The Smells You Hate to Love

Cumin in the garden

Cumin in the garden

Every perfume enthusiast has them, scents that really ruin a fragrance.  Sometimes it’s the dreaded melon note, other times it’s the oceanic note ( no less a perfumer than Jacques Polge has kept that out of Chanel perfumes.  He says it never actually smells like the seaside.)* Others can’t bear the animalics, the stinky civet or sweaty palmed musk notes, and then there are people who really detest woods like cedar or vetiver.

One of my worst aversions and for years was cumin.  I thought it smelled like sweat, and not clean sweat either, but coming off a three day bender sweat, the sort you whiffed inadvertently on the New York Subway, usually on the local No 1, generally below 14th street.  When I ran across perfumes simply crammed with cumin- like Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom- I would practically hold my nose.  I knew it was interesting and had something to say for itself but that cumin! The stuff just knocked you sideways.  It was Eau de Grit.

Then one day some years later I was checking the health of one of my old Caron bottles, and noticed cumin.  The perfume was Alpona and the cumin was unmistakable,  I wondered how I could have missed it for so long because I have had Alpona in my perfume collection since about 1995 or so. The odd part of this was that here in Alpona cumin did not bother me.  In fact the note enhanced the formula.  Alright, I said to myself, “I hate cumin everywhere except Alpona.”

Alpona in the original bottle

Shortly afterwards I ran into an older bottle of Rochas Femme and darn it, there was the cumin again, very lightly dosed but there, and once again I was compelled to admit to myself that I really did not find the cumin there annoying, actually the note worked.  So I was a cumin hater except for Alpona, and Femme.  Alrighty then.

Finally when I was in Paris at the Patricia de Nicolai shop they gave me a nice big sample of New York, and what do you know folks?  Yes indeed there was cumin there too and I actually loved the perfume and wore the sample dry and now wish I had a bottle.  I am actively jonesing for the stuff, and what about the cumin?

More Cumin

More Cumin

There you are. I must not really hate cumin.  Now I’ve admitted my mistake, cumin can take some of the pretty banality out of a fragrance and make it relevant to the modern world, give a formula that touch of tough, similar to the Doc Marten’s worn with the chiffon tulle skirt.  You need that dryness and that slightly rough texture to make your perfume say something interesting rather than clicheed. Also cumin works really well in chypres and that includes fruity chypres like Femme or Moyneux’s Fete or Azemour les Orangers the Parfum d’Empire orange chypre.  Cumin is like caviar, and olives, and Miles Davis, an acquired taste, a little salty, a bit umame, and when you finally get it, kind of irresistible…

Have you ever come around to a note you once hated, and which perfume did it for you?



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13 thoughts on “The Smells You Hate to Love

  1. I hate the smell of cumin, too. Still do.

    I used to dislike Vanilla in fragrances, but I slowly got won over. It was a gift bottle from my daughter of “With Love” by Hillary Duff that made me like vanilla. A very pretty bottle, too.

    I used to dislike the musks, still do.

    Thank you, Blacknall Allen, for educating us on fragrances far and wide.

    I’m interested in the new Christian Dior, “La Colle Noire”, based on May rose but with sandalwood and amber and clove. I’ve always loved clove, from childhood in the kitchen. And clove chewing gum.

    My son has given me 2 bottles of J’Adore for Christmas gifts. That’s another Dior fragrance, which came to my attention by the golden Charlize Theron ads.

    Keep up the good work, Ms. Allen.

    1. Glad you enjoy the blog!

      I had to smile reading your comment because I do have a lot of the same aversions. Vanilla was a difficulty for me too but after a really long time I got to like it. Guerlains were the turning point for me particularly Bois d’Armenie which smells like a vanilla pod to me. Surprising actually.

      La Colle Noire I have not tried yet, so if anyone else has experience of it, I’d love to hear what they thought. In general those Diors are quite subtle and wearable. I can’t think of a dud I’ve encountered from that line.

  2. Greta post – umame, Miles Davis … ! Wonderful analogies. Love it!

    Detractors of the reform of Femme tend to whinge about the cumin, so I’m interested to hear that you smell it in vintage. I don’t – I have only a now-degraded version of vintage Femme but I don’t get cumin in it. The post 1989 version – yes, in spades. That’s why I like it.

    1. Now of course I have to wonder if I have smelled the pre-1989 refo? (The 2013 Femme I don’t know at all.) The only version I ever owned was a mini from 1991 or so. Maybe I simply don’t know the original Femme or have forgotten what it smelled like… 😉

      This of course makes me think I ought to track down some older samples and see how they compare.

        1. Now this does sound familiar to me, and as you say it’s a good thing they didn’t try to sweep all that cumin under the carpet-wouldn’t have worked anyhow-but why the refo? Couldn’t have been oakmoss then. Was it strictly necessary?

          Accountants and perfume do not a happy marriage make.

  3. Not sure what note it is but there is something in modern Ambush by Dana that makes my stomach churn, also vintage aldehydes that have started to turn make me feel woozy, it’s an endurance test. Get through the opening few minutes and it’s smooth sailing.
    Portia xx

    1. You have to watch those head notes on vintage bottles-I’ve had nostril burn and worse. ..

      Dana used to be a good firm but I’m not sure how easy those perfumes are on the nose now. Haven’t tried modern Ambush, know old Ambush was big in the 60’s, kind of the perfume everybody’s sister wore to climb out of the window and come dancing after parental curfews. Very Kinks come to think of it 🙂

  4. I’ve always liked cumin, in Malle’s Bigarade Concentree as well as in New York and Azemour les Orangers. I will confess that I’ve never detected it in Alpona, which is one of my favorite persumes.

    It was another Caron perfume, Aimez Moi, that brought me around to liking both violet and vanilla. (Sadly, that was an older version–I don’t care for the current formulation of Aimez Moi.)

    I still don’t like Iso E Super, which has kept me from liking many otherwise-appealing Ormonde Jayne scents.

    1. Iso E Super is not a favorite of mine either and yes, the OJ’s I know do seem to have a bit, which are generally the bits I don’t enjoy…

      So many people have loved Aimez Moi that I’m sorry to hear the reformulation is not successful. Still a good thing that it made you actually like violet and vanilla, an interesting combination which makes me think of macarons!

  5. I use to hate all those citrus smelling scents, went to Jamica for a holiday and I smelled and the entire culture won me over.Good vibes.Great peeps!

    Had an idea to help others discover new scents without investing to much because you never know if a scent can grow on you like me and citrus genre.

    Looking for feedback from the”Nose “experts
    Thank you in advance !

  6. Too many times to mention, haha, but my most dramatic rapprochement has to be with civet. It started with Bal a Versailles, and gradually radiated outwards to embrace other animalic florals.

    Can’t recall where I stand on cumin. I don’t think my nose is subtle enough to single it out?

    1. Oh you’ll recognize cumin. Try a sample at a super market and you will suddenly encounter a key component of most curries and chilis you may ever have consumed, a slightly pungent yet dusty taste. I find it similar to immortelle (which I don’t like 🙁 )

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