Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Doorman's Repose: Wafts of Yatagan and Heure Exquise Perfume

The Doorman's Repose is a wonderful children's book written by award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka. Each chapter is a vignette of New York City apartment life as lived by its residents. The chapter titled "Anna and Pee Wee" contains an interesting passage involving olfactory impressions at a classical music concert that resonate with the aromas of Yatagan by Caron and Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal. There's one small hitch to this story—the protagonists aren't human.

Anna and Pee Wee are a pair of mice who've adopted the professions of the tenants whose walls they inhabit. Anna is a psychiatrist and Pee Wee is a jazz bass player. Each mouse has a different way of seeing and being in the world, but the differences in their personalities manage to bring them closer together. Each mouse is transformed when they agree to enter the world of the other, and step over the threshold of difference in order to solve a problem.

Pee Wee experiences a bad episode of stage fright and turns to Anna for psychiatric analysis. She prescribes two-page readings of Encyclopedia Britannica so Pee Wee can apply reason to fear when he's feeling afraid. The remedy is metaphorically described as a way to "shrink his heart" and "increase his brain" because Pee Wee is a sensitive mouse with a generous heart. The prescription cures Pee Wee who previously used the encyclopedia's pages as his bedding.

Anna has a professional crisis of conscience two days after helping Pee Wee overcome his fears. She lacks empathy for her patients and is afraid that her heart has grown small. This makes Anna anxious so Pee Wee recommends that they attend a classical music concert as the antidote for Anna's "shrinking heart". Anna has never been to an orchestral performance before, but accepts the invitation and is transformed.

Anna's experience of transformation is poignant. The two mice hide inside in a traveling bass case and arrive at New York City's Lincoln Center to experience Brahms Fourth Symphony. Anna and Pee Wee get settled inside the pocket of a "queenly looking" woman's fur coat, which contains silk gloves and a scented handkerchief. Anna is excited and nervous; she's hoping the live concert will allow her to have a bigger heart and solve her problem. A cure ensues as she's led by the nose:
Outside the pocket, the roarishness of the human voices was beginning to diminish. Anna and Pee Wee cautiously poked their noses out of the pocket. The lights of the hall had dimmed. By contrast, the lights directed onto the stage seemed incredibly dazzling, sending flashes of fiery light from each reflected French horn, piccolo, and cuff link. The wood of the stringed instruments glowed in warm browns and reds and near blacks. 
Then a fine-looking man in a tuxedo strode quickly across the stage, stopping briefly to shake the concertmaster's hand, and stepped onto the podium: the conductor. 
Waiting for what would come next, Anna breathed in the rich symphony of smells that washed through her, exploding almost like fireworks in her nose. The rosin, the oiled woods and brasses, the wood of the stage, the thick velvet of the seats, the scent of the fur coat, and the lady's elegant perfume, and even the rising smell of the musicians as they began to sweat in anticipation of the evening's work. 
The conductor raised his baton and the smell of sweat rose with it. 
Suddenly down came the baton, and the curling wave of sound that it unleashed knocked Anna tail over head back down into the luxurious pocket. 
"It's too much! It's too much!" said Anna. "I think my heart will break!" Pee Wee reached a paw down to Anna and pulled her back up. "Don't worry, it's just Brahms. You always feel that way with Brahms. 
—The Doorman's Repose by Chris Raschka1

Mice have a well-developed sense of smell so it's no surprise that smell, in addition to the sound of Brahms Fourth Symphony being played in a concert hall, transforms Anna. Yatagan by Caron and Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal perfectly embody distinct facets of Anna's olfactory experience by ingredient and effect. Smelling these perfumes adds dimension to the cited text if they are experienced together.

For a fragrant representation of the smell of instruments, musicians, the conductor and Brahms' Fourth Symphony reach for a whiff of Yatagan by Caron. Perfumer Vincent Marcello designed this flowerless bouquet around a chypre structure that is the hallmark of classic luxury perfumes. What Yatagan lacks in floralcy it more than makes up for in arboreal aromatics. It's positioned as a man's fragrance, but can easily be worn by women as the perfume stays close to the skin and complements everyone who wears it.

