Pittosporum & Rain

Pitosporum, a photo by FOTOGRAFIES CATA on Flickr.
After our brief Portland encounter, we arrived in Berkeley in the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 19th.
The moment we got out of the rabbit hole and got out, three distinct realizations hit me:
First of all, it was raining, in California - which is a most profound cognitive dissonance for a Vancouverite (and what we supposedly hate the most when on vacation). I didn't only not mind this rain (which was soft, and slightly warm, at least in comparison to its relatives up north). I liked the smell of the rain, which we rarely actually get in Vancouver (where it rains about 90% of the year). Besides, I wasn't exactly on vacation. I had lots of work to do - and the lack of sun would make me feel less like I was missing out on fun.

Secondly, the street dwellers of Berkeley turned out to be the most colorful bunch, and far outweigh their brethren in Vancouver in most categories (except, perhaps, politeness). To prove my point: they were wearing war paints all over their face when we arrived, made probably from flower pollen and exotic spices.

Thirdly and lastly - the air smelled fantastic, and it wasn't just the rain hitting the dry pavement; and it wasn't laundromat either. I spent the remainder of my time trying to find out where the smell came from. And it turned out that the majority of Shattuck Avenue is lined with tall evergreen trees, whose blossoms release the most intoxicating aroma reminiscent of osmanthus, orange blossom and orchid.

A few days later, I learned from Bruno that those trees are non other than Pittosporum undulatum. I'm not sure which kind exactly, but they certainly grow tall, beautiful and fragrant - something you might want to consider when planning your garden!

Listening to Incense

Koh-Doh Ceremony with Yuko Fukami of Perfume Phyto
And as if walking all around the botanical gardens wasn't amazing enough for one day - there were more to come as the evening unfolded. Yuko Fukami (Parfum Phyto) has invited Lisa Fong (Artemisia Perfume) and me to her home. She has just come back from Japan and wanted to share with us some of the rare woods she brought with her.

It was my first time ever experiencing incense-burning the Koh-Doh style. In this technique, the woods are not burnt, but rather warmed up on a paper-thin mica plate. The plate is placed on top of a heap of ash that is carefully decorated like raked sand in a Zen garden; and conceals a burning ember - a natural coal that was placed in there before hand.

Koh-Doh Ceremony with Yuko Fukami of Perfume Phyto

Lisa had no idea what was awaiting us, as she's never heard of Koh-Doh (the way of incense) and so everything was completely new to her. As for me - even though I have some of the basic koh-doh tolls (the ash bowl, ash and neat square bamboo coals) - nothing in the world could have prepared us to the experience we were about to have.

Yuko spend most of her life in the USA, so there was non of the strict code of silence you'll have to obey in Japan. She explained to us every step and what she's experienced in Kyoto in a traditional incense ritual.

Once the charcoal was warm, and the pattern was formed on top of the rice ash, Yuko began opening each one of the little packets which were placed on the rainbow-shaped wooden tray. Everything in Koh-Doh is wrapped in beautiful handmade Japanese paper (including the tools you see next to the bowl).

There is a single purpose for everything in Japanese ceremonies. Yuko and I were particularly excited about the feather - a new tool in her collection, which I knew of but had no idea what it's used for. It's sold purpose is to brush the sides of the bowl in order to clear it of any excess ash, after the pattern has formed. This way the bowl looks neat and tidy.

each of the six packets were carefully labeled in Japanese calligraphy. Using tiny tongs, Yuko placed each peace of agarwood shaving (as thin as a mosquito's leg!) over top the warm mica plate. She demonstrated the cupping technique, in which the hands protect the precious smell from escaping and allows it to penetrate one's nostrils and entire being. The cup is passed in a a specific way so the pattern is always facing outwards. It might seem from the outside as if each participant is inhaling the steam of a very fine tea, and savouring it (we will get into the aroma later).

Everything is done in silence and each person in this unique commune would write their impressions later on a piece of paper, or if prompted to discuss it, the ceremony's recorder would write it on a rice paper scroll (which Yuko got to keep from the ceremony she attended in Japan). Each woods is passed several times until its aroma is too faint.

Now that I explained the process, you're probably dying to hear what the smell was like. We smelled only one type of wood: agarwood, or kyara (prounouced "Ka-Rah", with a rolling Japanese "R", of course). Each had its own specific characteristic and country of origin. However, although they were all agarwood, they did not smell the same at all. Some were sweet and flowery, while others more spicy and warm. Others were smoky and animalic. The interesting thing was that there was no real smoke involved - only gentle heating of the wood to release its rare aroma, to redeem its soul and unite with it for a few precious moments. The experience was like no other - neither incense burning, nor experiencing pure agarwood oils; and believe me, I've burnt some amazing incense in my life already, and smelled enough agarwoods to be able to tell that they can be strikingly different from one another...

It felt as if we were not burning incense, but communing with ghosts. There was a real presence and personality to each wood, and although the experience is very different from that of perfume - there seemed to be phases similar to the top/heart/base in Western perfumery, that are innate to the wood itself. As the aroma dissipated different facets revealed itself - what at first smelled minty, would have ended smelling more woody-clean.

Agarwood is such an incredibly powerful plant, that it might feel as if you're completely intoxicated when inhaling its deep aroma. It's very difficult to describe the scents, and even more difficult to recall it over a week later. At some point in our conversation, I realized that describing the different woods is defeating the purpose of Koh-Doh: savouring the aroma, diving into it and allowing it to possess you, and sharing this precious moment it with the other participants. But I could be wrong - as categorizing and describing is a huge part of classic Koh-Doh.

