Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Smell of Fear

Fear is cold, metallic and salty. It’s the sound of stilted exhalations, the irrational shuffle of shoes moving this way and that, the mental retracing of every detail that has added up to a single moment that can’t be wished away or avoided. Fear is a collision with everything that negates life. According to researchers at SUNY Stonybrook, fear has a smell that comes from specific human pheromones. I may not be a scientist, but I’ve always subscribed to the notion that basic emotions emanate specific aromas. The frequency with which people “sense” things in other people is a good example of this. Though we are social creatures by nature our survival streak is fierce; we read everyone and everything in our environment so we can position ourselves for safety and pleasure, and have been doing so since our species began.

I knew the smell of fear at the age of eight. I had a teacher that gave religious instruction who was also a Holocaust survivor. He was a sweet and gentle man, but extremely nervous. A number was tattooed on his forearm that matched the color of veins that showed through the weathered skin of his hands. The teacher was giving a lesson on the many names of G-d in the Old Testament and wanted to share one of these names with the class. He held his chalk to the blackboard and struggled with writing out the holy name because it is forbidden to spell or utter this name unless it is said in prayer. For two minutes he would touch the stick of chalk to the blackboard and then retract it. He muttered to himself and there were beads of sweat on his forehead. I felt sorry for him, but I was eight years old and his behavior was scaring me. I could smell a peculiar odor that came from his sweat, something that was always faintly present due to his nervous disposition. To my nose, this particular smell was a mixture of the sharp note in earwax and dirty sweat. It mingled with the scent of the simple wool jackets he always wore and defined him in memory.

The next time I smelled that same odor was under different circumstances. A close friend had become addicted to heroin. She hit bottom and took the first step every recovering addict takes; she admitted she had a problem she could not control. She was extremely irritable and unbeknownst to me, had spent a week alone in her apartment going cold turkey. The detoxifying process marked her with a faint odor that I immediately recognized as fear; the same smell of fear I identified in my third grade teacher. There was a survival connection between these two olfactive experiences. My friend was literally fighting for her life, where my teacher was fighting for his existence as a pious man. The comparison of these two instances provided me with a different perspective regarding the smell of fear, and made me wonder what had become of my poor teacher. If he’s passed on, I hope he has found a good measure of peace and forgiveness as he was extremely hard on himself.

For the past eight years Americans have lived in a culture of fear. Much of this has been foisted upon the world as a result of different societies and belief systems mingling and colliding. This raises all sorts of issues with regard to identity and truth, matters that reconcile slowly and in ways that aren't always predictable. Despite the challenges we face, each of us has an opportunity to transform the current climate of fear into one that embraces love and understanding. It requires that we retract our pointing fingers away from politicians and scapegoats, and start thinking about an antidote. Times are tough. If you know someone who is suffering because of the downturn in the economy, reach out. If you are struggling with something of a personal nature, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Things can change for the better and it helps to know that others experience the same things that you do. The perfume of compassion always rises above the smell of fear because its essence is pure and liberating. It is a free gift you can give to everyone, including yourself, this holiday season.

Notes:

Over the years scent artist Sissel Tolaas has worked with synthesized human sweat pheromones in her own explorations of the scent of fear. Her work has been featured at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, MA, and The Grand Arts in Kansas City, MO, among others.

The drawing of hands featured in this post comes from the book Shefa Tal, by Shabbetai Sheftel Horowitz. The author, who lived from 1561-1691, was a renowned physician from Prague. The illustration of hands is filled with Kabalistic symbols. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “These hands are divided into twenty-eight sections, each containing a Hebrew letter. Twenty-eight, in Hebrew numbers, spells the word Koach = strength. At the bottom of the hand, the two letters on each hand combine to form YHWH [יהוה], the name of God." The book was published in 1612.

Painting of "White Bird" by Krista Lynn Brown on Devaluna.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Comfort on Call by Clinique: A Perfumista's Dream Cream

You have to hand it to Clinique. Not only does the brand make terrific products, they seem to have a knack for evoking all of the right emotions when it comes to a simple name. Comfort on Call conjures up images of physicians in white coats and cure-alls that are available any time, day or night (a close second to Philosophy’s Hope in a Jar when it comes to "ethos capture" in a product name). So what’s in this name? Comfort on Call is a moisturizing cream that is designed to treat skin that’s on the reactive side. For some this is a constant condition, but for others it is a niggling annoyance that comes on as soon as winter begins. You know the feeling; dry here, oily there, dry patches out of nowhere that seem to be magnified after you've applied foundation.

The texture of Comfort on Call is thick yet smooth. It isn't laden with impenetrable moisturizers that closely resemble spackling paste or diaper rash cream, (my biggest issue with Crème de la Mer as I only like the “Crème” when it is applied over The Concentrate, which supports its application by emulsifying the product and boosting its effects, an extra $350 on top of the $130 for the “Crème”). Comfort on Call feels like cross between a cream and a balm on the fingertips and is nearly impossible to over-dispense. In addition it is unscented, which makes it appealing to men as well as women. In my household it’s become a “his and her” beauty cream. My husband uses it overnight and claims it not only smoothes skin, it also makes shaving in the morning a little more pleasant. I share Comfort on Call because it is the least I can do for a man that never says no when I hold a perfume blotter under his nose (the perils of being married to a flavor and fragrance writer).

Every beauty cream touts a unique combination of key ingredients and Comfort on Call is no different. Enviro-Soothe™ Complex contains a trio of anti-irritants that includes; Mangosteen, Glycyrrhetinic Acid, and the mother of all newcomers to the beauty scene—Jabara fruit extract. If you try and google information on Jabara fruit there is little to be found, unless you count the product reviews that quote the Clinique press release verbatim. This makes me a little suspicious of a fruit that resembles Yuzu, only grows in Kitayama Japan, is nicknamed “the magic fruit”, and is purported to alleviate hay fever symptoms. As a perfumista there is a part of me that can’t help thinking, “If I can’t smell it, how do I know it's working?” Well, I got over it. Comfort on Call moisturizes skin, is great alone or under makeup and doesn’t go to war with my perfume, which is a great thing.

Notes:

Comfort on Call retails for $37.50 for a 1.7 oz./ 50 ml jar and is available in department stores and online from Clinique.com.

Jabara fruit is touted on this small Japanese site. There is no Wiki for the fruit—yet.

There is a great book called Hope in a Jar by Kathy Peiss. It was published in 1999 and is a worthwhile read if you are curious about the business of beauty.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christophe Laudamiel Leaves IFF

Christophe Laudamiel has quietly left IFF to work for a fragrance media company called Aeosphere. His official title is co-CEO and Senior Perfumer. Anyone familiar with his olfactive work and independent forays knows that he has been marked by the fates for quite some time. Visionaire 47 Taste, lecturing to architects at Harvard, scenting rooms at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos; the list goes on and on. Laudamiel possesses an energy that resembles the ethereal medium he works with and like a bottle of fine perfume, his essence cannot be contained.