The lexicon of perfumery borrows concepts from music. Ingredients are described as notes and perfumes are called compositions. Yatagan's symphony of smells can be found in these notes: Petitgrain, Lavender Leaf, Geranium Leaf, Pine, Fennel, Basil, Artemisia, Oakmoss, Musk, Woods, Patchouli, Castoreum, Labdanum and Styrax.

The smell of elegance embodied by the perfumed queenly woman with the fur coat at the Brahms concert is Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal. Heure Exquise (the exquisite hour) is a luxury perfume inspired by the moment day turns into night. It's not the perfume of dusk, but rather an expression of the transformation that takes place when light fades into darkness. This sense of mystery and timelessness is experienced when the lights go out in a concert hall and all you can see is the illuminated stage.

Heure Exquise contains an expensive material derived from the rhizome of the Florentine Iris (Iris pallida). The rhizome is called Orris Root. The high cost of this material is associated with its cultivation, aging and processing. Orris Root needs to age for three to five years before it can be used in perfumery. It's powdery, violet, earthy and creamy facets add a sophisticated twist to perfume formulas. Notes in Heure Exquise include: Rose, Florentine Iris, Sandalwood and Vanilla. The perfume was created by perfumer Isabelle Doyenne and Annick Goutal.

The sense of smell is memory's sense, but the door to meaningful olfactory perception isn't opened by nostalgia alone. Nostalgia wouldn't exist without curiosity and a willingness to enter into mystery. Allowing life to take you places that you've never been is better than getting caught up in the revolving door of remembrance. One must take chances, try new things and face their fears. The chapter dedicated to Anna and Pee Wee in The Doorman's Repose by Chris Raschka makes this perfectly clear, and proves that reading children's books isn't just for kids.

This is the third in a series of posts about literary passages with an olfactory twist. A first and second post precedes this one. Each article includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke suggests experiencing the fragrance(s) while reading the associated text. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Some say that Heure Exquise smells like fresh American currency neatly tucked away in a haute leather purse containing lipstick and cosmetic face powder. You'll have to smell the perfume to see if your nose concurs with this association. The smell of cosmetics is a reference to the addition of Rose oil in lipstick and face powder (Bulgarian Rose is still used to scent face powders by Caron). Orris Root has a history of being added to cosmetic face powder as well. Glass Petal Smoke thinks new money smells like ink, linen paper and alpha-isomethyl ionone, which is a bit like Orris Root.

A whiff of something from our past can open doors and catapult us back in time. The temptation to fixate on memories is tempting. This is especially true as we age and the reality of impermanence sets in. The antidote for getting stuck in the past is staying curious and cultivating a sense of wonder. Get outside and explore the smells around you. Use this perspective to inform ordinary things in your life and you will encounter extraordinary things. Reading children's books is also recommended. Anna did not prescribe this remedy but Glass Petal Smoke thinks she'd approve.

If you'd like to know more about the smell of ingredients referenced in this article you can use A Small Guide to Nature's Fragrances by scientist Bo Jensen.

Image of Rosin by Just Plain Bill.

Image of Two Mice by Natasha Fadeeva.