Only one thing was for certain: each wood had its own personality, and we were having way too much fun. The hours just went by and it wasn't till about midnight that we left, not completely sure that our state of mind was safe enough to drive.

Jasmine in Berkeley - Visiting Mandy Aftel + GIVEAWAY

Just a couple of hours after landing in SFO, I headed to Berkeley, for my long-awaited visit with world renown natural perfumer and writer Mandy Aftel. Peaking through the thoroughly-shingled house, a window offers a glimpse into the world that awaits within: several rows of antique and vintage perfume bottles, beakers and flasks. I knocked with a copper door-knocker shaped like knocking wrist, and Foster, Mandy’s husband, greeted me with a smile. Moments later, Mandy joined him welcoming me with a big warm hug.

Mandy gave me the tour of her lovely home studio, which upon entry had a distinct smell of raw natural aromatics, although not in the least overpowering and my nose got used to it very quickly. I browsed through her beautiful flacons to smell her newest creations – Honey Blossom, which was nominated for FiFi, and smells primarily of linden blossom CO2; and Candide, which is a voluptuous jasmine possessing both depth and light, partly I think because of the beautiful frankincense and the highlights of the natural isolate benzyl acetate (which is a very sheer, bright ester that is present in most white florals – i.e.: gardenia, jasmine, ylang ylang, narcissus, hyacinth, etc.), and even got a whiff of Haute Claire - the new perfume she created during her correspondence with perfumer Liz Zorn on Nathan Branch's blog, based on a contrasting accord of galbanum and ylang ylang.

Mandy has generously let me feast my olfactory bulb on her fascinating perfumer’s organ, featuring not only unusual and at times quirky aromatics (sarsaparilla absolute, for instance) and isolates; but also most rare, vintage oils of years past – patchouli, and twin glass bottles of vintage ambergris tincture and ambreine (an isolate) that came encased in an antique leather box.

I also smelled other rare treasures, such as her tiare absolute, blue lotus absolute (the prettiest I’ve ever smelled!) and the foody sarsaparilla (yum!), and even a rare tincture of musk deer’s pods (without the grains inside, which were scraped away before the pod found its way to Mandy’s studio). The musk tincture did not smell remotely as I imagined it would be – it was more green than animalic to my nose, almost like angelica. I personally prefer ambrette seed so much better, but than I have never blended with musk and it is likely to have an unusual effect beyond how it smells on its own, similarly to how ambergris behaves, which is why animal essences have been in such demand for centuries, and why there is still so much controversy around them. Thankfully, there are alternatives available to today’s perfumers that are sustainable as well as cruelty free and reach similar effects. Perfumers today are using African stone tincture instead of civet and castoreum; ambrette seed instead of musk; and beach harvested ambergris, which does not harm any whales in the process – and of course, mass scale perfumery would use the synthetic alternatives.

We both share a passion for tea, so I was very excited when Mandy brewed a pot of her Frankincense GABA oolong tea. Mandy’s technique of scenting her teas is very different than mine – technically they are “aromatized” with the essences she chooses and blends carefully (where as mine are blends of teas that were often perfumed with flowers, in conjunction with freshly dried herbs, spices, fruit, etc.). I was pleasantly surprised at the delicate, subtle complexity of these scented teas. They were so beautiful and balanced. I smelled all four from their tins (linden blossom, and the jasmine & mint were both beautiful but there was only time for so many teas in one afternoon!). We started with the Frankincense GABA tea – an oolong rich with antioxidants and scented with a tincture Mandy prepared herself of an unusual specimen of frankincense that has a very smooth note. It opened feeling quite citrusy, like a light Earl Gray or Orange Pekoe tea, and the woody notes only peaked out later on as she kept re-steeping the tea. To my delight, when we were done sipping this delicate brew, she prepared her beautiful Ginger & Turkish Rose Tea (also oolong tea), a combination that sounded strange to me when I first saw it, but smelled so delicate in the dry leaf, and just sublime when steeped. Mandy certainly has a knack for surprising scent combinations, and being able to reach a stunning balance with notes that wouldn’t normally pair too easily together.

Isolates seem to be a newly found obsession among natural perfumers, as they open many possibilities with their single-molecule purity – a quality that is so different from the complex essences we work with, often containing dozens if not hundreds of different molecules. It was not difficult to fall in love with some of the isolates Mandy picked for he palate – Benzyl acetate (jasminey), Octanol-3 (rubbery and a little like black truffle), Alpha Ionone (woody sweet candied violets), Methyl Methyl Anthranilate (grapey wintergreen), and anisaldehyde (like heliotropin with hints of licorice and green notes). I bought a few interesting isolates and oils at the end of the visit, and also Mandy generously gifted me with the very last bottle of her Petitgrain Citron, which she describes as possessing the scent of Meyer lemon blossoms!

Time flies when having fun, and sooner than I hoped the visit had to come to an end – after all, I couldn’t be late for the party Yosh Han organized for me… About which I will tell you in the next post, tomorrow!

Leave a comment with your favourite Aftelier perfume or product, and enter to win a miniature of Aftelier's Cassis parfum.
UPDATE: The winner of our giveaway is Lavanya. Congratulations! Hope you enjoy the Cassis :-)

Note: All the photos are courtesy of Mandy Aftel and copyrighted to Aftelier.

P.s. The visit was on June 29th.
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