Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Happy 5th of May to those of you celebrating Mexican culture and heritage today!
There are such distinctive aromatics associated with Mexico's vibrant culture, that I've decided to put together a few notes about key ingredients, scents and flavours and combinations that are unique to Mexico.

Cumin - or Cumino in Spanish (Cuminum cyminum) is a seed from a plant from the Umbelliferae or else known as Apiaceae family (related to anise, fennel, carrot - among others) with a unique scent of cuminaldehyde that gives its distinct oily-sweaty personality. It's taste is a little bitter and pungent when unroasted, and nutty and more delicate when roasted, pan-fried or toasted before cooking with it. It's an inseparable part of many Mexican stews such as chilli, re-fried beans, salsa and more. Now, cumin is not exactly unique to Mexican cuisine - but how it is used is: combined with substantial, hearty falvours such as chocolate and vanilla in bean dishes, or sprinkled together with raw onion and freshly chopped peppers, tomatoes and tomatillas - this is a very distinctive way of experiencing this musky seed.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) - isn't it interesting that both vanilla and chocolate originate in Mexico? This magical orchid produces a fruit only if pollinated by a tiny bee that is native to North America. Therefore, at first the plantations in other tropical islands (such as Madagascar, now the largest producer of vanilla) were grown. Vanilla anywhere else but in Mexico requires hand-pollination, which is meticulous, and is one of the main reasons why vanilla is so expensive. Mexican vanilla is different from other crops, having a very rich, full-bodied flavour that is more fruity and smooth than its almost woody Madagascar specimens. And vanilla from Tahiti is a different orchid altogether (Vanilla tahitensis), and also grows in Papua New Guinea - resulting in an even sweeter, more powdery profile (due to the presence of heliotropine). What's unusual about vanilla in Mexican cuisine is that it's used in savoury dishes, (see below), not just sweet ones. It may sound a bit weird at first as we're so used to vanilla being equal to dessert. But it has a very deep flavour, and if blended with the right elements will enhance most flavours, really. Try using it in bean stew or soup, and taste for yourself!

No wonder Cacao (Theobrema cacao) had its own god in the Aztec mythology. It's got such a powerful unique flavour, aroma and texture - at once earthy, buttery, smooth, bitter... The Aztecs made an elixir of cacao cooked with vanilla and spiced with chilli as a ritual energy drink that was used ritually (and mostly by royalty). Cacao adds vigour, passion and depth. In Mexican cuisine, it's added to bean dishes. Inspired by Mexican cuisine, I make a "Chocolate Soup" which is basically a black bean soup with cumin, chilli, vanilla, raw sugar and sun dried tomatos. Sometimes I add a bay leaf or two for extra spice, or a small piece of cinnamon bark. This balancing act between savoury and sweet, salty and bitter was captured perfectly in the wonderfully addictive perfume Anima Dulcis, where cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon,

Lime (Citrus limetta) is an unusual citrus, with both woody accents (from pinene) and milky, almost coconutty notes (from the coumarin). Again, it's that particular type of citrus - as opposed to the usual lemon, that sets off the other flavours and gives them a unique character. I've tasted plenty of cumin before - say, in a beet salad, with plenty of lemon juice; but that lime (and raw onion...) take it to a different world. The New World, perhaps?

And then there's Tequila: I'm certainly not a fan, but there is something to be said about the peculiar clash between salty and citrusy-fresh that's present in Jo Malone's weird Blue Agave & Cacao. Is a bit of an oddball - mingling the illusion of saltiness with a dusting of cocoa, and a full squeeze of lime.

Cilantro is usually what we refer to as coriander leaf (Coriandrum sativum) but in fact is the Spanish word for coriander. It is yet another flavourful Umbelliferae, with many versatile uses in cuisines around the world. The seeds don't seem to be used in Mexican food as much as the leaves - those are chopped up and added to fresh or cooked salsas, and complements the oiliness of avocados in guacamole. It's also goes extremely well with fish, setting off the fishy aspects with more vibrant and fragrant counterpoint. The aroma of cilantro leaf is a little green and at the same time soapy. Some swear by it, others can't get any near it. In perfume it has a rare use though the essential oil has the vibrant green qualities of the fresh leaf and are very appealing from a perfumer's point of view - it's hard to bypass the polarizing reaction and strong culinary association that it tends to elicit. 