1Chris Raschka, "Anna and Pee Wee" in The Doorman's Repose (New York: The New York Review Children's Collection, 2017), 119-120.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Archy Stillman and the Perfume of Commes des Garçons 2

When a human nose bends sinister there is more than reek to deal with. This is foreshadowed in an excerpt from A Double Barrelled Detective Story by Mark Twain. Five-year-old Archy Stillman's sense of smell is a superpower. Guided by his mother's counsel, he agrees to keep his talent a secret. The young man is on the receiving end of manipulation that has a foul air, but things aren't quite so black and white.
During his absence she had stepped to the bookcase, taken several books from the bottom shelf, opened each, passed her hand over a page, noting its number in her memory, then restored them to their places. Now she said:
"I have been doing something while you have been gone, Archy. Do you think you can find out what it was? 
The boy went to the bookcase and got out the books that had been touched, and opened them at pages which had been stroked. 
The mother took him in her lap and said, 
"I will answer your question now dear. I have found out that in one way you are quite different from other people. You can see in the dark, you can smell what other people cannot, you have the talents of a bloodhound. They are good an valuable things to have, but you must keep the matter a secret. If people found out, they would speak of you as an odd child, a strange child, and children would be disagreeable to you, and give you  nicknames. In this world one must be like everybody else if he doesn't want to provoke scorn or envy or jealousy. It is a great and fine distinction which has been born to you, and I am glad: but you will keep it a secret for mamma's sake, won't you?" 
The child promised without understanding.
A Double Barrelled Detective Story by Mark Twain

The sense of smell isn't good or bad on its own. How the nose is put to use determines how it will be judged. If this sounds like the beginning of a sermon you are hearing the echoes of an olfactory artifact whispering in your ear. The belief that the human sense of smell is inferior to that of animals was perpetuated by fear-based interpretations of religion and old science, each of which imposed a moral yardstick on the sense of smell.

A Double Barrelled Detective Story was written towards the end of the Victorian period and published in 1902. This period in England's history emphasized a refinement of the senses that traveled across the Atlantic to the United States accompanied by vestiges of Puritanism.

Nose-averse moralists believed that smells possessed one of two natures—good or evil. Scientists dismissed human olfactory prowess, emphasizing that the sense of smell became less important to humans when they abandoned their nose-to-the-ground ways and began walking upright. These former cultural norms encouraged keeping one's civilized nose to the grindstone above the olfactory business in which animal noses trade.

Physical uprightness is a metaphor for moralism as it devalues four-legged creatures that have no problem sticking their nose in anything as long as it satisfies their curiosity and leads to a desired outcome related to survival (food, a mate, devastation of a predator, etc.). A third reality exists in the duality of moral contrast, but it takes a really good nose to sniff out what an artist's eyes see quite clearly; black and white make gray and gray, though a combination of two colors, is a color in its own right.

Commes des Garçons 2 perfume was launched in 1999 and formulated for designer Rei Kawakubo by perfumer Mark Buxton. The fragrance—housed in a bottle with the number two drawn in a child-like hand—is inspired by Japanese Sumi ink used by temple monks in calligraphic painting. Sumi ink is made from the ashes of pine trees, mixed with binding agents (including aromatics) and molded into bars. The aesthetics of Sumi-e rely on capturing the "spirit of a thing" while painting it—whether the subject is real or imagined. This unseen element exists between complements and contrasts. It is the gray matter between darkness and light.

The candle version of Commes des Garçons 2 is an olfactory representation of the duality embedded in Archy Stillman's innocence and his superhuman sense of smell. Experience has yet to teach him that a gift, inborn or material, can be used against him. The reek of scheming cloaked as maternal concern is lost on him because the flame of the candle is his mother's love.

Archy Stillman's innocence floats above a circular pool of melting candle wax perfumed with white magnolia flowers and black Sumi ink. In his mind's eye Archy sees a temple monk forming the crescent of a watery moon with the tip of his paintbrush. The flower's fragrance masks the "spirit of a thing" that is beyond Archy's sense of smell—the colorless arc of duplicity that lives in the shadows.

This is the second in a series of posts about literary passages with an olfactory twist. The first post can be found here.  Each article includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke suggests experiencing the fragrance(s) while reading the associated text. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Modern interpretations of the value of the sense of smell are shifting. Scientific studies continue to debunk myths that characterize the human sense of smell as inferior to that of animals. This isn't news to the gaming community where possessing an enhanced sense of smell is revered as a superpower. You may actually know what a dog's nose knows. You may also be able to smell like one according to a recent study led by Dr. John McGann of the McGann Lab, but you'll have to get over multiple meanings attached to the word "smell" and get your nose out of your armpit.

