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Varthemia

כתלה חריפה Chiliadenus iphionoides

Sharp Varthemia (Chiliadenus iphionoides), or in Hebrew Ktela Harifa (כתלה חריפה) likes to grow inside rocks and has the most incredibly resinous, rustic, complex aroma. It truly is like a complete perfume all of its own, exemplifying what Garriague and Chypre are all about.

Sharp Vartehmia

I've stumbled upon this plant by chance, first near Keshet Cave in Park Adamit near the Lebanese border. A beautiful place with gorgeous view. It was one of two aromatic plants i was unable to identify, but intuitively knew they are both of medicinal and aesthetic value. I later found Varthemia on the mountain above my house. But it wasn't until I saw Yonat HaMidbar post about it and rave about its lovely perfume that I was able to identify the plant (it was never in bloom when I saw it, and it's near impossible to ID plants when they are not in bloom).

Vartehmia Incense Cones

Shortly after I was not only inspired to finally make incense cones out of it, but also studied some of the medicinal properties of it. Among others, it is good for heart problems and diabetes - and seems like a very gentle herb to enjoy in tea (as long as it's not overly done). I picked some for a friend who just had a heart attack, and figured my own heart could benefit from it too. So I've been sipping a lot of vartehmia. marrubium and white mint tea. A lovely combination, and feels to be soothing both the heart and the soul.

Heart Soothing Tea

Infusions

My next adventure with vartehmia is infusing it in both alcohol and olive oil. From the olive oil I will make a single-note vartehmia soap (I will also have it brewed into tea for the water component of the soap making process, so that it is as naturally fragrant as possible). From the alcohol infusion, which turned out beautifully resinous and rich, I've created a rustic, garrigue-inspired amber perfume, which I am debating if you launch this fall or not. It's a further development of an old, old, old formula that was almost sickeningly sweet because the amber base in it wasn't my own and I am quite certain contained some artificial molecules. Frankly, that base smelled more like an ambreine accord. The perfume I made with it included a touch oregano that balanced this sweetness to some degree, but not enough. I want the new perfume to be more authentic and local, and use my own herbal infusions in it - but without taking away from the luxurious character of the perfume. It is very different from the original, and surprisingly has a bit of the Espionage DNA to it - even there is nothing smoky about it. Must be the ambreine accord (which, FYI, is the core of Shalimar, Emeraude and the like). 

Inbar


Incense Through the Ages

Smouldering Incense & Perfumes
It's winter. The most glorious season in Canada, where the energy is directed indoors, and focuses on social gatherings large and small. As usual, I'm an outsider peeking into what this is all about from the viewpoint of a traveller passing by. For, like, 17 years.

I am looking forward to the quite and solitude that tomorrow brings. For someone who grew up in Israel, it's funny to see how once a year, Canadians are experiencing the only tight-lid closure of stores and services. The rare sight observed today - of long, hectic lineups at the supermarkets and grocery stores, the traffic congestion, etc. are a weekly sight in Israel, where every Friday families stock up for a full day (gasp!) without shopping... I find it amusing.

One of my favourite things this time of year is walking in the West End (my neighbourhood  and home for my entire Canadian adventure) and coming across a waft of real, wood stove smoke. Am I the only human for whom the smell of pyrolysis stirs up strong emotions? I think not. It is at the same time a signal of danger in the forest, and the safety of the caveman's tribal bonfire.  No other recent can conjure so immediately and powerfully the feeling of freedom, adventure and coziness. It transports me to cozy nights with my family by the fireplace, my home village burning in a bush fire, and more recently - bonfires when camping in my imaginary gypsy tribe or spice caravan.

Come wintertime, and few things please me more than immerse myself in fragrant smoke. And I'm not alone - incense, and in particular - frankincense and myrrh, from the desert trees which grow wild and are cultivated in Southern Arabian peninsula and West Africa is a symbol of the Nativity Scene and is burnt in many Churches. Beginning with some basics, just straight-up burning of substances in their raw form, preferably on hot charcoals: white sage, leaves and twigs of redcedar, frankincense tears and sticks of palo santo (that tend to self-extiniguish repeatedly...). And then to some wonderful Egyptian Kyphi - a concoction that is my own modern spin on the ancient recipe. Although not accurate, it is done according to the technique and the scholarly deciphering of its original 16 ingredients. It may not be accurate, but I can attest to its fragrant heavenliness and ability to banish the worries of the day - which is what Kyphi is all about...