Flor de Jamaica is the popular name in Mexico for the flowers of hibiscus commonly called Roselle that is native to West Africa (Hibiscus sabdariffa). Both warm and chilled tisanes are made from it, and are very popular year around. In the winter, they provide protective vitamin C against colds, and in the summertime they are a cooling, tart beverage like lemonade. It also reduces blood pressure. If you want to enjoy hibiscus flowers in a unique way, pay a visit to O5 Tea Bar, where they will serve you candied hibiscus buds to go with your tea; and Terra Breads bakery or cafe for a memorable bite at their tart and vibrantly red hibiscus macaron!

Choisya (Choisya ternata) aka "Aztec Pearl", Mock Orange or Mexican Orange is an evergreen shrub from the rue family, that blooms copiously between April and June.The flowers contain a simple anthranilate which gives it a scent not unlike orange blossom - though also with underscores of vanilla or heliotropine. There was a wonderful candle by Diptyque with a Choisya scent.

Tagetes, aka Aztec Marigold (Tagetes erecta) is called in Mexico "flor de muertos" (Flower of the Dead) and is planted in cemeteries and used in rituals and ceremonies on November 2nd, which is Day of the Dead (Dias de los muertos). Interestingly, it is associated with death in several other cultures such as Honduras. The flower's intensely yellow-orange colour is due to the presence of sulfur in some of its compounds. The sulfur also gives it interesting medicinal qualities against several types of airborne germs, making it particularly effective for various skin infections (dermatitis, acne, rashes and more). In sustainable and traditional agriculture, planting marigolds next to certain plants (for example - tomatoes) will protect them from nematode pests as well as aphids. Marigold flowers also taste delicious in salads, along with tomatoes, lemon, olive oil and green onions. Marigold rarely find its way into perfume composition - at least not as a major player (except for in Liz Zorn's now defunct Chrysalis). There is a hint of it in Obsession, though. It's a peculiar note with opening note of green apples and pheromones, and that fades later into dried hay and herbs scent. It mostly finds use in flavouring to add a natural fruity nuance.

Tuberose is also native to Mexico, and the Aztecs called it Omixochitl (Bone Flower). This relative of the narcissus flower has tuberous bulby roots (the name has no connection to rose, and neither does the scent), and like the Choisya, it also owes much of its unique scent profile to methyl anthranilate, as well as salicylates (which give it a medicinal character) and paracresyl methyl ether which gives it an animalic, almost leathery quality. 

Capsicum is the chemical that gives peppers their heat. And in Mexico there isn't just one type of "hot pepper" - there are myriads of them, from the milder poblano peppers which lose most of their heat in cooking but leave a wonderfully deep pepper flavour behind; jalapenos, and smoked-dried jalapenos (aka chipotle) to the lava-heat of serrano peppers - enough to burn a hole in your tongue! Peppers also have a unique aroma, not as sharp as it's other nightshady sister the tomato, but still recognizable. Paprika Brasil did not do it justice; but I've been always intrigued by how it was presented in l'Artisan Parfumer's Poivre Piquant.

My own interpretation of the rich flavours and textures of Mexico's cuisine seems to only scrap the surface of this rich culture full of intriguing aromatics. In Lime & Cacao limited edition OOAK perfume: Contrasting colours of lime green against deep brown are the centre of this playful fresh gourmand. Inspired by the Mexican way of treating chocolate, Lime & Cacao is more piquant than sweet and balances the richness of South American balsams with zesty lime and mineral and melancholic Blue Cypress from Australia.

I'm now inspired to create something with unusual note combination such as marigold, orange blossom, tuberose, vanilla and hibiscus. Hmm...

O5 Rare Tea Bar

O5 Rare Tea Bar by Ayala Moriel
O5 Rare Tea Bar, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Last Friday, I was finally able to pay a visit to my friend Pedro's brand new tea bar - O5 Rare Tea Bar, which opened in September while I was too busy traveling. Pedro sources rare teas directly from family farms in Korea, China, Japan and Tibet. You may have met him or enjoyed his tea from his former company Dao Tea, or have met him at one of my tea parties, where he did tea tastings and also contributed with his own beautiful teas.

