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.

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Among the Roots

Siberians in the garden at Bowdoin

Siberians in the garden at Bowdoin

Suddenly it’s gotten hot in Connecticut.  This sounds like an oxymoron I know.  However it can get hot in New England and usually does when you really could do without the humidity and the soaring temperatures, as in for instance when you’ve just moved north and thought it would be cooler.

Every year when the Great Heat Wave happens I’ve turned to different remedies and oddly this year my invisible cold pack is full of  iris and patchouli. I’m not sure why I decided that iris was a good remedy for heat, unless the sight of a lone Japanese iris in bloom set me off the other day. Continue reading

Tainted By Association

Cedarwood Juniperus viginiana from London essential oils

Cedarwood Juniperus viginiana from London essential oils

Some lovely perfumes and time honored scent ingredients go out of commerce for the oddest reasons.  Take for instance the case of cedar wood. That’s a wonderful scent and many perfumers like to work with the essential oil but for a sizeable number of the public cedarwood is inextricably linked to pet shops.

I first realized this after a discussion with one of my Connecticut neighbors who told me that she couldn’t stand the smell of cedarwood in anything, “I just think of hamster cages,” she said.  After that conversation with Susan I began to have a clearer idea of what it is that perfumers are up against all the time: association. Continue reading

2014: The year of Floral Orientals and Aldehydes

A chorus girl from  The Bluebell

A chorus girl from The Bluebell

Everyone of consequence in the perfume blogging sphere comes up with lists of the best and worst at the end of the year.  I am not of consequence and anyhow a bit out of step.  Not impressed with Narciso and not a fan of the rapidly metastasizing Francis Kurkdijian display at Neiman  Marcus.   I like the sparkly light frags he specializes in, but not endlessly. A gal’s got to wear something other than the perfume equivalent of sequined pasties and ostrich feather thongs you know-even if she currently lives in Jersey!  Though it is only fair to say that the husband thought he could see an upside to the style.

This was the year in which I really went and explored the offerings of US perfumers and I have to return to that exploration at the end of the year and say again how impressed I was. Most impressed by how well two genres of fragrance had been mastered by these perfumers: the floral oriental and the floral aldehyde.  Continue reading

Coty’s Chypre

Chypre in an early bottle

Chypre in an early bottle

This is a marvel of a perfume.  If you are new to the world of scent and just trying to get a grip on what the difference between an oriental and a chypre is, Francois Coty’s name is one to know.  He was  born a Corsican and his original name was actually Spoturno, but he abandoned that in favor of his mother’s maiden name Coti, which he subsequently gallicized to Coty. France’s first billionaire, Coty was also the first man to use floral extracts in his perfumes (these were stronger and pure-er than the old floral distillates).  The result was several stunningly original perfumes and in 1917, Chypre,  the fore runner of all modern chypres, and a true feat of perfumery, combining extremes of lightness and darkness, freshness and muskiness, scrubbed cleanliness and grubby sexiness in one unified whole. Continue reading

Nasty from the Nice

Faraday's Depiction of the Great Stink of London

 Depiction of the Great Stink of London

Bad perfume may be one of the evils we were put on this earth to rise above- as Queen Victoria was  rumored to have remarked about nature. At least it is to my mind.  Victoria had a larger task than the one I have set myself, which is simply not to inhale anything for long which is hateful.  When it comes to new perfumes I give everything a fair trial-but here’s the salient point-not on skin.

My method involves a brandy snifter and some saturated paper or cotton. I leave the sample in the snifter for hours and check on its progress and note the changes, but I do not put anything on my skin anymore that has not gone through a good eight hour stretch in the snifter. Continue reading

Perfume in the Bloodstream

L'Aimant advertising

L’Aimant advertising

This is an illusion.  You can’t really ever have perfume flowing along your veins but there is a quality certain perfumes share which makes them a great deal easier to adopt and to wear, and that is this phenomenon of “melting” into the skin.

So many perfumes have passed through my hands, and so few have stayed with me over time that I have developed a sense of those perfumes which might actually make a home with me based on a very simple criterion: surface or subcutaneous?  If I don’t feel that I’ve absorbed a perfume and am now radiating it, then I seldom get to the point of finishing a bottle. Continue reading

Count Alfred D’Orsay and the Elusiveness of…..

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but  somehow it never quite gets off the page.   Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd.  Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred.  That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man.  His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare.  While the general  was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit,  Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others.  (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

Strange Invisible Perfume

“From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.”

“Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love sick with them”

The quote is Shakespeare. of course,  from Anthony and Cleopatra, she whom age could not wither nor whose infinite variety could custom stale, and if the winds were love sick, they were as nothing compared to the boyfriends, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony.  Especially Marc Anthony, who gave up an empire for the woman. Continue reading

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

The churchmen knew their business when they brought scent into the worship of God.  Elemental stuff, you see.  Like Proust’s madeleine.  The origin of the word perfume relates to it. Per fumen – through smoke.   Some words are so ingrained in the vocabulary that one forgets that they have origins, and the origins of scented smoke are old indeed.

Early on, flavored smoke was a specific for ridding a place of other-worldy undesirables. Case in point:

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