Mals over at The Muse in Wooden Shoes recently noticed that she was experiencing a completely uncharacteristic craving for chypres. The ones she had a yen for were not just any old chypres, but ones with a bite, a stinging edge of tartness- well, you can see what she meant here.
I commented and noticed while doing so that I no longer had any real chypres left in my scent wardrobe. This was a surprise because all my adult life, I’ve worn chypres. There was a furlough when I was first married, and another while we expecting our daughter, but aside from those two periods yours truly has always been the Chypre Queen and an oakmoss junkie.
All of a sudden, probably because of the demise of oakmoss, there is only one full sized bottle that is sort of chypre-ish left forlorn in the perfume cupboard: Lubin’s Black Jade. Jade though, like Plus Que Jamais, is really an oriental floral, or at most a woody floral. Unlike Mals’ current chypre cravings, there is no oakmoss umame in that recipe.
The chypre cocktail requires some bitters. Dryness may not be the ne plus ultra for a chypre the way that it was for a mid-century Martini, but a certain amount of dryness helps. In a good authentic chypre, you need that acrid, bitter note.
I can’t think where I’ve encountered that satisfying sourness recently. The last place was the Parisienne version of Guerlain’s Derby, (which by the way, smells a great deal like old Cabochard to me) there the chypre cocktail is served nearly straight up with just a twist of lemon in it.
Parure was a similar formula only there was a plum note floating in there that made Parure richer, slightly less spare, plumper, and yes, a tad surreal. That chypre acerbity was present, even though Parure had a floral bouquet of lilac and narcissus in the mix that turned the whole concoction a soft purple. The scent had been composed for Jean Paul Guerlain’s mother, and the plumminess made it a bit rich, but still, Parure was a true chypre, maybe more an Old Fashioned than a Martini.
Then there is Philtre d’Amour which is surely the most acidic chypre ever shaken and not stirred. This is supposed to be a verbena lemon and petitgrain sprig ornamenting a frosted glass of lemon vodka, with the golden Guerlain ylang ylang mixed in.
Far from the mellow yellow brew this would suggest, I get a concentrated blast of lemon notes, so tart that it has the same effect as the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the effect of which was like having “your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped ‘round a large gold brick”. You may think that I exaggerate, but am writing with Philtre sprayed on paper just to be sure, and the Hub confirms this intergalactic citrus explosion.
Philtre is probably so far into citrus sours as to create a Lemontini, the paradoxes of the sweet/sour dark /light that tinkle in a crystal glass of chypre remain unbalanced and stratified as it were. Philtre is not the whole cocktail as, say, Diorella was.
The problem is that chypres- like martinis- are acquired tastes. If you start with Appletinis do you progress to the dry Martini, or the chypre? It would be nice to think so, but without the dry chilly effects of bitter oakmoss, how would a new generation of chypre wearers ever come to love dryness and bitterness?
To quote Ogden Nash:
There is something about a Martini
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini:
I wish that I had one at present.
You can say the exact same thing about chypres. There is something about them, probably not the flowers, probably the oakmoss, which is the equivalent of the gin in this cocktail, or at any rate, maybe the olive.
And yes, I do wish I had one at present.