Dabney Rose's modern Kyphi

I've been blessed with wonderful incense friends, who generously send me their incense creations. Above you can see Dabney Rose's version of Kyphi, in 3 different "flavours" (from top to bottom): Soliliguy, Févriér Amour and Winter Sleep (Conifer). They are made very differently from mine, which is granular and is meant to be sprinkled on the hot coal. Rather, after the ingredients have been pounded into a more-or-less uniform level, they've been shaped into little "candies", and one is meant to break off little pieces to place on the hot charcoal, or on a mica plate. Although the shapes are adorable, I am wondering about the extra work required both by the incense maker (who needs to put a ton of effort into each piece!), and the user - who needs to break off the piece from a very hard piece of re-bound resins. Perhaps I am missing something in the process or the technique. It sure would make for an interesting ritual if there was a special knife that would cut through these elegantly.

But what truly matters, more than shape or form, is the scent itself. And in deep winter Winter Sleep is a most befitting incense to burn. It's a wonderful way to celebrate Winter Solstice; and once the celebrations are over -  to rejuvenate and counter the winter blues that tends to follow the over-partying or maybe just feeling left out after
The name is a bit misleading though: it's actually a great way to wake up from winter hibernation! The elegant incense candy smells like juniper, spruce needles and pinon pine, and it reminds me of a crisp winter walk in a snow-covered coniferous forest. When it's burning, I'm smelling primarily myrrh, but also the resinous coniferous notes and a sweet-balsamic after-note.

Another favourite of mine to burn at this time of year is Ross Urrere's "Ocean of Night" loose incense that look like kohl or charcoal with bits of woods and oakmoss strewn in. Ocean of Night is a rich, luxurious, ambery-balsamic yet floral blend that is very perfumey. It reminds me of the floral Russian and Greek Church incense, yet without the unpleasant synthetic aftertaste these have. It's like an incense version of Nuit de Noël!

Curious to explore more incense-themed perfumes - check out my Christmas 2015 Newsletter: Smouldering Incense Gift Guide.

Reflections on a Year Gone By



It's the last day of the year, which means that it's legitimate to look back and reflect on yet another year that has gone by. On a personal level, it was a great year (considering 2013 was a year from hell,  even though I didn't quite put it that way publicly - this is not exactly surprising).
On a global level, however, in 2014 it seems like all hell has broken loose and the only reason we don't think of ourselves as in the midst of a 3rd world war is probably because no one is brave enough to call it what it is. But I digress. You're not visiting this blog to be reminded of what kind of an awful world we live in. You are more likely here searching for refuge from all those realistic nightmares.

Well, a lot of good things happened in the world of scent; most of them I was too oblivious to notice or pay attention to so you won't be finding too many surprises in my "list" for the fragrant highlights of 2014.

This year I was absorbed in recovery from the awful year prior, and with a renewed boost of energy, I've been tackling all fronts of my business - trying to reach out and teach classes and courses in more places, re-doing a website, narrowing my collection, writing a book, and teaching a lot. All those things, which in the year prior seemed to have a big question mark hovering over them, have found a new meaning in my life and a new sense of excitement and purpose which in the year prior I was really worried will never return to me. But I've been also integrating a lot of my passions and knowledge and experience (both gruesome and positive) leading to a new direction that I feel serves a higher purpose. It will all unfold and make sense as I progress in my studies, art and life experiences. One big thing that occupied me personally and was part of what some like to call "personal growth" has been learning to become a Pilates instructor. I know this seems completely unrelated to perfumery for an outside observer. But to me all those things - working with breath, body, awareness and within the flow and rhythm of life - are all part of the same thing for me. And I don't believe I was born to do just one thing. With that being said, I'm now able to be much more focused, with a much clearer sense of priorities and

