil which must be cooked only to a specific point, or it’ll “break” -- separate. Then comes the “trinity” of Creole cooking, onion, celery and green pepper simmered only until limp. Then stock, all kinds, seafood, chicken, fish; okra, to thicken it, and sometimes the cayenne-hot Andouille sausage. Then, the cook adds whatever makes it his, or hers -- spices, crawfish, shrimp, chicken, oysters, sausage, you name it, and it simmers for hours. The resulting brew is thick and dark as mud. And then it is finished with file powder, made from ground sassafras leaves, added only at the last moment, and only to the individual bowl, as direct heat makes it “ropy.” I smelled the file this time like I never have before. A little pine, a little citrus, a little camphor. A perfume.

There are two perfumeries in the Vieux Carre, both old and historic. (I can’t think of any place on earth where perfumes would have been more necessary than here.) They are Hove and Bourbon French, and, since it was Sunday, both were closed. I’d planned to visit them on Monday, but a storm was blowing in from the Gulf, the schools were closing, and we decided we’d better get out.

Next time.

Not to worry. There will be many next times. And the perfumeries, like New Orleans, will still be there.

Photo copyright Denidini. Used under license from Dreamstime.com