Sunday, February 22, 2009

Patchouli: From Haute to Not and Back Again

Patchouli straddles the line between love and hate. Devotees of the essential oil find its exotic aroma intoxicating and revel in the way the raw material turns the wearer into a virtual censor, leaving a trail of scent in its wake. Those with disdain for patchouli consider any encounter to be an odious intrusion. The reason for such contradictory responses goes beyond personal taste, tenacity and essential oil quality. In truth, patchouli’s history plays an equal if not greater role that has gone mostly unnoticed.

In its natural setting patchouli is a verdant and beautiful leaf. Its appearance is at odds with its dark olfactive impression which leaves floral, spicy, balsamic and woody impressions. Patchouli is what is known as a fixative in perfumery. This means that it supports other fragrance notes in a perfume and harmoniously anchors them. Like wine, patchouli gets better with age; something that is not the case for most ingredients used in perfumery. As time passes, the amber-colored oil becomes sweeter and loses its sharp green and wet earthy qualities.

Despite patchouli’s ability to age gracefully some noses are not seduced by mature vintages. Molecules called terpenes are partially responsible for dry medicinal effects in patchouli that turn noses off. Terpenes have a resinous solvent-like odor that resembles turpentine. This aspect, along with poor qualities of oil that smell musty and barn-like, are what cause non-patchouli lovers to associate repulsive and dirty attributes to the essential oil. One of the primary functions of the sense of smell is to protect us from danger, so the intensity of the response is understandable as huffing turpentine is not in the interest of good health.

A few patchouli oils on the market have had some of the naturally occurring terpenes removed. This results in a “cleaner” smelling essential oil. Slatkin Persian Lime Blossom and Mimosa (sadly discontinued since Harry Slatkin signed on with retailer Bath and Body Works) utilized a “clean” patchouli from Laboratoires Monique Rémy and the effect is interesting; you cannot smell patchouli directly, but you can recognize its signature tenacity in the drydown. A recent example of “clean” patchouli's application is Tom Ford White Patchouli. The finished fragrance utilizes Givaudan’s Patchouli Orpur®, which imparts the heft associated with patchouli, but none of its sharp malodorous qualities.

Patchouli is one of the few materials in perfumery that cannot be synthesized, a fact that hippies may or may not have known when they adopted a scent that defined the "free love" culture of the sixties. Historically, patchouli is more than an artifact of 1960’s counterculture. When patchouli was chosen as a universal scent for men and women, hippies exerted tribal power through odor. The aroma of patchouli was an olfactive tattoo that allowed members to ferret each other’s politics through scent. Fragrance advertising that skews to a young demographic often riffs on this tribal element when it comes to positioning fragrances in the marketplace. Recent ads for Calvin Klein One illustrate the point graphically and literally, using a cadre of multiracial models and an anthem that includes the words “…so many “me’s” but just one “we”…we are one.”

Authority may not have smelled like patchouli in the 1960’s, but the well-heeled elite of 18th and 19th century Europe did. Silk traders traveling from the East packed luxurious silk shawls in patchouli leaves to keep out moths and their larvae. By the time the garments arrived on European shores they were impregnated with the aroma of patchouli. When wealthy women wore the shawls the scent of patchouli lingered on their clothes, skin and in the air. Eventually the shawls fell out of fashion and into the wardrobe of prostitutes. It was then that patchouli became associated with things carnal and forbidden. Revered and adored when emanated by the rich. Forbidden and abhorred when worn by whores. An interesting and contradictory olfactive path when one considers that patchouli’s initial use in luxury goods was that of an insect repellent.

Those that turn their noses at neat applications of patchouli may enjoy perfumes that envelop patchouli and utilize its diffusiveness to highlight other ingredients. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely executes this patchouli effect brilliantly and does so in the company of what smells like a street version of Egyptian Musk and the structure of Narciso Rodriguez (rumor has it that Lovely was inspired by a concoction made by one of the make-up artists on the set of Sex and the City, a fact that is noticeably missing from Chandler Burr’s book, The Perfect Scent). Patchouli is a key ingredient in chypre, oriental, floral and gourmand fragrance categories. If it is able to skirt IFRA’s list of banned ingredients (category defining ingredients seem to be IFRA’s favorite targets), patchouli will continue to trend from "haute" to "not" and "back again".

