Monday, September 26, 2011


"Miriam" winners: I still haven't heard from three of you. Sept.30 at midnight US Eastern Daylight time is the deadline -- after that I'll pick alternates.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic cook. When I was first married, about a million years ago, a series of layoffs and career changing left us broke. For a year and a half we didn’t go out to eat unless the in-laws treated us. I mean not at all. Not even coffee shops. I was working from home, trying to build a clientele for my writing and copywriting. It was a difficult time.

Every Wednesday, I’d go to Santa Monica for the farmers market there. (Hard to believe now, but their vegetables were cheaper than the supermarket’s. This greenmarket had originally been formed to provide the senior residents of downtown Santa Monica with fresh produce they could afford. Seems incredible now, doesn’t it?)

Anyway, that was when I really learned to cook. My favorite resources were  “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine and Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook.” My ingredients, thanks to the market, were the very best. 

I can still see, and taste, the produce from that Wednesday market. Lettuce varieties that tasted different from any I’d ever had; actually, make that lettuce that had a taste. Golden beets and purple string beans that turned green upon cooking. Yellow crookneck squash so fresh it still had the whiskery bristles. Perfect white aubergines, the size and shape of hen's eggs. (The market had those, too.) Those long french radishes with the white tips. Baskets full of basil so fresh it nearly quivered when touched.

Everything was organic. It was required to be, and also had to be harvested within the previous 24 hours. Therefore, no tomatoes in December. Winter was the time of the root vegetables with their greens; beets, and turnips, and cabbages, carrots, brussels sprouts still on the stalk. Summer was for the nightshades — tomatoes and eggplants and summer squash in endless variety — and the herbs. Having grown up on supermarket food, I hadn't realized that broccoli was a winter vegetable and squash a summer one. Forced to cook and eat seasonally, I became more attuned to other natural cycles, too. 

There were no chef-y demonstrations or wildly expensive designer vegetables at this market. It was just food and flowers. I’d buy big bunches of daisies for a dollar. Sometimes street musicians would show up and play, and the benevolent city government would let them. But none of it ever felt contrived.

Most places have greenmarkets now — we have one in my little-town-inside-big-city — but they’re very expensive, a few tables set up with baskets of $5 tomatoes (that's per tomato, not per basket)  — so I’ve learned to buy produce elsewhere at a vast shedlike “farmers market” here that’s really an international grocery store. But I miss that  California cornucopia, four blocks of the earth’s best, to this day. 

I bring this up because of the way appreciation of perfumery opens appreciation of taste. Whereas once I’d just retrieve the (one) bottle of cinnamon from my spice pantry and spoon out some, now I hold one of the several kinds I have to my nose and consider which would be best for the dish, performing those little sniffs as I do when testing a perfume.  So many cinammons, all so different; some warm, some cool, some pungent. I buy whole spices, and grind my own mixes from them. This is a lot like painting, like knowing your pigments so well that you can confidently choose not just a white, but which white;  warm? Cool? Pasty? Opaque, semi-transparent, goopy, ropy, what?

I’ve been playing around with fragrance oils and essential oils lately. Last week I got one called "Dirt." It smells like, well, dirt. It smells just like dirt. Garden dirt. The humus-y, dark, rooty kind. I don’t know what’s in it, although it’s got some patchouli; that I know. I also know this. Open that bottle and I’m back at the market, my nose pressed into a bunch of beets I’ve just bought, dug out of the ground that morning and smelling more earthy than the earth that they grew in.

We get caught up in reviewing and comparing and comparing and reviewing readymades; what is that note, damn it, why can’t I place it, aaaargh! Or comparing this perfumer or that perfumer’s work. I lose track, sometimes, of why I do this. Many reasons; the interesting friends, the sense of community, the samples and swaps, the sheer opportunity to spend time writing about something I love and knowing (well, hoping) that it will be appreciated by the like-minded. And it’s all great. But every now and then it’s good to slow down, empty the mind, and smell the dirt.

Photo by Zigzagmtart, used under license from


Elisa said...

Hello! I was one of the winners and sent you an email, but didn't get a response. Might it have gone into your junk folder? I definitely want that sample! :)

Irina said...

Beautiful, beautiful post
melancholic and so calm and calming
thank you

Zazie said...

Hi! Like Elisa, I sent you an email but didn't get an answer - have you received it? it was zazie.bleue (gmail account).

This post is great. Fall is my favorite season, and, well, I do smell dirt in the air...

Olfacta said...

Hi Zazie -- your package was mailed last week and should be there soon.

Olfacta said...

Hi Elisa -- Check your email; it's on it's way!

Olfacta said...

Hi Irina -- Thanks. I do miss the place a lot this time of year!

Vanessa said...

I am a rather reluctant cook, and most of the herbs and spices in my pantry are out of date. Even the flour is out of date and soon the tins will be the way things are going!

But I really admire those who are creative in the kitchen, and I can see the parallels with the culinary "arts". A male painter friend of mine is one of the most imaginative cooks I know, come to think of it.

Rappleyea said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! I'd venture to guess that your "Dirt" also contained vetiver. Do you have vetiver e.o.? If not, I can send you some.

Olfacta said...

Hi Donna! I think you did send me some vetiver EO last year -- really thick and strong, golden color, about a ml? I still use it as a reference vetiver. Thank you!

I'll have to re-smell the "Dirt" oil. I was so amazed that it smelled so much like dirt that I forgot to analyze it very much.

anotherperfumeblog said...

I agree, thank you for this post. I was thinking about how I try to place smells earlier today, while reading 'Emperor of Scent.' Sometimes I don't want to analyze, just enjoy. Thanks for the reminder that that's a useful thing to do, too.

Olfacta said...

It is. That's why we all got into this in the first place, right? To enjoy all the good smells.

Rappleyea said...

Yep! That's it. I had forgotten that I sent it to you. I've discovered that one drop either rubbed between my hands or on my arms makes the nicest vetiver "perfume" that I've yet found. It's much more complex than you'd guess just from sniffing the vial.

Ewik said...

hey- i also send uyo an e-mail right after i won- but didn't get the response Should i send another one? :)

Olfacta said...

for Ewik -- I guess our email isn't communicating. I did send you a reply. I've put your sample aside. Try sending me a message at patborow at att dot net.

ptucoco said...
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