Seedmagazine.com MIND08

There seems to be an earthquake in the fragrance world with aftershocks that will be reverberating for quite some time. On December 11th Cosmetic News reported that perfumer Francis Kurkdjian would be opening his own fragrance house while maintaining ties with Takasago, his current employer. In October, Symrise perfumer Mark Buxton, another stellar creative, launched his own line of perfumes. The buzz among industry insiders centers on the question of whether or not these moves will become more common. Could perfumers be striking out on their own in a quest to break out of the culture of mediocrity that currently haunts the industry? With all of the channels of distribution that are currently available today and the rise in demand for authentic artisan fragrances, it is a question many talented perfumers may be asking themselves.

Holiday Note

Heston Blumenthal, renown chef at The Fat Duck, created a remarkable sensory Christmas dinner replete with "...edible Christmas tree baubles filled with smoked salmon mousse, a dish inspired by gold, frankincense and myrrh, mulled wine that is both hot and cold in the same glass and goose fed on a mixture of ingredients - including apples and grain ..." The dinner was featured as part of the chef's In Search of Perfection television series, which is no longer in production. I experienced some of the flavor and scent effects from the dinner at the 2008 International Chefs Congress in September and they were nothing short of magical. "Perfect Christmas", will be rebroadcast in the UK on Dec 19th at 8pm, on the BBC.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Scoop on Miss Dior's Current Formulation

In March of this year some very intelligent fragrance lovers were wondering whether or not oakmoss had been removed from the composition of Miss Dior as the raw material was no longer listed on the packaging. Oakmoss is a defining ingredient in perfumery's chypre category and is on IFRA's list of ingredients that may cause skin irritation. IFRA's position on oakmoss is clearly stated in the sentence that introduces their assessment regarding safe levels of use, "Oak moss extracts (e.g. absolute, resinoid, concrete, etc.) obtained from Evernia prunastri should not be used such that the level in consumer products exceeds 0.1%."

When Dior's Paris office provided an ambiguous answer to Glass Petal Smoke's initial inquiry regarding the current formulation of Miss Dior, Diane Vavra (Vice-President of Public Relations at Dior Beauty) made sure that a clear answer was provided. The official response from Dior, which took three weeks to arrive, is as follows:

Oakmoss is well included in the formula of Miss Dior but does not appear on the full labeling because its concentration in the product is less than 10 ppm (the IFRA rule is that ingredients that could generate allergies must appear on the list of ingredients only if their concentration [in] the product (leave-on products) is more than 10 ppm).

Dior's original response inferred that the absence of oakmoss on fragrance packaging indicated its presence:

[There has been] no reformulation of Miss Dior but there has been a change in April 2007 in the listing, following some new information given by the supplier of a specific raw material, and also internal data on the concentrate. So, the formula is the same but the full labeling has indeed slightly changed.

Kudos to Ms. Vavra, who despite the implications of the question, valued a clear answer. Things do get lost in translation between France and the U.S.

An industry insider for a multi-million dollar beauty company that manufactures some of the world's finest fragrances made the following comment about reformulations and oakmoss, on the condition that they would not be identified; "Many companies chose to comply with IFRA rather than retaining their [original] formulas. Adding a sensitizing warning on the packaging, which is required for amounts of oakmoss over 10 parts per million, can potentially scare away the consumer."

I know many fragrance connoisseurs who would be happy to have a traditional dilution of oakmoss at hand that could be layered with chypre fragrances that have been reformulated to the point of amnesia. There is nothing like the scent of oakmoss, which author Steffan Arctander beautifully describes as "reminiscent of seashore, forest, bark, wood and tannery." If there is a company daring enough to create a single-note oakmoss fragrance, they could call it Eau de Lazarus and promote its resurrecting powers. The "self-governing body" of IFRA would prefer to call it Poison, but then, as Dior knows, the name Poison is already taken.

Notes:

I write copy professionally by trade. At one non-Dior assignment I worked with a decision maker in fragrance marketing. I smelled a mod that would be released abroad and went into a tailspin; I smelled elements from the old Miss Dior (Miss Dior was reformulated by Edmond Roudnitska in 1992). I shared my enthusiasm with this person and their response was, "I couldn't stand the old formula. As a matter of fact I was consulting at Dior and worked on the reformulation. We took out that dirty, "old lady" smell."

From that moment on, as much as I loved working with this person, my opinion of them had taken a 180-degree turn. The irony grew as the essential oil house that made the mod I had smelled was the same essential oil house that worked on the original Miss Dior formula. Interesting indeed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Quince: The Flavor and Fragrance of Autumn

In November the colors of fall saturate the landscape with hues of red, orange, and yellow. The season’s scent is crisp, dusty and honeyed, a generous perfume offered before the last parched leaves drop in a finale of confetti. As trees grow bare and breezes turn into winds, harvest fruits find their way to the hearth. Raw or cooked, the aroma of quince embodies the flavor and fragrance of autumn, offering surprising insights into the molecular world of color and scent.

Quince is a primitive looking fruit that resembles a pear morphed with a fuzzy yellow apple. When permitted to rest in a bowl, quince will fill a room with a flowery perfume reminiscent of pear, apple, guava, musk, coconut and violet. Milky lactones and violet-like ionones derived from carotenoid molecules are responsible for the floral scent that exudes from the skin of fresh quince. Not only are carotenoids the same molecules responsible for the yellow, orange, and amber colors in fruits and vegetables, they’re also accountable for the yellow, orange and amber colors in autumn leaves. When chlorophyll production in a tree’s leaves dwindles, existing carotenoid molecules become visible. Thus fall foliage and the perfume of quince are intimately linked.

Quince is firm and astringent when raw, but the fruit grows soft and yielding when cooked with honey and a touch of lemon juice. The cooking process coaxes vast stores of pectin from the fruit; a gel-like substance that gives jams and preserves their thick texture. Prolonged simmering causes the pale flesh of quince to turn pink in poetic homage to the rose family of which quince is a relative. Cooking transforms colorless phenolic compounds into anthocyanin pigments, which is why the quince turns pink. These pigments are powerful antioxidants commonly found in red and purple fruits and vegetables. Coincidentally, anthocyanins in tree leaves evolve as chlorophyll production fades and are responsible for a variety of brilliant red and purples hues in autumn leaves. Evidence of this scientific fact is hard to miss in the northeast as the turning of the leaves has proved exceedingly rich and colorful this year.

The evolving blush of cooked quince and its sensual “jelly” may have led Queen Mary Tudor of England to use the fruit in an aphrodisiac recipe that included quinces, orange peel, sugar, almonds, rosewater, musk, ambergris, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and mace. The inclusion of aromatics and raw materials associated with perfumery were likely of Arabic origin as these ingredients commonly appear in the repertoire of Arabian cooks and physicians. The wrapping of quince paste in edible gold foil was a common practice of the Tudor and Stuart courts of England as was the use of the confection in affairs of love. If one reads “The Sixty-First Night” in The Arabian Nights, one wonders if Sharazhad’s recitation may have influenced the Tudor Queen's passion for quince:

“…And I saw pears sweeter than sugar and rosewater and more aromatic than musk and ambergris, and saw quinces of which the poet said:
The quince has gathered every pleasing taste,
Thereby the queen of fruits she has been crowned.
Her taste is wine, a waft of musk her scent.
Her hue is gold, her shape, like the moon, round.”
—From The Arabian Nights, W.W. Norton and Company, 1995, p 130.

