s

SmellyBlog

Cured: The Science & Art of Decay

Orris Root

The challenge of some raw materials is that they might be rather unpleasant in their original state. At best, they lack any aroma and depth whatsoever. The cure for that lies in a process called curing (pun intended). Curing takes many shapes and forms. Sometimes the process is long and at times it's rather short. Either way, the results are nothing short of magic that tantalizes the palate and the olfactory bulbs!

We've all heard of curing meats and tobacco leaves, and it's common knowledge that wine gets better with age. But the culinary world is not the only one that benefits from time and fermentation. For some fragrant crops, growing and harvesting them is only a tiny portion of the process to make them edible, smellable or worth any mention at all. The starting material may be extremely stinky, bitter, astringent, or just plain flavourless at best. The processes by which the desired result is achieved is usually referred to as "curing" or "aging". It ranges from a few days, weeks or months and up to several years. The extra time and care that is invested in those crops makes all the difference in the world. And this will be evident and felt in the raw material itself as well as the finished product where it will be used - in our case, perfume.

Several aromatic botanicals used in perfumery require a fair amount of processing before being used (or extracted). For example: vanilla beans must be left in the sun to cure to bring out the vanillin; patchouli leaves must be dried and matured for quite some time to improve their scent; and iris rhizomes must be peeled, dried and stored for 3 years before they are extracted to produce orris butter.  Let's explore some of these unusual raw materials in more detail, as they specifically relate to the world of perfume and aromatics:

Oakmoss

Oakmoss (Evernia prunastri) actually is a lichen native to former Yugoslavia, and which also grows in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. You may know it under the name Antlered Perfum; however, it is practically odourless when found fallen on the forest floor. Once placed in hot alcohol, and undergoes a process of extraction - a fragrance that personifies the aroma of the forest floor's dark and mysterious hidden life emerges - fungi, decay, moss and undergrowth. No wonder Chypre, the most beloved fragrance family that relies on oakmoss, is strongly associated with fall.
Perfumes that give oakmoss its proper due are far and few - so reach out for vintage of Miss Dior,  Vol de Nuit or Chamade; or check out some of my Chypre (and Fougère) fragrances, namely Ayalitta, Megumi, Rainforest and Autumn.

Chawan with Matcha

Tea is so unusually diverse - there are white, yellow, green, blue (AKA oolong), red and black teas - that it's hard to believe it comes from only one plant: Camellia sinensis. It is the process of  curing - namely, oxidation, fermentation, roasting, and sometimes even smoking, that creates the unique effects of texture, aroma and nuanced flavours in tea. Some teas are even left to age for decades and up to a hundred years!
Tea leaves come in all sizes, shapes and forms, at times they are twisted to break the cells and release the enzymes that will start the oxidation process (as in oolong teas), other times they are rolled into little balls (dragon pearls or jasmine pearls), hand-tied to look like a flower that will open its "petals" once steeped in water, to reveal a colourful real flower in the heart, and many other ancient traditions involving teas. In perfume, we use tea notes rarely, because they are so subtle. The first "tea" perfume was Bulgari's Au Parfumeé au Thé Vert (which utilized ionone in conjunction with hedione to create the effect of freshly steeped green tea) and the series continued to even include a "red tea" scent based on rooibos (not from the tea plant).  But my favourite is, not surprisingly, the Bulgari Black, which is based on Lapsang Suchong (pine-smoked tea), and even more so - l'Artisan Parfumeur's Tea for Two, which is a more refined play on the same tea leaf. If you're a tea love, taste a sip of Kinmokusei, our osmanthus-scented tea with hints of tobacco, Gaucho (with the tannin South American Maté) or The Purple Dress (black tea).


Tobacco Flowers

Few other ingredients stir the imagination as much as tobacco. The raw leaves have a bitter taste and not a particularly pleasant smell either. After all, nicotine, the substance that gives tobacco most of its medicinal (and addictive) properties, is meant to protects it from insects. Although the raw leaves have medicinal uses, it is hardly the sophisticated aromatic that we have learned to recognize as tobacco. This is achieved via a careful drying process that takes several days to a week, and usually followed by an additional fermentation period of about 8 weeks. This will develop the characteristic tannin,  full-bodied chocolate-vanilla undertones and hints of coumarin, violet and tea notes in tobacco products that some of us are so fond of (or hooked on). Additionally, tobacco leaves are treated with various perfume and flavour materials to enhance and accentuate this character. If you like your tobacco leaf clean and dry - try Sabotage  The tobacco in or Rebellius is exotic and spicy-sweet, not unlike shisha,  To experience pipe tobacco or Cuban cigar in all their glory, dab some Espionage.

