The Smell of American Holidays

Northern Bayberry

Northern Bayberry

These days it seems to be synthetic holly or vanillin, or sugar cookie, but once in my childhood it was the scent of bayberries. Now this no doubt seems very old fashioned indeed to people who may still be in their twenties, but the time was when candles were made up and down the eastern seaboard of the colonies using the berries of this one shrubby plant, Myrica pensylvanica.

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What the Bees Smell

Squash bees at work

Squash bees at work

My heliotrope was a big disappointment to me this year.  The seeds were ordered from Monticello and when they germinated and grew to plant-hood what did I find?  A great big bush the height of my waist with  feathery heads of purple and then lavender flowers that did not have any scent.

Color me disappointed.  But although I may have been cheated of my almond and sugar and cherry perfume, the bees were in heaven.  The bees and the butterflies were all over my heliotrope practically from the very first day it came into flower in July.  The bees evidently don’t care what human noses smell, they have their own standards of attractiveness.  Which makes me wonder what is it really that bees smell? Continue reading

Green Eggs and Vetiver

Green Eggs and Ham

Green Eggs and Ham

Vetiver is like comfortable old shoes to me.  Ahh…vetiver, it’s relaxing and there are relatively few versions of vetiver I’ve ever come across that I didn’t like.  I love Terre d’Hermes, though perhaps it’s not as good a vetiver as in its salad days.  I also love Guerlain’s wonderful old Vetiver.  A marvelous scent, and the tobacco in there is a brilliant touch.

I’ve always crossed the aisle and so wore Givenchy’s Eau de Vetyver and I loved and briefly wore Maitre Parfumier et Gantier’s Racines.  One was very masculine and comfortable- kind of like borrowing your boyfriend’s hacking jacket- and the other was more refined, good to wear in fall with woolens.  Naturally I also had Guerlain’s Vetyver for a long time.  The square bottle with the wave pattern on the glass was sublime but gave headaches, so I sprayed it in my shoes or on my feet.  I still managed to get my vetiver fix and discovered along the way that the Guerlain Vetiver killed moths. Continue reading

The Sweet Breath of Horses

Horse and Hay

Horse and Hay

My sister as a teenager spent some time working in stables, and says that what she misses most from that period is the smell.  Actually I’m pretty sure she meant something specific, not for instance the smell of mucking out- which is never the best odor in stables-and in fact she was thinking of the scent of the horses.  Horses while they were being groomed.  She liked the brushes, and the whiff of a healthy horse, and their sweet breath, and also she loved to clean tack.  Murphy’s Oil Soap was what they often used, and she enjoyed the smell of that too.  Murphy’s made her downright nostalgic. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Confederate Jasmine and Garbage

Current Roman Garbage

Current Roman Garbage

Rome has a problem with garbage.  I used to live there quite a long time ago and recall that the garbage problem existed back then too-from time to  time.  It’s nothing like this though.  Garbage piles up even in the more famous locales like Piazza del Popolo where the tourists collect every day, sit on the lions surrounding the obelisk fountain, and  leave behind plastic water bottles and candy wrappers…

The Romans are mortified.  Worse, they can’t seem to strike a deal with the sanitation people, who show up in snazzy jump suits in the civil colors of Rome: orange and  dark crimson, driving the smallest and most stylish garbage trucks ever seen, but they never seem to pick up more than a sack or two of garbage (well OK that’s about what they can fit in those adorable trucks) but this leaves behind la maggioranza of the problema on the sidewalks. Continue reading

The Glamorous Scent of Peonies

Festiva Maxima from hiddenhillsgardens.comf

Festiva Maxima from hiddenhillsgardens.comf

In the heart of the big white peony known as Festiva Maxima there’s a very subtle scent.  You simply poke your nose in among the petals and you get many fragrances rolled together in the circumference of a single flower.  This is ready made perfume, perfection and not so many other plants produce fragrance so rounded and so complete.  Festiva Maxima does though.  I can only think of the Silk Tree as competition for another fine female fragrance finished down to the last molecules; an entirety of organic perfume.

Pink peonies have a similarly sophisticated scent but it’s  just a bit more pronounced and carries further.  Pink peonies have a sillage, and one of my  Mother’s dogs used to adore their perfume.  She was the only dog I ever knew who would literally go and smell the flowers.  A German Shepherd labrador mix, she had an acute nose, but a delicate, almost feminine sense of what smelled respectively good or bad, peonies were her clear favorites.  She never was too much into my dog’s preferred scent Eau de Dead Squirrel. Continue reading

Rose in the Round

Winchester Cathedral photo our own

Winchester Cathedral photo our own

My roses have begun to be acclimated to the new garden and one has bloomed.  It is such a pretty thing and the scent is so different from what rises out of perfume bottles that I am  compelled to write about rose fragrances and how often they seem to go wrong when transplanted to human skin.

The rose in these pictures is David Austin’s Winchester Cathedral a white sport (A spontaneous change in flower, appearing on an established variety.  It’s an odd term I know.)  from his well known Mary Rose.  Winchester has a smell that is not at all like what wafts from perfume counters. Continue reading

Pepper Flowers: Ofresia, Gardenia, Perfectly Marvelous

Black and White peppercorns

Black and White peppercorns

This is the sort of idea that tends to put people off.  It’s already pollen season in the Northeast, and I’m hearing a great deal of sneezing going on all around me, but the fact remains that an irritant is part of the charm of floral fragrances.  Possibly there should be something, just a little something, abrasive in all that prettiness.

Some perfumers have had the same idea, and that’s why there is a small sub genre of floral perfumes that feature pepper in a prominent position of the formula.  I can’t say the trick is a new one,  Chanel’s Gardenia contained pimento back in the 1990’s in its heart along with clove and sage, this followed a lavishly floral beginning crowded with orange blossom, jasmine and tuberose.  This gave Gardenia a piquancy that was maybe missing from some of its later iterations.  Anyway that touch of pepper showed that white florals did not have to be banal. Continue reading

No Green Beans

Green Vanilla beans from pinteres

Green Vanilla beans from pinteres

There are times when being green is not a good thing.  Take for instance Madagascar vanilla beans.  The island is the premier producer of vanilla beans world wide( just after Indonesia)* but has had troubles recently with the quantity of its beans and also with the quality.  Although you can buy vanilla from other sources such as Indonesia and Mexico, the quality of the beans has consistently not been perceived as being as high as the Madagascan vanilla.  That could be changing though.

The salient point here is that vanilla pods need to ripen before they are marketed.   When they are green they are not saleable. The vanilla pods have to turn that tarry black before they are ready.  Nowadays though some traders are harvesting the beans while they are still green and vacuum packing them, like off season sweaters, then opening the vacuum packed beans when the price of vanilla has risen enough to make their sale highly profitable. Continue reading