Year of the Book: 
This year was dedicated to completing my book, which was in the works (AKA planning and procrastinating, and dreading the intense process that writing a book involves). Somehow, despite the fact that I lost nearly 2 months of work due to the teacher's strike, not to mention many nights of sleep of the yet-another-unnecessary war in Israel and Palestine - I was able to finish it. And I want to thank once again all the people who were involved in the process: Terry Sunderland, graphic designer extraordinaire, Shauna Rudd, superb copy editor and proofreader, Schuyler Corry, proofreader and contributor of some of the chemistry terms in the glossary; and David Shumaker for proofreading some 3 years ago when I started working on this 3rd edition of the book; and last but not least to the Taly and Yitzhak Ginsberg, who thanks to them I actually went ahead with being self-published as well as for pointing me to the right direction to turn my manuscript into a eBook (you'll hear about that soon enough).
Thank you so much for helping me make my dream come true and become a published author!

And - More Books:
This has been a great year for perfume related books. I've mentioned two of them here, the anthology of scented poems The Book of Scented Things, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby; and Mandy Aftel's new book Fragrant. There is always more to learn, and it's wonderful to see more books published that pertain to the world of scent. It's all part of keeping this rare art alive!

New Perfume Love: 
Au Delà - Narcisse des Montagnes by Bruno Fazzolari.
This limited edition "flanker" of sorts to the perfume Au Delà is even more beautiful than the original. I will write about it in more depth in the coming week - a beautiful ambery floral with Chypre nuances, that was accompanied by a breathtaking screen print, signed by the artist.

Mainstream Surprise: 
Narciso by Narciso Rodriguez
While I can't say I thoroughly tested even a fraction of the many mainstream perfumes released this year to justifiably crown this the "best" of the year - I did purchase a bottle, and it did not feel like it was a whim at the time. This perfume is full of surprises, much more than the original scent from this brand. In all aspects of design (including packaging) there is elegant simplicity in this release, yet intrigue and originality. It's been a while since I was able to say that about any department store fragrance.

Vintage Discovery: 
Diorella. What a delight to have found a 220 mL (!) of the original, vintage Diorella on a certain auction site. I've been splashing it lavishly in the summer, and looking forward to much more of the same as soon as the spring bulbs and buds begin to open again.

The 180: 
Aromatics Elixir
If you haven't seen much new perfume reviews on my blog, it's because I've been dousing myself quite regularly with this (previously under appreciated by me) bombshell. I used to think of it as way too strong. It wasn't until I blind-purchased a bottle of the Perfumer's Reserve (also via the above mentioned auction site), and discovered to my horror that there's far too much white musk in it; that I just HAD to re-examine the original. I only purchased a tiny spray bottle of it, but a little is all you need, and goes a looong way. There is something about that

Thank You Hermes For Not Disappointing: 
First of all, Epice Marine FINALLY arrived in the Vancouver boutique many months after it should have. And I did enjoy it quite a bit (yet not quite enough yet to purchase a bottle). Cuir d'Ange, on the other hand, arrived in time (or maybe it didn't, but I didn't really expect it), and turns to be a very interesting sheer leather. Samples are still unavailable which is why I haven't written a review yet. It's not earth shattering, but I'm always happy to welcome a new leather kid into my world.

Natural Intrigue: 
Palimpset by Aftelier. There are many offerings in the natural world that I am yet to try. But I was immediately smitten with both Cuir Gardenia and Palimpset, the two new creations of this year by Mandy Aftel. While I'm more likely to wear Cuir Gardenia frequently - Palimpset is the more original, intriguing and unusual. Built around the rare, unusual and difficult to work with Fire Tree oil from Australia - it has an outstanding longevity (I believe the sample I received from Aftelier is the parfum concentration in alcohol base). The opening is very effervescent and citrusy, almost like wild orange, sweetly fruity but not overtly so - then continues to develop into an utterly floral yet woody perfume, with the Fire Tree note weaves in and out while being supported. It's exotic and wonderful. I just received it yesterday, and am planning to post full review of this (and Cuir Gardenia) in the upcoming days.