In the 15th century the Portuguese imported solid quince marmalade (marmelada); this was sliced and flavored with rosewater, musk or ambergris. Today quince paste, known as membrillo in Spanish, is served neat alongside anise-scented fig cakes and Marcona almonds; foods that complement the Spanish cheese plate.

The quince season begins in August and lasts thru early February. Stewing the fruit is less labor-intensive than making membrillo and affords the home cook an opportunity to add exotic ingredients that would not work as well in the sweetened quince reduction. The recipe for Quince and Rose Compote harkens back to a time when fragrant materials like rose were part of the courtly table. Quince and Rose Compote may be eaten plain or added to oatmeal, yogurt or ice vanilla cream. The recipe was created for the readers of Glass Petal Smoke by the editor.

Quince & Rose Compote
(Serves 6-8)
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

Ingredients:
4 cups of water
3 large quinces
Juice of half a lemon
½ - ¾ cup light honey (orange blossom, clover or acacia)
2 tsp China cassia cinnamon (Penzy’s)
2 vanilla beans (Madagascar variety, split)
¼ cup dried rosebuds (culinary variety from Kalustyan’s)
1 tbsp rosewater (Cortas brand, “Maward” from Lebanon)
7 oz. dried dark unsweetened cherries (Trader Joe’s)

Instructions:
· Peel quince using a vegetable peeler.
· Using a sharp knife cut the quince into quarters and remove the seeds and core.
· Chop the quince into one-inch pieces. Place in a large, non-reactive, salad bowl.
· Squeeze the juice of a half lemon over the fruit and mix by hand.
· Fill a 2-quart pot with 4 cups of water and add chopped quinces.
· Set the flame under the pot to medium-low.
· When the water begins to boil add honey, cinnamon, dried cherries, vanilla beans and rosebuds, reducing the flame to a low setting.
· Mix ingredients together and simmer for an hour and a half, stirring every 15 minutes.
· Remove from heat and add rosewater.
· Allow to cool, with the lid on, for 30 minutes.
· Spoon into glass jars and refrigerate.

Notes:

Painting of “Autumn Leaves - Lake George N.Y. 1924” by Georgia O’Keefe can be found at Green Museum.

Photo of Quince by CG Mora from A Cooking Life. Mora’s blog combines engaging editorial with photos worthy of a shrine to all things worth eating. Lingering on the site is highly recommended.

Photo of cooked quince with ice cream from In Praise of Sardines.

Santa Teresa brand membrillo from Spain may be purchased at La Tienda.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Perfumer Yann Vasnier Captures the Scent of Baudelaire

A whiff of perfume can resurrect the past for those who've lived through it, but it can also recreate that time, offering a token of bygone days to others. Many of the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, a Baudelaire classic, reference the sense of smell. “Le Flacon” (The Perfume Flask) is particularly intriguing as it traverses shadow and light in the author’s imagination while he explores the paradox of life and death through his quill. For a fragrance lover, the spirit of the poem begs the question; what would a perfume inspired by Baudelaire’s “Le Flacon” smell like?

Perfumer Yann Vasnier had an answer that came in the shape of a fragrance formula created less than 48 hours after Glass Petal Smoke asked. His olfactive interpretation of “Le Flacon” plays on the imagery in the poem and is expressed in complementary contrasts of freshness and decay. The perfume is not at all fetid, which Vasnier attributes to the use of Patchouli and Cedarwood in the base (the two ingredients have a history of being used in perfumery and as natural insect repellents). Le Flacon Parfum has the animalic nature of Miss Dior, a quality of fruitiness similar to Guerlain's Mitsouko and a unique drydown that faintly echoes the style Vasnier applied to Keiko Mecheri Cherie Gourmandises.

In analyzing the raw materials and proportions used to create Le Flacon Parfum, the reader is permitted entry into the world of fragrance creation from the perfumer’s point of view. To fully experience this effect, begin by reading “Le Flacon” and allowing the words of Baudelaire’s poem to draw pictures in your mind. Once you have a sense for the poem’s meaning you can examine Vasnier’s formula, which includes descriptors for each raw material to help the reader imagine the scent. The act of going through this process is a synesthetic exercise in olfaction; it conjures the act of smelling through literal and imaginative acts of seeing.

The Perfume Flask
by Charles Baudelaire

All matter becomes porous to certain scents; they pass
Through everything; it seems they even go through glass.
When opening some old trunk brought home from the far east,
That scolds, feeling the key turned and the lid released —
Some wardrobe, in a house long uninhabited,
Full of the powdery odors of moments that are dead —
At times, distinct as ever, an old flask will emit
Its perfume; and a soul comes back to live in it.
Dormant as chrysalides, a thousand thoughts that lie
In the thick shadows, pulsing imperceptibly,
Now stir, now struggle forth; now their cramped wings unfold,
Tinted with azure, lustred with rose, sheeted with gold!
Oh, memories, how you rise and soar, and hover there!
The eyes close; dizziness, in the moth-darkened air,
Seizes the drunken soul, and thrusts it toward the verge —
Where mistily all human miasmas float and merge —
Of a primeval gulf; and drops it to the ground,
There, where, like Lazarus rising, his grave-clothes half unwound,
And odorous, a cadaver from its sleep has stirred:
An old and rancid love, charming and long-interred.
Thus, when I shall be lost from sight, thus when all men
Forget me, in the dark and dusty corner then
Of that most sinister cupboard where the living pile
The dead — when, an old flask, cracked, sticky, abject, vile,
I lie at length — still, still, sweet pestilence of my heart,
As to what power thou hast, how virulent thou art,
I shall bear witness; safe shall thy dear poison be!
Thou vitriol of the gods I thou death and life of me!
— Edna St. Vincent Millay, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

Le Flacon Parfum
by Yann Vasnier

Top Notes:
Methyl Linoleate (linseed oil) 5
Galbanum Oil (old classic, green, oily) 0.2
Melonal (rancid flower, macerated petals, melon) 0.1
Aldehyde C6 (rancid, green, apple, sharp) 0.5 @10%
Ambrette Seed (burpy orris, oily, fatty) 0.5 @10%
Nutmeg Oil (dusty, spicy, dry) 1.9
Blackcurrant Bud Absolute (feline urine, sulfurous fruity) 0.5 at 10%

Middle Notes:
Rose de Mai Absolute (classic French rose) 5.5
Rhodinol (dusty rose, verbena) 5
Pêche Pure (dusty, fruity, peach kernel, plum) 1
Jasmin de Grasse (classic French jasmine) 5.5
Orris Butter (powdery, waxy, oily, fatty) 1.1
Cedarwood Virginia (dusty, wood shavings) 10.0
Indonesian Patchouli (woody, dusty, camphorous) 8.0
Isobutylquinoleine (dry, woody, leathery) 0.1

Base Notes:
Oakmoss (old, woody, chypre) 2.0
Civet (classic, animalic, fecal) 0.5
Ambergris Infusion (classic, dry, honey, tobacco, hay, animalic) 1.0
Vanilla Infusion (powdery, vanilla, chocolate, caramel) 40.0
Musk Tonkin Infusion (fur, dried blood, dusty dirty cotton) 1.0
Musk Ketone (powdery, soapy) 10.0
Beeswax Absolute (honey, dried fruit, moss, tobacco) 0.6

Article Notes:

Yann Vasnier is a perfumer at Givaudan. In 2007 he was interviewed by the editor regarding his favorite pastry, kouign aman. When asked to describe “Le Flacon” as a pastry, Vasnier said, “It would be a rose and raspberry macaroon I brought back from Paris and kept so well hidden that I found it years later when I moved out of my apartment.” With his cookie escapade behind him, Vasnier has resumed his favorite pastime; reading biography and history books. Leonie Frida’s Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France is one of his favorites.

