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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.

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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).


Polo

POLO_ARMY VERSUS STEVE COLLINS ALL STARS_24

Long time ago, in a country far away, I was a nanny in a busy household in which both parents had a career in filmmaking and production. I would show up at their place at 8:30 (which was a huge lifestyle improvement for me comparing to the first job, the year prior, which started at 8), and by 9am the parents and older brother were gone and I was left with the adorable one year old I took care of for the day.

It's a privilege to be entrusted with a child's life at such a tender age, not to mention being welcomed into a home like this and become almost like a family member; yet also a bit of an odd situation to be entering a family's daily life in a rather intimate moment - preparing for the day and saying goodbye to each other as they set off on their long day adventures. When I came in everyone were still at different stages of dressing, showering, eating breakfast and so on.

Because, not surprisingly, I was oddly interested in fragrance even back then - I will always remember certain things about their home, including the soap they used (it was Dove - which was a rather exotic thing in the early 90s in Tel Aviv - and for sure the dad brought it back from his many business trips to L.A.). There was also a bottle of Obsession in the bathroom, which he bought for his wife and she never wore (unfortunately, she's really not into perfumes whatsoever) and then there was the green bottle with a horse and a rider holding a strange long stick, clouds of which wafted every morning after the dad shaved.

Polo in the Dark

I've never worn Polo and I can't say I have an intimate connection with it, but I did remember it as smelling good. So with Fathers' Day approaching and me feeling the urge to cover some more masculine fragrances on SmellyBlog - I set on trying it out for two days in a row now. The first time it was only semi-planned: I went to the drugstore to scout for some more cheap drugstore colognes and aftershaves. But I did not find what I was hoped for (Canoe). So I remembered that odd number and decided to try it on one wrist, and Eau Sauvage on the other. The latter was unfortunately a spoiled tester (too much light, folks!) while Polo simply won my heart almost immediately.

It's strong, bold and in your face so I'm glad I was wearing it sparingly. What one smells at first is that wonderful melange of patchouli, oakmoss and honeyed-animatic civet blooming in their warmth. And there is a decidedly leathery undercurrent that makes it really intriguing (and not wanting to scrub it off even though it is rather on the strong side). There are also many other things going on but these are the ones that I immediately pick up. Then as it unfolds on the skin, more fougere-like qualities pop out. Artemisia and other herbs mingle. I read that there are also thyme, basil and marjoram in this - but I can't really pick them out. There is just an overall feeling that is both sunny and warm like the Mediterranean garrigue - but also dark and looming against the leather. There is on one side a very smooth interplay of those rather distinctive elements. It's true that they go really well together in a red pasta sauce, a stew or even on bread with olive oil; but as perfume raw materials all these herbs are rather at odds with each other when combined with so many other perfume-y materials. They just don't like to behave!

There is also pine, which gives it a very distinctively masculine aura, as if to reassure you that all that civet is not going to turn floral on you. As Polo dries down on the skin, more of the dryness that comes out, accentuating the patchouli, and less of the civet notes (which are just this close to becoming as impolite as Kouros). Virginian cedar wood comes to the fore and mellows the more animalic elements, giving them a reliable context for an alibi (just in case someone walks by and suspects them of misbehaving).

Polo (1978) is at once sweaty, carnal, earthy, dirty, fresh, sexy, bold, distinctive, unique yet unmistakably manly. But what I adore the most about Polo is the dry down. Oh, the patchouli and the oakmoss, when they mellow on the skin after hours, and there is a bit of musk to connect them and balance the tartness of oakmoss and the dirty of patchouli. Why did they stop making scents like this for guys?!

Top notes: Pine, Lavender, Bergamot, Juniper, Coriander, Cumin
Heart notes: Carnation, Geranium, Jasmine, Rose, Basil, Marjoram, Thyme
Base notes: Patchouli, Oakmoss, Civet, Leather,  Amber, Musk, Frankincense 

Coriandre



What can one expect from a scent with a name so unassuming as Coriandre? Would it be green? Rustic? Funny? Refreshing? There is nothing particularly intriguing, mysterious or fashionable about that. You just have to try it on your skin to find out.

Coriandre is a great perfume, which I have overlooked for years. Despite the many good things I've heard of it, it did not appeal to me when I tried it for the first time. It simply didn't register. Years later, I came across it on the forgotten shelves of the neighbourhood parfumerie; and noticed that they had some stray old bottles pre-IFRA reformulation frenzy. Which is always a good news for a scent that is very likely to rely on oakmoss for its appeal, being green and all.

Well, as it turns out - IFRA or no IFRA - it would have probably not made much of a difference. Unless what Robin is saying is true, and this is already been reformulated beyond recognition by the early 90s.

Coriandre is not really a Chypre in the classical sense of the word. I don't even think I would classify it as a Chypre at all. Nor would I classify it as green, either. To me, Coriandre is a big, dirty, dusty rose. Maybe not that big either. And if it smells like any colour at all, it would be brown, not green. It is brown. And bitter.