Incense: 
The new incense cones by Persephenie.
They come in several fragrances, and all burn fantastically well, without leaving any "off note". Original blends, yet with a very strong connection to spiritual rituals from around the world. They are beautifully hand-shaped, and rolled in an outer coating of herbs that adds a visual element to the experience, rich in both colour and texture.

Tea: 
Those who know me well, are concerned about my ever-expanding collections of teas, spices, perfumes, cookbooks, and of course raw materials. Well, this year I have been pretty good about finishing up a lot of the teas I have and narrowing down my favourites to a more workable and manageable scenario (for the sake of my kitchen counter and shelves). Although I won't pretend I don't have excess of teas still, and need to run out of a lot before purchasing anything new; I am quite proud to say I know which teas I love and I am happy to just keep drinking a handful of them and stop feeling the urge to collect them. Some things lend themselves very badly to collecting, and tea is one of them. They just lose flavour after a while... I'm proud to announce, that as long as I have one good black tea (darjeeling, Assam or a cask-aged Ghorka, for instance - for versatile use anywhere from plain black tea, to that adorned with fresh sprigs of mint, or ensembles into a chai), Cream Earl Grey, and either a robust rooibos or a Thai Tea for its almost coconutty aroma, some kind of a good quality green tea (i.e. matcha powder or jasmine) and a Milky Oolong - I'm pretty happy. That's not a lot, right? Of course I also have a kid with her own favourites, usually flavoured teas or a green tea. But that's just extra fun. With a little help from our friends,  I think we're going to have a pretty clear tea shelf by the end of 2015. But in all honesty, what we've been drinking almost every other morning has been chai in a base of almond milk. We make it very simple, because there is no time in the morning to blend too many spices - just some black tea, some cardamom and cinnamon, freshly diced ginger and honey. Blame it on my daughter. It's her idea.

Sweet Tooth:
Persephenie's Salty Jasmine Candies, and my own Oud Truffles, if I may say so myself.

Skincare Product:
It's a well known "secret" that I'm a sucker for anything rosy smelling on my face. My skincare regime is as simple as could be, and includes only two products: floral hydrosol (usually rose, or orange blossom) spritzed on the face, followed by a moisturizer - usually just my own facial elixir. Everyone once in a while I make an exception - but it has to be for something exceptional. Usually it's Persephenie's excellent Rose Pakka. This year I was ogling her new offering for the face - Saffron Rose Face Oil, which is a pure and nourishing facial serum. The makeup of oils shares some common elements with my Elixir (tea seed oil, sea buckthorn oil, carrot seed and rose oils) and the rest is all sheer goodness, as always with Persephenie's creations. I've received it in the mail today and it did not disappoint. It's practically the facial version of my Song of Songs anointing body oil. I'm in a facial New Year's heaven!

Body Product:
Bedouin dry oil by Persephenie. All of Persephenie's body products are top-notch. Bedouin was my favourite scent by Persephenie, but is no longer in production. That's why it was particularly delightful to find out that it is now available as a dry oil - a very lightweight, sheer oil that can be sprayed on either body or hair. Roses and cardamom. Mmm...

Discovery of the Year:
Dabney Rose's extraits and pommades are nothing short of magic. I've experienced her hyacinth extrait, tuberose pommade and ginger lily pommade (the latter are made in a coconut oil base) - all grown in her own garden and hothouse. These beautifully and lovingly crafted pure single note essences are made in the old technique of enfleruage, modernized by an innovative vegan base. Dabney's work is akin to capturing butterflies inside hot resin and keeping them alive and intact even after they've exhaled their last breath... It may sound too good to be true... But it is the most truthful portrait of the living flower if there ever was one.  In other words: alchemy at its best.

Raw Material of the Year: 
Narcissus Absolute. I've been obsessing over it while creating Narkiss, and (great minds think alike!) in Bruno Fazzolari's newest perfume.
Need I say more?