O5 Rare Tea Bar

O5 is like a cross between a tasting room, a tea salon and a tea shop. It’s a space where people may share a moment of sincere admiration for the ancient art of tea. Or, if they are short for time – pick up a bag or two of intriguing teas to brew at home.

O5 Rare Tea Bar
On the street, a barrel laden with steaming tea samples lures bypassers in. As you enter, you’ll notice the left wall, lined with shelves bearing the collection of directly sourced and carefully curated teas are laid out for you to explore on your own. But the heart of the space is the long bar lined to your right, with a hosting tea master that invite visitors to sit down on a bar stool while they watch the tea being prepared. Scattered around you’ll notice wooden boxes shaped like beehives, filled with heaps of freshly sourced tea.

O5 Rare Tea Bar

O5 carry the same high quality teas that I remember from Dao Teas – such as Korean balyhocha oolongs, Sejak green tea (also from Korea), and the ever so memorable wild chrysanthemum tea - plus a few more to surprise and delight.

The tea bar is quite the experience - being a beautiful space, serene yet not intimidating; warm, inviting and at the same time uncluttered. To top it off - Pedro and the staff are knowledgeable and friendly (rather than pompous – which is not uncommon among tea connoisseurs, I’m sorry to say), and will brew the teas to perfection right in front of you while telling the story and explaining the quality of each tea – how it was grown, harvested and prepared, and what are the best ways to make it and things it might remind them of as they watch your facial expressions sipping a strange tea for the first time.

Tapas at O5

On Friday nights, you might be able to join a tea-cocktail event and stay till the wee hours of the night. And you can also enjoy tapas or sweets, all made on the spot: goat brit with homemade blackberry & japaneo jam; Candied Jamaica in its own tart syrup; Darjeeling tea caramels; or ones flavoured with matcha that is manually ground on location with granite stones.

Golden Curls

The tapas menu changes, and so do the suggestions for tea tasting and “flights”. It was a no brainer for me picking the Autumn Flight of three teas: Golden Curls from Yunnan province in China that come from ancient tea bushes (more like trees by now); Balhyocha MLH which is mild and smooth with notes of sweet dried persimmon (if you haven't tried that, you should pay a visit to Ayoub's); and 1991 Oolong which is 21 years old and is the tea equivalent of whiskey and will knock your socks off!

Tea caramels
Truly, each tea deserves a SmellyBlog story of their own. I will only say that I spent two hours sipping several steepings of each and nibbling on tidbits of elegant goodies on the side, which makes it quite the experience. We started with the golden curls, which albeit being technically a black tea, come from yellow coloured leaves. They were very mild and smooth,  reminiscent of roasted butternut squash. The 21 year old oolong was so spectacular and awe-inspiring that I would have to dedicate an entire post to it; and the balyhocha was the finishing notes because of its calming effect as well as it being credited for aiding digestion. After the rebellious oolong though, I was so overwhelmed that nothing could quite impress me. Well, unless you count the caramels and the candied hibiscus blossoms!

Bowl of Yunnan Golden Curls

The golden curls were so perfect for Autumn that I had to take home a bagful for my upcoming Halloween themed tea party this Sunday. I also bought some Ghorka estate black tea (from Nepal) which has astounding delicacy and even with my love for milk in black tea I felt no need to do so. And of course - Jamaica (hibiscus blossoms) from Mexico, and the very last bag of Japanese sencha (not on the website). I decided to leave the 21 year oolong behind so I can have more excuses to visit O5 and have it brewed properly in the right pots. I was pleasnatly surprised to find out that the tea tastings and treats were all half the price when you purchase over $25 in loose leaf tea. I sure hope this will bring O5 plenty of business, as what they are doing is so unique, and this will basically educate the new generation of tea lovers who are younger and ready to appreciate tea - but perhaps are not quite ready to turn off their smartphone and not talk for two hours of a tea ceremony in Chinatown.
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