Patchouli Leaves

Patchouli leaves, an odd member of the mint family, do not smell like much when they're green and fresh. The sun-dried leaves are ideally stacked and occasionally turned in a process of interrupted fermentation. This way they will yield 2.5-3 times more oil than the green leaves. This process helps to rupture the cell walls and release the oil. However, that is not sufficient to develop their charactesritic aroma of patchouli. Exceptional patchouli oils undergo an additional step of aging, in which all the off notes (grassy, oily, tar-like) dissipate and make room for rounded, warm precious-wood aroma that you'll find in fine quality patchoulis - which can take another 1-4 years. Patchouli really does get better with age, and when this desired effect is achieve - the scent will remind one of both dark red wine, oak barrels and the cellar where it is kept. Patchouli is earthy, woody, musky, a tad funky, spicy and dark-chocolate-like. Examples of this can be found in  Patchouli Magique and Patchouli AntiqueFilm NoirRazala, and Palas Atena (Ayala Moriel).

Ambergris

Ambergris is a rare secretion that occurs in about 1% of sperm whales to heal their stomach from the scratches of the cuttlefish they swallow. This sticky mass floats on the ocean, and by exposure to the sun and the salty water it changes its originally foul smell into one of the most delicate and sought after fragrances: Ambergris. Ambergris is sweet, soft and slightly powdery. We use ambergris only occasionally – when we can find ethically harvested ambergris that was beach harvested. It is than tinctured and used as a base note in oriental and floral compositions. Best scents to experience this though are LesNez' mystical l'Antimatiere  by Isabelle Doyen; and my own Orcas, Etrog and Razala.

IMG_8605

Orris Root: Orris root essential oil (AKA Orris Butter) is one of the most precious perfume materials. The roots need to be peeled and aged for three years before extraction or distillation. During this time, the glucosides in the rhizome gradually metabolize into irone - the violet-like molecule that gives orris root its desired violet-blossom aroma. It is invaluable in perfumery for its delicate powdery delicate aroma and ability to fix lighter scents. Orris is a welcome addition to any perfume whenever a delicate softness is required. Orris butter is both powdery, milky and smooth - reminiscent of a baby’s head and soft skin. Experience the highest quality of orris, with 15% irone (the unique orris molecule) in Sahleb parfum. For a lighter, paper-thin iris, try Hiris, and for a more sophisticated, abstract, modern yet old-fashioned you must experience Après l'Ondée!

Iris (Iris pallida)

Coumarin has may sources, and in all of them, it is not felt all that much in the original product but only appears after a process of drying or curing takes place. Tonka is soaked in rum and then dried, to coax the coumarin crystals out of the "beans". Liatrix (deer's tongue) smells like nothing when it's fresh, and like hay - needs to be dried and even slightly fermented to bring out the coumarin potential locked within them, which smells like "new mown hay". Classic coumarin examples are YerbamateBiche Dans l'Absinthe. and Brut. To experience natural coumarin try l'Herbe Rouge, Sabotage or White Potion.

Climbing Vanilla Orchids, Patchouli and Vetiver

Vanilla Beans are left to cure in the sun so that they turn from green to black and develop their vanillin content. But vanillin is only one component that makes vanilla so special. In reality, this is one of the most compelling and complex natural aroma, inimitable by any manmade compounds.  Some 100 molecules were identified in vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), in addition to vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde), including: Guaicol, creosol, acetovanillone, vanillyl alcohol and methyl salicylate and vitispiranes.
Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis) has a much lower content of vanillin, and has a scent reminiscent of heliotropin - but contrary to some literature, this is not a compound that naturally occurs in it. Rather, it's the anisyl compounds that are responsible for its soft, floral, almond-like, sweet heliotrope-like nuances, including anisyl alcohol, anisaldehyde, dianisyl ether and anisyl ethyl ether. (Bo Jensen). To experience true vanilla absolute in perfume, try Shalimar (the extrait has handcrafted vanilla tincture), My Vanilla (Anna Zworykina),  Vanille Galante (Hermessences), Espionage and Immortelle l'Amour (the latter has 5 types of vanilla, including absolute, CO2 and handmade tinctures by yours truly).


