Malta 1565 – Blood, Sweat, and Cumin

MaltaMy Hub has written a book about renaissance Malta, and since it is coming out this week, he looked at me and said, “Can you write a post about Malta?”

Of course I was willing to write a post about Malta, but since I write about smelling and gardening for smells, I needed some whiff, or huff, or some sort of olfactory in for me to write about.

The Hub’s book deals with some fairly hair-raising events which occurred 450 years ago (The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St John, Bruce Ware Allen, Fore Edge Books, there it is!), but not so much with agriculture on Malta. The island has traditionally been a source for world class honey (the Greeks referred to Malta as Melite, “honey sweet”), which would suggest a rich lode of blooming flowers – but for whatever reason, this has not translated into perfumery as it has in, say, Grasse.

The one unquestionable perfume contribution of Malta, however, is cumin.

Yes,  cumin, the note that people either love or hate.  Whether or not you love or hate it seems to be a matter of dosage.  Overdo, and the public stagger away, clutching their noses and asking who hasn’t showered for a month?  Dose correctly, and a slightly abrasive animalic chisels the flowers and grasses etching the surface of a scent delicately.

Cumin is in mainstream hits like Dior’s Farenheit, and in the most sophisticated contemporary chypres like Roja Dove’s homage to Mitsouko, Diaghilev (who loved Mitsouko almost to excess, reportedly spraying hotel curtains with it) and in many fruity

Barkhane

Barkhane

chypres like Molyneux’s Fete, the original Femme (as of 1993), and also Houbigant’s Ciao, or Liola’s Delirium, and more recently, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s beautiful Mata Hari.

My favorite cumin?  It’s not generally a note I’ve enjoyed in the past. Oddly I’d mention Teo Cabanel’s Barkhane as a favorite for the spice.  It reminds me faintly of Robert Piguet’s Calypso, but that is probably because both scents rely on an ambery base and a geranium core.  Barkhane though welds the geranium with cumin in such a way (with curry leaf curiously) that even cumin dislikers have to reassess how they feel about the amalgam.  The base is very structured too with oud and labdanum and myrrh and patchouli and tonka beans…that it is a brick house.  Though I’m not generally a fan of ambers, even I had to take notice. This is a very good one,  the more robust sibling of the subtle Alahine.

de Nicolai Vetyver with green label

de Nicolai Vetyver with green label

These days if you wanted to smell the distinctive cumin of Malta in a more specific way, what to try?

You could do a lot worse than to  smell modern day Femme de Rochas. Mind you, this is sufficiently different from original Femme to be something you should dismiss from your mind as Femme,  this is a distinct modern composition more floral than chypre and definitely not the complex creature of Roudnitska’s post war imagining.

Another good place to smell quality cumin notes is in de Nicolai’s Vetyver, which in the original green labeled bottle has that dry stony fields note not so far from Malta itself.  Of course I don’t know how Malta smelled in the summer of 1565, but I guess that gunpowder featured more prominently than cumin, either way, blood, sweat ,and cumin it was. Maybe that’s better un-bottled.

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7 thoughts on “Malta 1565 – Blood, Sweat, and Cumin

  1. I really enjoyed my visit to Malta in… wow, i think it was 2010. It was March, so we really didn’t get the full summery olfactory ambiance – what I mostly remember is the smell of the churches we visited: pine and incense and stone and age, somehow more intense than the churches we visited in Rome (same trip).

    • I remember that church smell from Rome. It’s extraordinary how churches in Italy all have that smell, stone, smoke and incense.
      On balance I think I prefer it to cumin which is a bit pungent/sweaty for me most of the time :-).

      • I have a sample of Barkhane somewhere but I’m skeered of it. Being, you know, an orientalophobe. (Fragrance only. Though I am also very leery of male Japanese tourists, having been groped by one IN PUBLIC in Prague Castle, ca. 1990. I was too surprised to do more than expostulate, and he walked nonchalantly on like I was the one being ridiculous. @*%&!)

        • Really! Japanese tourists used to have a bad reputation in Rome for similar offenses, but you are the first person I’ve heard of who actually had to contend with one.

  2. I had no idea that Malta was associated with cumin, so thanks for that nugget of info! I am a big fan of Barkhane, but had not clocked it had cumin in, as well as all those other things, so that is interesting – must give my sample another sniff.

    Congrats to your husband on the release of his book! Odd factoid about Malta I can lob in, namely that my mother’s cousin was the Governor of the Bank of Malta in the early 70s?, and his signature graced the bank notes for a while as the person who promised to pay the bearer on demand…

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