One cannot read Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) without encountering the sense of smell in its pages. Rife with romanticism, sensuality and debauchery the work is, in Baudelaire’s words “clad in a cold and sinister beauty”. Les Fleurs du Mal can be read in its entirety on http://fleursdumal.org/. The poems are available in the original French and a variety of English translations.

To research the natural materials use in Le Flacon Parfum, visit Bo Jensen’s Guide to Nature’s Fragrances . To research the aroma molecules use Givaudan’s Fragrance List.

On April 24, 2009, this story received a FiFi Award Nomination from the Fragrance Foundation and took third place in the "Editorial Excellence in Fragrance Coverage" category. The award is historical as 2009 was the first year that blogs were included in the "Editorial Excellence"category.







Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lipstick Queen: Black Lipstick for the Living

Black lipstick is nothing like “the little black dress” essential to every woman’s wardrobe. After observing customers gathering around the Lipstick Queen island at Barney’s I came to the conclusion that women have an instinctual reaction to the idea of black on their lips; they adore it or abhor it. Personally, I am of the latter camp and find that black lipstick looks good on models that project enchanting images as strutting cadavers or goths that buy their fragrance at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. I was wrong—dead wrong.

Poppy King has taken the element of surprise and molded it into the perfect black lipstick. When used alone Black Tie Optional makes lips look slightly darker than their natural color, adding dimension to your pucker. When used in combination with another lipstick, Black Tie Optional intensifies the existing color. Remember that drawer full of lipsticks that looked better on you in the department store than they did when you arrived home? A few alchemical experiments with Black Tie Optional might turn the lipstick you were ready to ditch into a keeper.

I wonder if Poppy King, the brains behind the Lipstick Queen brand, would consider dabbling in the fragrance equivalent of Black Tie Optional. Imagine a perfume that would change an existing fragrance ever so slightly, a perfume that would enhance the character of what you were already wearing, making it more beautiful. In a sea of unimpressive fragrance releases that might be too much to ask for, but hey, a Perfumista can dream…

Notes:

Black Tie Optional can be purchased for $18 at the Lipstick Queen online store and at Barney’s. A gloss version, in Lipstick Queen's Shine line is also available for purchase at Barney’s and retails for $22.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Scent of Election Day: Go Away Evil

Go Away Evil. The name says it all. A single aerosol can that not only has the power to freshen the air, but delivers olfactive magick and conquers all things dark, dangerous and foreboding. I discovered Go Away Evil at a botánica a few blocks away from International Flavors and Fragrances’ labs and it seemed both fitting and timely. Hell’s Kitchen never delivered a kitschier product, or for that matter, a more purposeful one as there is an election coming up that will determine whether or not our country can get down to business and answer a variation on Dorothy Parker’s burning question, “What fresh hell have we gotten into and how do we get the hell out?”

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re sitting on, get your derrière out of the house pull the red voting lever on November 4th. In the next three weeks the Republicans and Democrats are going to attempt to take control of your mind. It will be scarier than Halloween and you’ll wish you had a can of Go Away Evil just to get your head screwed on straight.

When the election is over it will be up to every individual to make the changes and adjustments necessary to improve conditions in our country. Leaders can motivate, but citizens are agents of change. May the perfume of your deeds make this world a better place after November 4th—so we won’t need cases of Go Away Evil.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle: Dans Tes Bras

Most perfumes that are touted as smelling like “skin” are often poorly constructed fragrances that have more in common with The Emperor’s New Clothes than the art of perfumery. Not so with Dans Tes Bras, the latest fragrance from Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. Add perfumer Maurice Roucel to the mix and something rare in the landscape of fine fragrance creation emerges; a beautifully constructed perfume that sculpts the air and turns the wearer into a work of art.

Dans Tes Bras is different from Musc Ravageur (2000), Roucel’s first creation for Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. Musc Ravageur is the scent of intent, the magnetic stare that compels when sexual appetite smolders and the object of desire is within reach. Dans Tes Bras (French for “in your arms”) is the glance of the beloved when you aren’t looking, the sensation of connection when eyes meet and you know that you’re exactly where you belong. Where Musc Ravageur pounces Dans Tes Bras lingers. Though attributes of spice, wood, musk and incense are clearly present, the fragrance is softened by floralcy that is gently ambrosial and sensually fresh. The ingredients (Bergamot, Clove, Violet, Jasmine, Sandalwood, Patchouli, Incense, Cashmeran®, Heliotrope and White Musk) are only part of the story. In the brochure for the fragrance Malle writes, “We hoped to capture the deep and lasting odor of warm skin, with all its salty hints and rich, intimate overtones.”

The application of Cashmeran® in Dans Tes Bras involves calibrated overdosing (something perfumer Pierre Bourdon did with dihydromyrcenol when he created Davidoff Cool Water in 1988.) Cashmeran® is a molecule with a musky, woody and spicy odor profile that was discovered by IFF scientists 40 years ago. When smelled on its own it’s hard to believe that a single molecule can have so much character and it’s this very quality that has rendered its timeless appeal to both functional and fine fragrance perfumers. Thierry Mugler’s Alien boldly lists Cashmeran® as an ingredient, but most perfume companies that include the molecule in formulas use fantasy names such as Kashmir Wood or Bois de Cashemire to describe it. This approach elicits an emotional response from the consumer, as opposed to educating them on the beauty and variety of the molecular palette.

So what is the theory behind overdosing? Malle tells Glass Petal Smoke, “There are two ways of overdosing. One can use a raw material and build the rest of the fragrance against it, like a painter would put a big mass of red on one side for instance, and compose the rest of his work to counterbalance it. The other way is to overdose a texturing raw material like Iso E or Galaxolide® as a base (almost like alcohol) and dilute the rest of the composition into it. By doing so, some raw materials like the two I just named, which were originally designed to be back notes, work during the entire evaporation. One can also say that the products that we choose to overdose are often complex enough and almost interesting enough to be perfumes of their own.” (Perfumer Geza Schön, of Escentric Molecules, brings attention to Iso E Super® and Ambroxan molecules by creating fragrances based on each raw material and complementing the singular compositions with a sister fragrance that utilizes the molecule in combination with other ingredients. It is an architectural approach that is at once scientific and emotional.)

A raw material in Dans Tes Bras that is not listed in the brochure is Michelia alba, a variety of Magnolia that has served as Roucel’s muse and has appeared in all of his fragrance creations since 1993 (it was christened in Tocade). Perfumistas who follow Roucel’s work and have a keen sense of smell will detect his signature even though Michelia alba is very lightly dosed. When asked why the expensive raw material wasn’t mentioned, Malle replies, “The list of ingredients can generate emotions, but they are often unrelated to the fragrance, as the list of ingredients doesn’t disclose the dosages. It is also a means to manipulate people that marketing companies employ, something that I refuse to do, as I believe that only the final result counts. We make fragrances, not recipes.”