Chypre Birds

Chypre Bird by Ayala Moriel
Chypre Bird, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Oyselets de Chypre ("chypre birds") historically preceded chypre perfumes. Made of a mixture of herbs and resins (labdanum, styrax, calamus) and glued together with gum tragacanth - they were place in homes as potpourri, or burnt for fumigating the space. They became popular in Europe after the crusaders arrived in the island of Cyprus (in the 12th century), and didn't turn into an alcohol-based "Eau de Chypre" till the 14th century - way before Coty's Chypre (1917).

In my Chypre course a couple of years ago, I've tried to retrace the steps of making Oyselets de Chypre based on this very vague information. We've used gum arabic as the binder to put together Mediterranean aromatics such as labdanum resin, sage, dried rose petals, calamus and patchouli. The material was difficult to work with and the gum arabic was not sticky enough to hold the shapes together. So only one student was able to make hers to look like a bird... The rest of the students left their "chypre balls" behind, in much frustration. Such is the life of the experimenting perfumer... Not all formulas work!

Oakmoss (Evernia prunastri)

2 years later, I've decided to go back to those balls (which, by the way, make wonderful sachets to scent linens, stationary or drawers). I also had some left over powder of the herbs we mixed together before we added the water. I've decided to add a more reliable binder, as well as neroli water and a two other off-beat ingredients: a piece of dried oakmoss lichen, and a crumpled cigar.

Chypre Tobacco Incense Paste

Working with the material was like working with wet clay, and smelled similar - wet and earthy, and a little like a wet cigarette. After a bit of molding, it dries on the fingers and personally makes me rather uncomfortable - itchy between my fingers and impatient to get on with the task... So I took a little break before I was able to go through the entire batch of "clay" (I covered the "clay" with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying).

Drying Chypre Tobacco Incense Cones

Once I shaped most of the paste into little incense cones, I made one shaped like a bird. Just for fun, and decoration. The incense is a mistake that turned into a happy accident: the oakmoss and tobacco in it really do the trick and make it smell wonderful... Assertive, woody, dry, masculine and smoky in a good way. I wish I could turn this into a perfume. It's kind of like how the moss Poivre Samarcand smells like underneath all the pepper. Truly wonderful stuff, and if my witch doctor is right, the tobacco helps to protect, encourage confidence and push away any negativity you don't need in your life.

If you want to learn how to make incense, you can book incense-cone making workshop with me (up to 6 people), or you can also learn how to make Egyptian Kyphi. 


The Making (and re-making) of Song of Songs Incense Cones

Song of Songs perfume is made from ancient resins, so conceptually, it lends itself easily to an incense form.

I've blended together labdanum resin (a sticky paste, resembling tar), sandalwood, agarwood, frankincense, myrrh and rose petals to make this incense. I've even went the length of forming it with a little cone mold (this was the 4th batch of incense cones I've made, and I wanted the cones to be pretty, solid and uniform). And they sure were all of that!

However, the high ratio of resins created a serious technical problem: the incense would not burn through. That's no joke. You can't enjoy incense if it doesn't get consumed by the ember. The heat is what transfors its organic fragrant matter into smouldering smoke-perfume.

To fix this problem would have required breaking down all the beautiful cones, and adjusting the formula to add more woods that will help it burn through. This was not something I was excited about doing. So I put it aside for a long time. And even then, there is no way of guaranteeing that the formula will work (meaning: it might take more than one time of forming, drying, testing and breaking down again...). Not something I was looking forward to do.

Once I mustered the amount of willingness for this sisyphal work (which took a few good years, to be perfectly honest), I've done just that. This time I shaped them smaller, and all by hand again. They may not be as perfectly uniform as they were before; but at least they are funcitonal!

I'm burning one of these labour-intense cones as I type this. There is a bit of hit-and-miss in terms of how even it burns (some of the incense spots were not completely ground and they kinda block the ember). But it's ten times better than before.

Burning Incense Cone

As the ember consumes my little cone, it unleashes smoke that bring to mind ancient rituals from the beginning of mankind. While the perfume Song of Songs is utterly sensual, incense smoke is purely spiritual, assisting the soul to transcend above matter, and connecting one's breath to the beating heart at the depths of the dark waters of creation.
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