Ingredients that comprise the aroma of Commes des Garçons 2 perfume includeInk, Incense, Amber, Labdanum, Patchouli, Chinese Cedarwood, New Aldehydes, Cumin, Angelica Root, Vetiver, Cade Oil, Absolute Mate, Magnolia Flower and Leaf Absolute.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Snork Maiden and Ombre Rose Perfume

There's a wonderful passage in Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson that illustrates how descriptions of smells can draw us inside our imagination. This is interesting when one considers that much of what's been written about the transporting power of scent is related to the context of our own memories. 

Let's drop the Proustian madeleine for a moment. What happens when we smell something and forget ourselves? Wonderful things. Magical things. Things we don't want to admit to ourselves or show the world because we are too embarrassed to dream in front of others. Want to know more? Just ask Snork Maiden. 

The following passage is from the fourth chapter of Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. It's about an adventure that Snork Maiden has when she sets foot on a floating theater with an adventurous family of gentle creatures called the Moomins: 
She went instead a bit further along the passage, sniffing the air. She had noticed an enticing and very interesting scent, a scent of face powder. The small round spot from her flashlight wandered along the walls and finally caught the magic word "Costumes" on a door. "Dresses" whispered the Snork Maiden to herself. "Frocks!" She turned the door handle and stepped in.  
"Oh how wonderful," she panted. "Oh how beautiful."  
Robes, dresses, frocks. They hung in endless rows, in hundreds, one beside the other all around the room—gleaming brocade, fluffy clouds of tulle and swansdown, flowery silk, night-black velvet with glittering spangles, everywhere like small, many colored blinker beacons. 
The Snork Maiden drew closer, overwhelmed. She fingered the dresses. She seized an armful of them and pressed them to her nose, to her heart. The frocks rustled and swished, they smelled of dust and old perfume, they buried her in rich softness. Suddenly the Snork Maiden released them all and stood on her head for a few minutes.  
"To calm myself," she whispered. I'll have to calm down a bit or else I'll burst with happiness. There's too many of them...
What would the world be like if we responded to beauty by standing on our head rather than seizing what beckoned us? It would be a very different world indeed. If we stood on our head and felt everything that Snork Maiden did what would that moment smell like? The moment would be redolent of Ombre Rose L'Original (1981) by Jean Charles Brousseau. 

Ombre Rose has an interesting history. Perfumer Francois Caron included a premixed fragrance base that was used to scent vintage face powder in the formula for Ombre Rose. Madam Caron did this to shape the perfume's olfactory character as this introduced a timeless quality associated with glamour that several generations could relate to. 

Author Barbara Herman elaborates on this effect in Yesterday's Perfume, "That re-used base was itself being self-reflexive: by reproducing the scent of face powder (rather than a flower or something "natural") it's commenting on its own status as a cosmetic, but also on itself as an aesthetic medium. It reflects; it doesn't merely reproduce." 

And to that I would add that like Snork Maiden, Ombre Rose stands on its head. It's perfumed with glamorous actresses of the past modeling the aspirations of a young girl who will one day be a woman. Smell it as you read the passage and you can simultaneously dream in the present, past and future for yourself. 