Wittingly or not, Frederic Malle owns the recipe for success in niche fragrances. An intrepid pioneer, he promotes the art of perfumery and has proven what every true perfume lover knows; that the real celebrity in the business of fine fragrance is the perfume itself.

Notes:

Dans Tes Bras will be available at U.S. counters in November and will be sold at Barneys.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sechuan Buttons: The Taste of Electricity

Nicolas Mazard, manager for micro-greens specialist Koppert Cress USA, is part ringmaster and part pusher. Dressed in company regalia he takes center stage at the Koppert Cress booth and presents an intriguing selection of micro-greens to curious passersby at the 2008 International Chefs Congress. His melodious French accent and striking good looks are as riveting as the selection of micro-greens he presents; each intensely flavored and complex. The star of the show is not the Tahoon Cress (which tastes like the aroma of a beech tree forest after a good spell of rain) or the Purple Shiso (which tastes like fresh cumin and violets) or the Borage Cress (which tastes like the delicate brine of oysters and freshly cut cucumbers); it is a tiny flower head that Koppert calls the “Sechuan Button”.

Sechuan Button is a term coined by Koppert Cress for Acmella oleracea, a plant developed through cultivation of Acmella alba, which is native to Peru and Brazil. The flavor of the flower head possesses a kick that resembles the spiciness of a Szechuan pepper, hence the name used to market it. Acmella oleracea became naturalized in East Africa and now grows throughout the continent. Its leaves are traditionally added to salads, soups and meat dishes, but the flower heads are more commonly used for toothache, throat and gum infections. The flower heads produce a unique sensation that is the umami of mouthfeel, creating a kinetic feeling on the side of the mouth where it’s chewed.

Anesthetic effects of numbness and tingling accompany another sensory experience, which is unsettling to the novice Sechuan Button eater; watering of the mouth. When the puckish Mazard initiates the tasting of Sechuan Buttons, he carefully dispenses a quarter of a bud to each person, enthusiastically awaiting the response of audience members as they traverse a course that begins with fear and evolves into fits of giggling and laughter. “Remember what it felt like when you were a kid and licked a 9-volt battery?” Mazard asks, “That is the feeling you experience with Sechuan Buttons. It’s like having electricity in your mouth.” Koppert Cress suggests using Sechuan Buttons in sorbets and mixed drinks, but its application in flavors is limitless, provided that proper contrasts and pairings are achieved.

Indulging in “buds”? That’s a bit Cheech and Chong. Chewing “buttons”? Sounds like an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s adventures with mescaline in The Doors of Perception. The marketing of Sechuan Buttons brandishes an element of the narcotic with the culinary, as well it should; the active ingredient in Acmella oleracea which produces unique sensations in the mouth is the molecule spilanthol (N-isobutyl-4, 6-decadienamide). Spilanthol is an antiseptic alkaloid that is a poison for most invertebrates, but harmless to warm-blooded animals. The molecule acts on the trigeminal nerve, which affects sensations in the face. My personal experience with the effects of Sechuan Buttons is a mild euphoria, which transpires after eating a single flower head over the course of an hour, one quarter of a bud at a time. Appetite makes the mouth water and Sechuan Buttons definitely trip a switch in the brain that triggers feelings of pleasure when you understand all of the plant’s sensory effects and aren’t frightened by them.

There are six distinct qualities that are experienced when tasting Sechuan Buttons. As one chews the flower head, the senses course through green, bitter, numbing, electrical, tart, and lemon sensations. According to Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (also know as PROTA), essential oil distilled from the fresh flowers contains high amounts of the dietary cannabinoid β-caryophyllene (its flavor resembles black pepper, hence the appropriate marketing nomenclature on Koppert Cress’ part). Other major constituents include limonene (lemony), thymol (thyme-like), cadinene (green-like) and germacrene (spicy and woody). When one understands the sensory qualities of Acmella oleracea's molecules (referenced by flavor chemists as “organoleptic properties”) the science of taste becomes more fascinating as it is a yardstick with which one can measure sensory experiences.

Sechuan Buttons have given the term “nipping it in the bud” a whole new meaning. Perhaps Koppert Cress USA should consider the California Milk Processor Board’s marketing of milk when promoting the exotic and zingy treat: "Got electricity?"

Notes:

Horizon Herbs sells three varieties of organic Spilanthes seeds (another species term for Acmella oleracea) that can be sown in the spring if you wish to grow your own flower heads. The plant also goes by the French name Brede Mafane or paracress.

Micro-greens are a plant's first true leaves and are not to be confused with sprouts. Chefs use them as flavorful garnishes as their size belies the intensity of their flavor.

The Koppert Cress micro-green selection is beautifully presented here. An equally compelling document on the Sechuan Button is available on the company’s UK site. Product photos and picture of Nicolas Mazard are from the Koppert Cress website.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fragrant Explorations: The Scent of Gardenia

The seed of an explorer lies dormant inside everyone. When carefully nurtured through travel, it blossoms and reveals this truth; the boundary between the senses and sensory objects is an illusion. We assimilate everything that we encounter in life and this shapes who we become. Travel is a catalyst for self-discovery and those willing to go where others have not sometimes bring the journey to others. This is reflected in the travels of Trygve Harris, owner of the fragrance shop Enfleurage in New York. Harris uses her love of scent as a compass for self-discovery that is passed on to her customers. The result of her recent quest is true gardenia essential oil and gardenia butter from Columbia, each an exquisite find in its own right.

True gardenia essential oil is rarely used in commercial perfumery. It is expensive to produce and yields a kilo of absolute from 5000 kilos of flowers. In Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin author Steffen Arctander notes that French extraction expert Charles Garnier made gardenia concrete in the Indian Ocean Island of La Réunion, but eventually gave up the venture. Gardenias are native to southern Asia so it was no surprise when China and Formosa entered the market and began producing gardenia concrete from Gardenia florida, the same genus and species used in traditional Chinese medicine. (The berries of another variety of gardenia, Gardenia grandiflora, are used by the Chinese to produce a yellow dye called wong shi). When Arctander sampled gardenia concrete from China and Formosa he deemed them weak and unimpressive; an assessment that preceded the publication of his book in 1961.

Modern perfumery relies on a mixture of natural and synthetic molecules to produce long lasting effects in finished fragrance products. In the industry, this quality is referred to as "tenacity". Robert Piguet's Fracas (1948) is a good example of this; middle notes of tuberose and gardenia can still be experienced in the perfume's powdery and musky drydown. When a person’s reference point is a finished product versus the raw material itself, it's hard to ferret out a single odor profile by smell. This is a serious issue for the true fragrance connoisseur who wants to feel connected to the source of their olfactive pleasure, as well as the history of that source. A similar sentiment is embraced by the Slow Food movement whose members emphasize the need to connect to the source of food on a local level. In an article in Food Arts entitled “Massing Links”, author Paul Hawken articulates opinions that shadow those expressed by fragrance connoisseurs;

“One of the drivers of the food system is the loss of nutritional literacy. We cannot taste the things we once did and do not recognize the importance of taste. And since taste drives consumption and purchasing, it’s critical to what we grow and how we produce our food. Our nutritional literacy can be reduced to a few intense flavors: salty, sweet, fat. Yum. It’s called McDonald’s and Fritos and Cocoa Puffs. Manufacturers know far more than we do about olfactory responses and mouthfeel and how these affect the brain and our sense of well-being. These taste buds in our mouth are not baubles to be toyed with. They are evolution itself, a teacher, a kindness, a guide. Because the natural food stores have been taken over by Whole Foods, it’s left to restaurants to curate the wisdom of our taste buds and remind us of what we have lost.”
—Weintraub, Judith. “Massing Links.” Food Arts June 2008: 109-113.