Notes:

The photograph of patchouli leaves comes from Pure Incense.

The Fillmore East poster is from a music blog called For the Greater Good.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saltistry: The Poetry of Taste

Salt is a flavor in its own right, but it also has the ability to enhance and carry other tastes. There is an undeniable poetry in salt. Mothers learn to decipher their infant’s cries to determine the meaning of their tears. Adults weep when words won’t do. Humans and animals are alive because of salt’s ability to regulate fluid balance. In utero, each of us inhaled and exhaled amniotic fluid so our lungs would grow strong; salt being one of the key ingredients in this nourishing and protecting liquid. When you smell or taste anything, you have salt to thank for giving you a head start in your sensory life.

Artisan sea salts have become increasingly popular, drawing attention to flavor, harvesting methods and terroir. Saltistry is a small company in Los Angeles, California that has turned the art of flavoring salt into pure poetry. Regional salts serve as the foundation for unique flavor combinations that are meticulously crafted by chef Joni Fay Hill. Saltistry's products are “finishing salts”; they are used to garnish a dish before it is served and put a little “ah-ha” into the experience of taste.

There are five sampler sets available on the company’s website. They include; Classic, Robust, Exotic, Harvest and Purist. The flavors listed on the panel of the Exotic Sampler inspire a fougère fragrance in the imagination; coconut black, preserved lemon, genmaicha, fennel pollen and lavender grey. What these flavored salts do on the tongue is memorable and delicious. It is not just the essences that determine the taste experience, but the shape of the salt crystals themselves. Some dissolve more easily than others. Others are accompanied by different mineral flavors, based on their origin. The Saltistry taste experience is as much about “mouthfeel” as it is about flavor. Try adding a dash of lavender salt to vanilla ice cream for a pleasurable and unexpected twist. Your understanding of salt as a condiment will become more expansive.

Chef Hill and partner Denise Daclan are driven by a passion for salt and a desire to make gourmet food experiences accessible to the public. The poetry of taste is not lost on Saltistry, who include an excerpt from Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” on their website. In honor of Neruda and Saltistry’s good taste, the poem is presented on Glass Petal Smoke in its entirety. The poem, which can be found in Neruda's Elemental Odes, can be heard on Reely's Poetry Pages.

Ode to Salt
by Pablo Neruda

This salt
in the saltcellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know
you won't
believe me,
but
it sings,
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
sings
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those solitudes
when I heard
the voice of
the salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the nitrous
pampa
resounds:
a broken
voice,
a mournful
song.

In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.

And then on every table
in the world,
salt,
we see your piquant
powder
sprinkling
vital light
upon
our food. Preserver
of the ancient
holds of ships,
discoverer
on
the high seas,
earliest
sailor
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
the smallest,
miniature
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste infinitude.

Notes:

Saltistry’s infusion sets are priced at $18.00 each, plus shipping. They are located in the "Products" section of the company’s website.

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, is an amusing and informative read. If you didn't take to history in grade school, this book will change everything.

The photo of salt included in this post was taken by Denise Daclan. The rights reside with the photographer.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rose and Saffron Tea

As Valentine’s Day draws near, recipes for associated victuals and libations appear everywhere, each promising more than a modicum of pleasure and satisfaction. I turned to the Mantegna Tarot for assistance after giving this yearly ritual due consideration. I drew the "Temperance" card and that inspired an aphrodisiac tea which utilizes key ingredients from my recipe for Gâteau Baiser De Safran (Saffron Kiss Cake). The result is a tender and tempting drink that is highly sensual. Is it a love potion? You’ll have to drink it to find out.

Rose and Saffron Tea
Ingredients:
8 ounces of boiled water (spring or purified)
1/2 cup dried culinary rose petals (World Spice Merchants)
A pinch of saffron (approximately 14 full threads)
A dash of ground cardamom (use sparingly)
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon orange blossom honey (more or less to taste)
2 slivered almonds

Directions:
Using a mesh tea infuser, steep the rose petals in water for 7 minutes. Remove the infuser and add saffron, almond extract and slivered almonds to the liquid. Allow to steep for an additional 7 minutes. Add honey and a miniscule amount of ground cardamom.

The meaning associated with the "Temperance" card is moderation. Drink the tea accordingly as all of the ingredients are purported to have aphrodisiac properties.