Unbeknown to it, it is the mother of all of those godless, oakmossless modern "Chypres" - Agent Provocateur, Narciso Rodriguez, SJP Lovely and Chloe. A Chypre that relies on musk, patchouli and vetiver to tell its dry, bitter jokes and poke fun at rosy-cheeked naïveté, all the while being doused in rose itself. If you're into herbaceous, earthy floral perfumes, such as Aromatics Elixir- Coriandre is a very good (and affordable) substitute. It can be had for $38 for a 30ml bottle (and that's probably a rip-off, actually, comparing to how cheap you can get it elsewhere).

Top notes: Coriander seed, Angelica Heart notes: Rose, Jasmine, Orange Blossom
Base notes: Musk, Patchouli, Vetiver, Sandalwood

Chez Noir

Chez Noir stands out in Coeur d'Esprit perfumes that I've smelled, with it's very retro, animalic-floral smooth bouquet. What makes this perfume particularly unique is the aging process, something that you don't get to smell much in the fast-paced world. Thanks to several years of maturation (I believe this was created in 2007 and left to mature ever since), and the usage of ambergris, the perfume became very smooth, like a homogenous being with a life of its own. There is a seamless transition from one phase to another, which is the mark of a well-aged perfume. This goes to show you that time is everything in the world of perfume. And that's also the magic of animalic notes, in particular ambergris. You may not smell it in the composition, but it has a unique effect of connecting all the elements together beautifully.

Chez Noir (which I suppose means "Among Black" in French) begins with intriguing licorice accord - the traditional anise is paired with green and sweet tarragon, and piquant cardamom, leading into a smooth floral bouquet of rose, jasmine and ylang ylang in which no particular note stands out, but rather all three flowers give the perfume a put-together, cohesive feel. There is something fruity about it, but not as a syrupy fruit salad, but rather reminiscent of the dried fruit (peach, plum, apricot) you'd find when they just discovered the fruity aldehydes (vintage Femme comes to mind). Following the faux-dried-fruit-phase, a nutty, warm phrase emerges from underneath, hinting at the dry-woody base notes, which converses delicately with the licorice and jasmine.

Licorice is the heart and soul of Chez Noir, with sandalwood in an important supporting role. The sandalwood is rich, warm and spicy. Woody with only a slight hint at lumbar dust. The other striking element is patchouli: a beautifully aged one at that, smooth and musky, without the sharp musty edge that traditionally appeals to those who are trying to mask their pot-smoking habits.

Top notes: Anise, Tarragon, Cardamom
Heart notes: Rose, Jasmine, Ylang Ylang
Base notes: Sandalwood, Patchouli, Labdanum, Ambergris

Patchouli Magique


The lovely Muza has generously sent me samples to enjoy, including Russian perfumes which I have never been exposed to. It's wonderful to explore fragrances that I don't normally have access to. And among them, Patchouli Magique immediately grabbed my attention. If it wasn't for this, I would have continued to believe that the prime purpose of perfume in Russia is a vodka back-up.

Patchouli Magique is not a Bolshevik perfume. I'm still stumbling to find out when it was actually created - before or after the revolution or the perestroika or whatever the crumbling of the Soviet Union is referred to. All I know is that it's a fine patchouli fragrance that won't put to shame even the most niche houses out there. I wish I had it earlier when I was running the patchouli series - consider this a latecomer to the patchouli party!

Patchouli Magique enveloped me in a plush wrap made of soft yet rustic fabric. Like a hand-woven alpaca poncho. Or a woolen Russian scarf for that matter, with big roses printed all over it. Patchouli Magique is indeed magical - it's soothing yet sophisticated. Welcoming you with warm earthy notes of dry patchouli leaves; yet develops into warmer, sweeter notes of aged patchouli mingled with amber and sensuous musk. And a trail of sweet incense smoke weaves its way through - not the heavy resinous church incense; but rather a blend of sandalwood and flowers, reminiscent of the famous Nag Champa. Patchouli Magique is a delightful discovery in the patchouli genre, and is unusual in that it is simultaneously luxurious and sophisticated yet easy to wear and not in the least pretentious or overbearing. Being centred around a base note, its structure is not nearly as complex as classic French perfumes and such; but it is still dynamic rather than static; and provides something to ponder upon as you just immerse yourself in all those alluring notes and surrender to their powerful yet quiet beauty.

Patchouli Magique is made by Novaya Zarya, and being Russian, there got to be some fascinating history behind this house: originally Henri Brocard's company (a French perfumer that moved his business to Russia)*, it was renamed "Soap and Perfumery Factory No. 5" in 1917 (after the revolution); and then "Novaya Zarya (New Dawn) in 1922, under which title they first released Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) - the first Soviet perfume.

* The story of this brand is kinda like the reverse of Ernest Beaux, whose family's perfume business, A. Rallet&Co. before the revolution; and "Soap and Perfumery Factory No. 7" in 1918, and eventually - Svoboda (Freedom)
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