Trygve Harris blogs on Absolute Trygve and her profile includes this revelatory quote; “I own a small company in New York City specializing in aromatics from the natural world. I was very excited to learn that nearly everything I had ever learned about everything, including myself, was wrong and continue to be surprised and delighted by this discovery daily.” I have never met Trygve Harris, but shop at Enfleurage regularly, eager to catch a whiff of her latest find or satisfy an exotic yen. (Enfleurage is not far from Aedes de Venustas and Aphrodisia Herb Shoppe, so it would be sacrilegious not to include the store when scentripping in the West Village). Based on her personal ethos it would be safe to say that Harris would sooner sample gardenia concrete herself as opposed to allowing Arctander's sacrosanct evaluations to set a limit on her curiosity; which is exactly what she did.

Harris visited an organic farm in Columbia that makes essential oils using the enfleurage method and was present for the extraction of gardenia. Enfleurage is a method of fragrance extraction that involves layering petals or whole flowers in fat and separating the plant’s scent compounds from the infused pomade using a solvent (usually alcohol). The process is one of the oldest means of extraction used in perfumery, one that does not degrade the fragrance through excessive heat. The process is laborious and not as efficient as modern methods that utilize organic solvents or liquefied gases. This is evident in the tenacity of organic gardenia extract that has been produced for the Enfleurage shop; it is beautiful, but lacks the complexity of a conventionally extracted fragrance material.

The gardenia butter is a sensorial gem. It's a luxurious pomade enriched with particles of perfumed palm fat that come out of the alcohol distillation process used to extract gardenia. As expectations of tenacity are not at the forefront for this product, it can be enjoyed for its sensual texture, moisturizing properties and delicate fragrance. The creamy green facets of gardenia rise above its fruity floral character, a quality that is also found in tuberose. The result is a product that resembles the scent of gardenia in its natural setting. It is initially impactful, leaving little to linger over when the nose draws away.

Does gardenia butter's short-lived tenacity matter? If you are a consumer that's only been exposed to commercially prepared perfumes, the answer is “yes”. The average fragrance user's expectations are framed by the marketplace and most fragrance consumers have little exposure to raw materials used in perfumery. If consumers are fortunate enough to live in climates that support the growth of plants and flowers used in perfumery, familiarity will be established with regard to how these raw materials smell in their natural setting. All travel, by foot or across an ocean, exposes the senses to new experiences. The fact that Trygve Harris's explorations echo the sentiments of Paul Hawkins is not a coincidence. Terroir extends beyond the gustative and into the olfactive, an important fact to remember when navigating among sensory menageries. Where will the explorer's compass take you?

Notes:

Enfleurage's gardenia butter and essential oil are in limited supply. A quarter ounce of the butter is $15. A 2 ml bottle of the essential oil is $50.00. The store is located at 321 Bleecker Street in NYC. Phone: (212) 691-1610 or (888) 387-0300.

The purview of perfumery has widened since Steffen Arctander’s book on natural materials was made available to the public (it is part of a set and only recently became available as a standalone). Readers of Glass Petal Smoke who want to purchase Steffen Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin may do so at a discount. Use the code “glasspetal” for a discount of 15%. Allured Publishing has generously extended this offer through December 31, 2008 for all of its books.

Trygve Harris's post on the extraction of gardenia can be found here.

The first picture that accompanies this post is from a work entitled "Seed Fire". The third picture is called "Heart Offering". Both were created by artist Krista Lynn Brown. Her artwork can be found on Devaluna.

Photo of a magnolia flower is taken by brianrosshaslam on Flickr.

"Red Flower, Old Compass" is a thoughtful photo by claireikalena on Flickr.

This post is inspired by my sister Jayne, a gardenia lover who is celebrating her birthday today. Guess what she's getting for her birthday present?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Memory of Juergen W. Ausborn: Foodie and Friend

On an ordinary Friday I put my mailbox key into the lock and did what I do each time I open up the box; turn the key to the right, listen for an echo to see how much mail is inside, and remind myself to curse in French in case the electric bill has arrived and there are children nearby. Though my affection for Women’s Wear Daily has been on the wane of late, I still look forward to the fragrance coverage on Friday. The newspaper had dutifully arrived and looked like a carefully rolled scroll inside the mailbox. Cradled at its center was a distinctive white envelope addressed in neat and thoughtful script.

I didn't recognize the sender's name or the address in Ardsley, New York. Ardsley has always fallen short on the gourmet scale. Its offerings include a handful of restaurants and The Riviera Bakehouse, the only pastry shop I know that can kill buttercream frosting (it tastes like cornstarch and aluminum). One of the oddest food stories I have ever heard originated in Ardsley. A man brought a bottle of French wine to a restaurant that was given to him as a gift. On his second glass he was eye to eye with a tiny frog that rested at its bottom. The French wine’s name included the word "frog", which had nothing to do with the amphibian inside the bottle and everything to do with why this story should have made its way into the pages of News of the Weird. Instead, the story ran in a local paper called The Rivertowns Enterprise and resulted in action by the FDA, who confiscated the bottle, the glass and the tiny frog.

I opened the envelope and pulled out a white note card with the words “Juergen W. Ausborn, July 27, 2008” embossed in capital letters. I recognized the font as it was the same one used at Pierre Marcolini in New York City, the chocolate store Juergen opened in 2005. Juergen was planning on opening a gelato store when I last spoke to him and I thought the note might have been a formal announcement. I wasn’t connecting the dots; “With a Passion for Food, Golf and Life…Juergen W. Ausborn died on Sunday, July 27th, 2008 in an accidental drowning in Bermuda. Upon his death, he is survived by his spouse Julia Collins, his daughter Jessica Ausborn and his dog, Chester. Juergen has requested that there be no memorial service, but asks that you raise a glass of wine in memory of the times you shared with each other.”

The elevator next to the mailboxes was on the ground floor and I ran inside to be alone. There was a familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, the same one I had on September 11th when I was trying to make sense of the perfect blue sky and the aura of crematoria that snaked its way into the acrid odor of burning jet fuel, plastic, glass and steel. The haunting collision between life and death can stalk the grief-stricken like an inescapable loop dream. It felt unfair and cruel. How could someone who enjoyed life so much, someone who was kind and generous, be gone just like that? The last person I knew that died in a drowning accident was a physician and friend. "Think about the good things," I told myself. Grief was rummaging in my mind and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Juergen taught me a thing or two about food. I wouldn’t know a medlar from a melon if it wasn’t for him. When Pierre Marcolini's Medlar Jam premiered at the New York store, Juergen was quick to provide me with a jar and a few folkloric facts. He asked me if I wanted to taste a bit on brioche and I obliged. Anyone who has ever had to decide whether or not they should eat something always wants to understand what they are about to put in their mouth because eating is not only about sustenance; it is about the experience of nurturing body and mind through an understanding of the origins of food and the pleasures of taste. I was so moved by medlar that I spent a day researching the fruit and wrote a story about it. As testimony to the fruit’s compelling history (and Juergen’s joi de vive) the blog post on medlar continues to rank in the top ten requested stories on Glass Petal Smoke.