Lovender Soap

Lovender Soap

Summer is preferably the time when I am busy in the lab planning the upcoming winter holiday season - and the most fun part of it is R&D for new products. One of those you've read about yesterday (Lovender deodorant).  Today I'm sharing with you the Lovender soap which I've created with Schuyler Corry of Open Source Soap. That is to say: I've created the scent, and he incorporated it into one of his wonderful, tried-and-true soap formulae.

With soaps, it's rarely possible to use the same formula as was created for the perfume, simply because of the costs. You need a whack load of raw materials to make a batch of soap, even if it is just at about 2% concentration. Lovender perfume included precious botanicals such as sandalwood oil (almost extinct at our day and age), vanilla absolute  (whose prices doubled this year due to low yield) and orris butter (one of the world's costliest raw materials, due to the fact that it takes 3 years to obtain the finished product from planting through meticulous processing and aging to extraction). To make up for their absence, I've used amyris oil (AKA West Indian sandalwood), a combination of other vanilla-smelling resins and balsams, and orris powder instead of the orris butter.

Lovender Soap

Using botanicals in soaps is always bound to produce surprises. For example: the bottom layer of the batch looked like it had two layers of colours. The lighter one at the bottom didn't have any of the orris powder in it at all. The orris gives it a gentle exfoliation, by the way. Also, despite the fact that it is with the same moisurizing formulae like we always had, this leaves my skin feeling cleaner but also a tad drier. Not so bad that I needed a moisturizer though. But it was noticeable.

I also wanted to create a somewhat tonka-bean like, foody effect by utilizing a brand new essence on my palette: bitter almond oil. This raw material is practically pure benzaldehyde. I had no idea how it would react to the saponification process, and I also didn't know how it will play out with the lavender essences. I smelled bitter almond in soaps before, and it was quite prominent, which was a hint to me that it would probably work. I was hoping it would also help to make up for the absence of vanilla absolute and also create an original combination. Turns out it worked quite lovely with the coumarin aspect of the lavender absolute. So it truly accentuates it. I may want to work more on this formulation for the next batch (we only make 14 soap bars in each batch, so that gives a bit of fiddle room and also makes mistakes not as grave as they could be). So I will likely fiddle with both the fragrance formula and also try it again with and without the orris root powder, just to see and smell what it would be like.


Orris: Flowers and Rhizomes

May Flowers
These purple iris flowers are an invasive species that are native to  as seen in Beaver Lake in Stanley Park, Vancouver. They are called Flag Iris (Iris psueudacorus) and also come in a yellow variety. Their rhizomes are not of any value to the fragrance industry but was used medicinally as an emetic, because of its high tannin level. It can be irritating to the skin and have an acrid taste. On the brighter side, it was used to clean water from heavy metals, as the roots has the ability of soaking these up and filter them out so to speak.

Iris germanica flower

These are the flowers of Iris germanica, which along with Iris pallida (AKA Florentine Iris, Sweet Iris or Dalmatian Iris) is a cultivar that is a descendant from the historic Iris mesopotamica which grows in the Middle East (it's a rare flower nowadays, but can be sighted in the Galilee in northern Israel). The flowers too have a wonderful aroma - which I'm surprised does not get featured in fragrances more often: it is buttery and soft, almost like white chocolate. But not yet powdery and dry like the orris butter produced from the root of the same plant.