This is the first in a series of posts about literary passages with an olfactory twist. Each article includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke suggests experiencing the fragrance(s) while reading the associated text. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Demeter, a fragrance company known for its library of smells, sells a representation of snow as perfume. It was inspired by a passage in Moominland Midwinter. Snow perfume was formulated by Christopher Brosius when he worked for Demeter. Brosius is an independent perfumer and continues to create interesting olfactory portraits at CB I Hate Perfume

The image of Snork Maiden is from Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. The book is one of eight in the Moomin series. Jansson created the illustrations that accompany the stories in her books, which were written for children. There's a Wiki for all of the Moomin characters. Reading through the character descriptions makes it clear why Moomin stories aren't just for children. Character descriptions of Moomin characters on the official Moomin website are playful, informative and highly entertaining.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Baking with Flavor: Spiced Pear Clafoutis Made with Kefir

Spiced Pear Clafoutis is a delicious French pastry that is charmingly rustic and easy to make. The classic version of clafoutis has a firm custard or flan-like texture that enrobes the fruit (typically firm summer cherries). In France the term flaugnarde is used to denote clafoutis made fruits other than cherries, but the designation isn’t strictly adhered to.

Glass Petal Smoke’s recipe for Spiced Pear Clafoutis was designed with flavor and good health in mind. It utilizes less fat and sugar than traditional clafoutis, favoring coconut sugar for the caramel nuance it imparts to the pastry. The combination of almond and vanilla extracts with dark rum is otherworldly—and you can smell it as the clafoutis bakes in the oven and the butter sizzles on the sides of the ceramic dish.

The amount of Penzeys Cake Spice used in the recipe for Spiced Pear Clafoutis is minimal and that’s deliberate. A teaspoon and a half adds just enough warmth to inspire perfect alchemy between the extracts and the rum. Reduced fat doesn’t mean reduced flavor if you combine complementary ingredients together. Penzeys Cake Spice contains China cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and cloves—flavors that marry well with vanilla, almond, pear and rum.

In baking, small adjustments for the purpose of creating flavor with less fat and sugar can tantalize taste buds. The beurre noisette (brown butter) crust that forms on Spiced Pear Clafoutis tastes like a financier when it breaks on the tongue—a flavor experience that is decadent and unexpected. This is accomplished with the addition of unblanched almond flour, organic wheat pastry flour and unsalted pasture butter.

Spiced Pear Clafoutis can be eaten for dessert or as a breakfast pastry. Feel free to add a touch of whipped cream or non-fat Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. If you wish to experiment with other flavors to make your own version of clafoutis use firm fruit and complementary flavor combinations of your choice. The possibilities are endlessly delicious.

Spiced Pear Clafoutis
(Serves 8)
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
  • Combine pastry flour, cake spice, salt and almond flour in a large mixing bowl. Set aside. 
  • Mix kefir, vanilla extract, almond extract and dark rum in a separate bowl (or pourable measuring cup). Using a fork, stir ingredients until they’re well blended. 
  • In a separate bowl beat the eggs with a whisk. Add sugar and whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved. 
  • Add the kefir mixture to the egg mixture and whisk until thoroughly combined. 
  • Cut the pears into quarters, removing stems, seeds and blemishes (skin stays on). Roughly chop the fruit forming small rustic-shaped cubes. 
  • Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients and combine using a large silicone spatula. 
  • Add pears and use the silicone spatula to fold the fruit into the batter, making sure that all the pieces are well coated. Set aside to rest for five minutes. 
  • Butter the pie dish. 
  • Pour the batter into the dish, using the silicone spatula to spread the batter evenly so the pears are evenly distributed in the plate. 
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick placed in the center is dry when removed. 
  • Allow the clafoutis to cool on a rack while it’s in the ceramic plate. Serve slightly warm or refrigerate.
Glass Petal Smoke recommends keeping a sealed two-cup jar of dark rum mixed with raisins in your refrigerator (enough dark rum to cover the raisins). The raisins will infuse the rum with flavor over time and you can use the infused rum in many pastry applications. You can use the raisins in Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for Rum Raisin Scones, which freeze well and are made with butter and heavy cream.

Invest in a 9-inch ceramic pie dish. It distributes heat evenly and you'll find many uses for it. Stick with lighter colors to avoid overbaking.

Specific brands are used in Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for Spiced Pear Clafoutis because they perform well. You can use other brands if you like, but Penzeys Spices is highly recommended.