When I last saw Juergen, we were sitting at a table inside Pierre Marcolini discussing life and dessert. I finished a Tonka Bean Truffle and was admiring a Violet-infused Praline sitting before me on an elegant porcelain plate. Juergen handed me a jar of Confiture Fraîche de Fraise Mara des Bois, a strawberry jam made with petite wild strawberries that Pierre Marcolini had just released in the United States. Juergen seemed a bit nostalgic as he looked at the jar and began to tell me about his daughter Jessica, who loved wild strawberries as a little girl. She discovered them on a family trip to Europe and for the duration of the stay had an appetite for nothing else; "Strawberries for breakfast, strawberries for lunch and strawberries for dinner. That is all she wanted.” Juergen smiled and showed me pictures of his home in Ardsley and his dog, Chester. When he talked about Chester there was something very earnest in his eyes, the kind of warmth you see in a true dog lover. It was a side of Juergen I hadn’t seen before, but it didn't surprise me at all.

The scent of Juergen’s cologne highlighted our last conversation with a pleasant crisp earthiness. My nose couldn't stop honing in on one note; vetiver. Vetiver is an aromatic grass that is vibrant, woody and somewhat addictive (you want to keep smelling it over and over again). All of the tasting I was doing had dulled my sense of smell and I was certain that Juergen was sporting Vetiver by Guerlain. I asked him if that was what he was wearing and he laughed, shaking his head at the combination of curiosity and insistence in my tone. “It is Terre d’ Hermès,” he said. “A formula that includes a good dose of vetiver,” I replied. He smiled and coaxed me into describing the taste of the boutique's Violet-infused Praline to the woman who was selling chocolates behind the counter. She understood its beauty, but had a hard time articulating it to the uninitiated. I obliged and he handed me a bag with the strawberry jam and an extra goody; a bar of Fleur de Cacao. He held the door open as I left and told me to stay in touch regarding a gelato venture that was pending. I remember hearing the heavy glass door closing shut behind me.

It has taken a while to reconcile Juergen Ausborn's untimely passing and I have yet to return to the store. Writing this post seems to have removed some of the sting and I have been reminded by his wife Julia that there are gelatos waiting to be tasted. I'm sitting in front of the computer with a glass of Trimbach Gewürztraminer and the note that prompted this story. Zum Wohl, Juergen. May you find as much joy in the afterlife as you’ve inspired in those who knew you on this tiny blue planet.

Notes:

A variety of Vetiver grass products are sold by VivaTerra. They include a bath mat, hamper and vetiver grass spheres that can be used for scenting.

The photo of a wild strawberry comes from the BBC website and was taken by Terry Ferdinand. The fruit is easy to grow in pots and in the garden.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ambrosial Delights of Varietal Honey

At the end of August, fragrant blooms of honeysuckle begin to fade in verdant winding tendrils. Though other richly perfumed flowers emerge in the landscape, a distinct emptiness arises when it’s no longer possible to taste a drop of honeysuckle nectar. The slowly extracted stamen of this flower rewards an eager mouth with a sweet pearl of nectar and embodies the edible perfume of summer. Its absence is equivalent to the memory of a last kiss; a sad occasion for mere mortals, but not for bees and those who partake in the ambrosial delights of varietal honey.

The opportunity to experience the flavor of single floral nectar never disappears, not as long as artisanal beekeepers manage hives that actively pursue the nectar of a particular flower. Honey that is harvested in this manner is referred to as varietal or monofloral honey. There are over 300 types of monofloral honeys available in the United States according to the National Honey Board. Colors range from light to dark amber, with more intense flavors found in deeply hued honeys. Textures also vary and may express creamy or grainy personalities, delightful qualities in raw honey that that aren’t tainted by pasteurization.

Pasteurized Orange Blossom & Clover honeys are commonly found in pantries across America. Pasteurization of honey is, for the most part, cosmetic. Yeasts that could potentially cause fermentation in honeys with high water content are destroyed, but naturally occurring traces of botulinum spores (bacteria found in all honey that is harmless to adults, but unsafe for infants) aren't completely eliminated. Pasteurization of honey also prevents glucose molecules from crystallizing; a natural occurrence that is considered unattractive in non-creamed honeys sold in grocery stores. In addition to affecting the subtle flavors of honey, pasteurization breaks down beneficial enzymes that aid in digestion and may also reduce antioxidants (which are present in greater quantity in darker honeys versus lighter ones).

Common processed honeys display general flavor traits that are citric and slightly musky, with faint butterscotch notes. Raw artisanal honeys cannot be generalized when it comes to flavor as subtleties abound. Lighter honeys like acacia are extremely delicate and display understated floral and vanilla notes, whereas darker honeys like Buckwheat contain molasses, dark caramel, and malt notes. Chestnut honey’s flavor resembles Buckwheat honey with added notes of wet hay, nuts, orange blossom and bitter wood. Its aroma is deep and somewhat barn-like. Despite mild indolic qualities, Chestnut honey achieves incredible harmonies when combined with Greek-style yogurt, Chinese cassia cinnamon and walnuts.

Like wine, monofloral honey is best paired with cheese or fruit, so its flavor can be thoughtfully savored. Slowly relishing a bit of honey on a spoon is decidedly sensual as aspects of taste, texture and mouth feel vary from honey to honey. The following varietals will tempt taste buds with endless pleasure:

The Ohi'a Lehua tree, sacred to Pele (goddess of fire), is the first plant to grow out of new lava flows and is a sign of forest regeneration. The honey made from its bright pink blossoms is thick, sweet and juicy. Big Island Bees Ohi'a Lehua Honey opens up with hints of pineapple, Anjou pear skin and a touch of toasted marshmallow; gustative qualities that are well-suited to its crystalline texture. There is a soft musky quality to this honey, a characteristic one finds in freshly cut green figs or the clean scent of skin and hair; a delectable and erotic effect that is best experienced rather than explained.

Big Island Bees Organic Wilelaiki Honey is golden yellow in color, its granular texture reminiscent of Farina on the tongue. Wilelaiki, also known as Christmas Berry, possesses a flavor that is both unique and unforgettable. Rich notes of saffron, leather, and blonde wood warm the palate with occasional hints of dry lime mingled with eucalyptus. The finish is faintly bittersweet, with an overall impression that resembles badam halwa in taste and texture. Wilelaiki honey has the personality of a rich attar and is most perfume-like in the way its aromas unfurl.

When sampling Big Island Bees Organic Macadamia Nut Blossom Honey, one expects to find nutty flavors due to its source. Nature trumps reason (as well as the product description on the label) when it comes to the taste of this honey. Bees transform nectar into an amber-colored floriental treat that is pure bliss. Seduction at its best beckons instinct with playfulness and stealth. After toying with your expectation of taste, Macadamia Nut Blossom honey delivers the unexpected; it is citric, asserts deep notes of sultry Jasmine and Orange Blossom, and finishes with trilling notes of butterscotch, rum, amber and vanilla. Flirtatious and sensual, it is a Holy Grail honey if there ever was one.