The dried rhizomes of the wild plant was used historically for perfumes and cosmetic preparations from ancient times, what we now call Orris Root. The ground dried rhizomes were used in powders, and the chopped up roots in sachets and potpourri. Essential oil of the plant are one of the most costly perfume materials, and take 5 years to produce: the first 2 years, the plants are grown undisturbed, to allow them to develop the desired irone, which are responsible for their characteristic aroma. Then the entire field is uprooted, the rhizomes need to be washed and cleaned of all soil and sand, and peeled by hand. They are dried in a shaded area and are left to mature for additional 3 years, after which they will be ground to a powder and then will be steam distilled to produce what is known in the industry as "orris butter" - a buttery, powdery-waxy textured substance that has the scent of Parma violets, carrots and a baby's head and excellent fixative qualities that made it a staple in the European perfumer's organ. It is used in countless high-end fragrances, including all the Guerlain classics, at least in minute quantities in the signature Guerlinade accord, if not in higher doses as is evident in Apres l'Ondee, l'Heure Bleue and Shalimar. I've used it many of my fragrances for Ayala Moriel Parfums, sometimes in minute amount just to create that soft, diffusive, powdery quality, for example in Autumn, Cabaret and Espionage; or to accentuate the violet-like quality I was after, for example in Rainforest and Viola and Indigo. Other times, it can even be the star of the show (even if quite demure) as in Sahleb, which is practically an iris soliflore.

IMG_8562

I've decided to experiment with this one piece of Iris germanica rhizome that I found in a neighbouring garden (they were hovering halfway above the ground, so I decided to pluck it away and see how the drying process goes).
First I washed them from all the dirt, using a mushroom brush to scrub it off the hidden places.
Then I used a potato peeler to scrape off the peel. And then I placed them in a dark wooden cabinet for drying and maturing...

IMG_8605

IMG_8606
A week later, the bottom concave part of of it, which was sitting inside bowl, began developing a bit of mold hairs unfortunatley, so I had to peel that further. I changed its position so that it is as exposed to air and not inside a bowl but directly on the wood. It seems okay now and has dried up quite nicely already (just 16 days in) and has even began to develop a bit of the characteristic orris butter smell. I'm pleasantly surprised so far; and mostly thrilled to have a whole root that I could demonstrate to my students with.
Orris Root

Orris Root

Hanami Sachets

Hanami Sachets by Ayala Moriel
Hanami Sachets, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
It only took me 2 years from when I received these incredible fabrics (vintage kimono silk) from Japan, to actually making and filling them.

They are hand-stitched (I still need to sew a few more), so very labour intense - a labour of love, if you will. But that's not the true reason for my procrastination. I just did not know what to fill them with!

The solution was partly serendipity, and partly luck. On my last day in Berkeley, I visited Yuko Fukami. She generously gifted me with high-quality Japanese herbs, spices and resins that she in turn received from our mutual friend Ross Urrere. In true Japanese fashion, she beautifully wrapped them with wax-paper, similar to how a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) doctor packages his custom-dosed powdered "herbs" (for all I know, these can range from true herbs and plant matter to minerals and crushed sea-horses, tiger bones, dragon's tails and other mythical creatures body parts).

Japanese Spices, Herbs & Resins
Upon my return to Vancouver, I immediately set to mix together these glorious components, as well as some of my own stashed-away botanicals: dried ume (Japanese sour plum) blossoms, whole tonka beans, and others that for now will remain secret. Crushing the tonka beans with a marble set of mortar-and-pestle was a truly sensual experience. Although there is mostly coumarin in tonka, there is also something else that is nutty and spectacular that you just don't get from the isolate/synthetic molecule alone. I love it! French chefs grate it on microplane and add to chocolate desserts (ganaches, macarons, ice-creams...). In North America it is illegal to use it due to carcinogenic effects. Personally, I think that we are exposed to far more dangerous carcinogens in daily life (your seemingly innocent ink on your grocery receipts has a plastic that is highly carcinogenic, as are most cans used to preserve foods). So I don't feel bad at all making myself a tonka-dessert once in a blue moon.

Crushed Tonka Beans
The sachets were supposed to be a studio-exclusive for my Hanami tea party. Unfortunately, we had to cancel it and will host it either in early May, or next year... So you can now get them online on my virtual boutique. These are very limited edition - I only have enough fabrics and filling for 12 sachets.

The Japanese used incense and sachets just like that to scent their kimonos and stationary so that they will be recognized for their good taste by their lovers (or suiters)... Use these sachets to scent your lingerie drawer, linen closet or stationary. You can also throw it in your suitcase when traveling, or tuck into a wool sweater or jacket's pocket for a lingering scent and to keep moths at bay.
Back to the top