Ingredient Lore:
Rose is the flower of lovers.
Saffron induces feelings of joy.
Almonds symbolize fertility.
Cardamom balances masculine energies.
Honey sweetens the appetite for love.

Note: Photo of roses from Goodies from My Bag Lady, a coffee house and tea shop.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Eye on Smell Culture: Fenugreek

Residents of New York City received a lesson in the complex nature of molecules when the source of a pervasive maple-like scent that periodically invaded local neighborhoods was revealed as fenugreek. On several occasions optimal weather conditions carried the smell from Frutarom’s flavor processing plant in New Jersey and delivered it into nostrils of citizens whose complaints have filled 311 call logs with reports of the mysterious odor since 2005.

Experts believe that fenugreek is native to India (though some speculate that the plant is of Iranian origin). The ground seeds, which taste like a savory fusion of celery and maple, are used in a variety of curry powder mixtures. In the flavor business, extract of fenugreek is used to add maple, burnt sugar and caramel flavors to processed foods. The molecule in fenugreek that smells like maple syrup is sotolone (4,5-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone). Breastfeeding mothers who take fenugreek to increase milk production are familiar with an interesting effect of the molecule; it produces a faint odor of maple syrup on their skin, in their sweat and in their urine.

Author Steffen Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin serves as an encyclopedic reference for both perfumers and flavorists. In light of recent events, the author’s description of fenugreek is prescient, “The characteristic odor of fenugreek extract is a celery-like spiciness, a coumarinic-balsamic sweetness and an intense, almost sickeningly strong, lovage-like or opopanax-like note of extreme tenacity. The diffusive power of the odor of this material is usually underestimated by far.”

One of the functions of the sense of smell is survival. When New Yorkers became suspicious of a pervasive scent that wasn't a part of their native environment they were listening to their instincts; a response reinforced by 9/11 and the ensuing aftermath. It didn’t matter that the aromatic quality of the scent was innocuous; it was invasive and unnatural.

Repeated exposure to Frutarom’s occasional “maple eau” may no longer provoke fear, but it will be associated with invasiveness every time it makes an unwanted olfactive appearance in New York City neighborhoods (which it may continue to do as the event is not caused by a lack of compliance on Frutarom’s part and is subject to weather conditions). The question of whether or not local residents will continue to make a stink about it remains up in the air.

Notes:

Photo of fenugreek seeds from Diabetes Total Control.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dioressence: The Poetics of Fragrance












The scent of Dioressence by Christian Dior is agonizingly beautiful. The oriental fragrance was launched in 1978, a year after Yves Saint Laurent's Opium took the world by storm. With Opium, Patchouli was returned to its rightful place in the pantheon of luxury fragrance notes. Until that time it was considered too "hippie", though it was brilliantly transformed by perfumer Bernard Chant in Clinique's Aromatics Elixir in 1971. Patchouli is a pivotal element in Dioressence, but there is more to a fragrance than an ingredient list. The emotional aspect of a perfume is beyond metaphor, analogy and logic. How does Dioressence make one feel? Glass Petal Smoke offers the following poem as an answer:

At a Window
By Michelle Krell Kydd

she smiles
and a line
in the skin
on her lower lip
breaks like the tight skin
of a ripe red grape.
a gypsy could
read her mouth
like a palm,
delicate lines
some separate
some merging,
all leading to destiny
that has yet
to manifest.

the sly winds
of winter
have tried
to pry secrets
from her mouth,
but she remains silent.
there have been men
some foolish
some blind,
and a few
wise enough
to read the lines
like routes
on a map,
that disappear
and go nowhere.

sometimes
mystery is preferable
to the undernetting,
for what we do not know
cannot tangle us.

a black cat
arches its back
in the sun,
mimicking the curve
of an eyebrow
that accents a gaze
into far-off places
whose names
forsake memory.
the meaning
we give to pain
is suffering,
yet we do it
again and again,
as if by defining
the agony
we will be released
from the dwelling place
agreeably offered
to darkness.

today
the door
is left unlocked,
night falls
and stars in the sky
look like pinpricks
in the top of a circus tent.
here
the agony of beauty
is released in a single wound,
the surface broken
imperfect,
relieved of the burden
of appetite.
nothing is expected
and finally,
everything is revealed.

Notes:

Dioressence is available exclusively at Sak's Fifth Avenue. Diorella, a refreshing yet illusive creature, is also exclusive to the store.