Bee Raw Colorado Star Thistle Honey
Texture supports taste and emphasizes the sense of touch in degustation. Bee Raw Colorado Star Thistle Honey is thick, but not crystalline, lingering in the mouth like a soft caramel. The sweet and hay-like qualities of beeswax are more apparent in the mouth feel versus the flavors that that are perceived on the tongue. This is a gentle honey with delicate notes of Ceylon Cinnamon, banana and a creamy mineral facet. A sumptuous treat perfect for spreading on baked goods, cheese and fruit.

Pascal Verrière Apiculteur Miel de Tilleul
Tilleul in French refers to the blossoms of the Linden Tree (also known as Lime Blossom or Basswood). A higher ratio of naturally occurring glucose (not initiated by feeding bees sugar water in winter) results in partial to full crystallization of this fragrant honey, which tastes like its blossoms smell. The honey gradually reveals a white floral bouquet, asserting an ozonic green freshness; much like the sensation of walking under a blooming Linden tree. Pascal Verrière Apiculteur Miel de Tilleul is not easily available stateside, but can be found in a few brick and mortar gourmet shops. The honey comes from the Ariège region in the South of France, where bees forage in pristine mountains that are untouched by pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Armen Benlian of Yaranush carries this honey in her Westchester store.

Notes:

To learn more about the history of honey and its role in mythology, read the honey section in the article entitled "The Lore of Simple Things: Milk, Honey and Bread in Myth and Religion." The article is one of many gems that can be found on Endicott Studio's The Journal of Mythic Arts.

Use the “honey locator” link from the National Honey Board to investigate specific varietal honeys.

The photo of a bee above a honeysuckle flower comes from Jeff Mohamed's blog, Jeffincyprus. He writes about birds and wildlife in Houston, Texas.

Product photos are sourced from the honey manufacturers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Perfume Memories: Seeing with Scent

First steps, first kiss, first love—memory is especially fond of embracing events that shape fundamental life experience. I’ve often marveled at the life of Louis Braille, who accidentally blinded himself while playing with one of his father’s awls at the age of three. The memory of his childhood accident could have easily remained a haunting vignette, to be played over and over again whenever he became frustrated at his inability to see. Fortunately for Braille, his love of literature was stronger than the obstacles of blindness and self pity, and in 1842 he invented the raised dot alphabet that allows the blind to read by touch. One of the tools he used to create the braille alphabet was a stylus; a blunt awl related to the same tool that caused him to lose his sight. Today, a person can run their fingers across an elevator’s button panel and experience the transformation of tragedy into a beautiful gift.

I was eight-years-old when I first read Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind by Margaret Davidson. The original imprint included Braille’s raised dot alphabet on the back cover. I can still recall the tactile sensation of the dots beneath my fingertips, the way they asserted themselves in a ticklish sort of way. I also remember how I began sobbing when I read about Braille's accident. Children relate to stories in literal ways as they learn to reconcile the suspension of reality with the truth of the world around them. I was prescribed glasses that year and the idea that a person could lose their vision was frightening and made me feel immensely sorry for Louis. In addition, the leather awl responsible for Louis Braille’s accident was the same tool I played with in my father’s garment shop when I was making collages out of leather scraps. Both of our fathers told us not to play with tools that could potentially harm us. I was lucky. Braille was not.

Two years later, my fifth grade class visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Of all the sights and scents that we encountered there, there was one particular area that affected me profoundly. It was a small, circular garden designed for the sight impaired. Brass plaques identified patches where fragrant plants grew, each marker revealing the genus and species of flora that grew near it. The plaques were inscribed in English and braille. I remember running my fingers across the sun-warmed metal plates, experiencing the functional sensation of braille text as opposed to the embossed alphabet that appeared on the back of Margaret Davidson’s book. I can still see the trail of my ten-year-old fingers glossing over the patinated glyphs.

The Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was designed by landscape architect Alice Recknagel Ireys in 1955 and was the first public garden in the United States designed for the sight-impaired. What continues to make this garden so endearing is the fact that visitors are permitted to touch the plants so they can smell the aromas on their hands. I touched many plants on my first visit to The Fragrance Garden, but the plant that fascinated me most was an herb called Lemon Balm. Until that encounter, my notion of lemon was round, yellow and bursting with juice. Within seconds of discovering Lemon Balm new concepts were added to my impression of lemon, including soft, green and leafy qualities. In that moment something dormant in my soul began to emerge that was familiar and primal. As a result, I became anchored in the notion that that the sense of smell was special and though I did not have the vocabulary at the time, I remember feeling a sense of something worshipful and eternal. Because of this childhood learning experience Lemon Balm continues to be a favorite herb that is catalogued in my memory like a primary color. To forget Lemon Balm would be like forgetting the sun.

It is easy for the sighted to have empathy for the visually impaired as our culture is first and foremost a visual culture. For the sighted, to imagine existence without vision is quite distressing. Those with vision can sometimes forget the extent to which human beings are resilient. It is not uncommon to find increased acuity in taste, touch, smell and hearing in people who have visual limitations. Olivier Baussan, founder of the French cosmetics and fragrance company L’Occitane, learned this lesson when he encountered a blind woman identifying perfumes by smell as she had no other way to determine the difference from one product to the next. Baussan was fascinated and deeply moved. In 1997 braille was added to all L’Occitane packaging, followed by the creation of perfumery classes for visually impaired children and adolescents (one of several charitable programs run by Fondation L’Occitane). Students focus on using the skills they have versus the ones they lack; a compassionate and appropriate approach to teaching.

In the United States the sense of smell is not a sense that is commonly explored in grade school, let alone high school or college. Sharon Longert was my fifth grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx and her decision to take our class to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden changed my life. I googled her and found out that she is still involved in education and now focuses on helping high school students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. I hope there are many other “Mrs. Longerts” in the world, educating students on the wonders of the sense of smell. Their role is crucial to inspiring professional pursuits in the fields of flavor and fragrance. Teachers have a profound influence on students. The effects of educator Annie Sullivan Macy’s lessons were not lost on Helen Keller, who navigated in a world without the benefit of sight or hearing. Helen Keller understood the power of scent and described it best, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Where will your scent memories take you?

Notes:

Gaël Peltier is an independent, blind perfumer who conducts perfumery classes for the blind on behalf of L’Occitane. Fondation L’Occitane is currently helping him acquire a talking scale that will help him take precise measurements. Mr. Peltier’s picture is at the top of this post and is from the Fondation L'Occitane website. A photo of students from last year's L'Occitane class was provided by the company. It appears in the second to last paragraph and can be viewed in true size if you click on it.

The American Foundation for the Blind helps connect prospective students with Fondation L'Occitane's perfumery classes for the visually impaired. This link takes you to an application for 2008, as an example. If you know a blind child from the U.S. (age 14-16) who would like to participate in the program, check the website for 2009 applications. Accommodations for the child and a chaperone are covered by Fondation L'Occitane.

Photos of The Brooklyn Botanic Garden are from their website.

On April 24, 2009, this story received a FiFi Award Nomination from the Fragrance Foundation and took second place in the "Editorial Excellence in Fragrance Coverage" category. The award is historical as 2009 was the first year that blogs were included in the "Editorial Excellence"category.