Friday, April 30, 2010

adventures in sinaesthesia: Pepper and passion

IMG_4549 In Salman Rushdie’s Moor’s Last Sigh, a spice heiress and a manager succumb to their passion for one another and make love on sacks of pepper. This scene won Rushdie the award for bad sex writing. I guess the line that seems to especially offend people’s sensitivities is the admittedly very stupid-sounding: “For ever they sweated pepper n’ spice sweat.” Ok, fair enough, that sounds pretty mojo-killing. But I remember the first time I read this novel (when it came out. I admit to being a Rushdie fan), and I remember that I thought this scene was pretty hot. not the terrible n’,  but the scene in general. Reader, what do you think:

link to this page of the The Moor’s Last SighThe Moor's Last Sigh

I found myself thinking of it again, dear readers, when I spritzed on The Different Company’s Rose Poivrée—after the inevitable sneeze, I thought, what a sexy scent, with its pepper, civet, rose, cumin, and coriander, and then all these images of sexy Indian heiresses and their strapping lovers ‘doing it’ on pepper seeds filled my head.  It stays erotically spicy and rosa damascena perfectly blended until the end of its life, drying down to a musky pepper rose and then fading out completely. In all my thinking about beds of pepper, I then realized how fitting it is that the damask rose should form the other major component of this perfume, since it is itself famously crushed to create fragrance. Isn’t it something like 4000 kilos of flower per 1 kilo of oil? Our lovers could just as easily have lain in a literal mountain of roses. Beds of pepper, beds of roses—It all blends together in my mind into a pretty nice erotic image…. Pere de Pierre does a nice review you can catch here.
On a completely unrelated pepper note, one of my favorite moments in my beloved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is when Alice comes upon the cook and the baby. With a complete disregard for sentimental sensibilities, Lewis Carroll gives us the catchy and hilariously disturbing ditty:

“And with that she began nursing her child again, singing a sort of lullaby to it as she did so, and giving it a violent shake at the end of every line: -- --
              "Speak roughly to your little boy,
              And beat him when he sneezes;
              He only does it to annoy,
              Because he knows it teases."
          (in which the cook and the baby joined): -- --
          "Wow! wow! wow!"
While the Duchess sang the second verse of the song, she kept tossing the baby violently up and down, and the poor little thing howled so, that Alice could hardly hear the words: -- --
              "I speak severely to my boy,
              I beat him when he sneezes;
              For he can thoroughly enjoy
              The pepper when he pleases!"
          "Wow! wow! wow!"



SO here’s my prescription for this weeks adventure in sinaesthesia: Get Rushdie (or Carroll, if you so prefer). Make a homemade pot of my pepper chai. Spray on Rose Poivrée. maybe eat some pepper tea cookies or pfeffernussen (shout out to you, Sis), open the book and enjoy the ride!

pepper chai

IMG_4556 I make all sorts of different chais-it is said that nearly every part of India serves a different sort of chai (the name just means tea—c.f. Japanese ‘cha’) and so do I. Some kinds I make are cinnamon-heavy. Others are garam masala based. others utilize fresh ginger. Still others are a blend of all the spices I can get my hands on. But one of my favorites, the one I recommend your making for your pepper adventure, is my pepper-cardamom-nutmeg chai. This is very piquant, and quite lovely, if I do say so myself. Give it a try, and tell me what you think.

Pepper Cardamom Chai

bring 4 c. water, one ground nutmeg, a teaspoon of ground cardamom, and a teaspoon of pepper to a boil in a large pot.

Allow to simmer for 10 minutes, then add tea of choice (I usePG Tips), three tbsp, sugar or to taste, and 3 c. milk.

When chai is almost at a boil, strain or serve with mate straws.



Thursday, April 29, 2010

perfume and the pandora problem

goble pandora We live in an age of superspecialization; it’s been said many times and I’m gonna say it again.  My favorite example of this phenomenon is Pandora, the online radio station, which allows one to suggest one’s favorite song, then produces the songs and albums its special generator thinks you might like. If you don’t like the suggestions, give it a thumbs down—it’ll recalibrate and try to find the exact right thing for your tastes and expectations. So far so good, right? You get exactly what you want for your mood, and discover new artists in the process, right?
The problem, in my eyes, lies in the fact that a person could listen to nothing but artists who all have something in common with David Bowie, for example, and never come into contact with any other genres or musicpandora 2al ideas, for the rest of her life. New music is always coming out, and she can just specialize in that niche.
The same trend holds true for perfume. New fragrances are always being launched, in every category and subcategory, and if you want, you can spend your perfume-life sniffing nothing but chypres, if you so please. Connected with this is the quixotic pursuit of the “Holy Grail” fragrances, something that somehow magically encapsulates the essence of you, your tastes and desires.  You know where this is going,  right…
I have made this mistake—I love oakmoss, vetiver, and everything that smells like dirt. For a while I obsessed over the possibility of finding the ‘right one,’ the scent to end my search, to keep me happy forever. But in the process, I opened the ‘Pandora’s box’ of general scent obsession, of that burning curiosity to know more smells, to satisfy my starved olfactory facility.
pandora My point is, as with other aspects of our lives, we have to be careful of getting in aesthetic ruts—of just sticking with the things which are most pleasing to our still-developing noses and hearts. Searching Makeup Alley and Basenotes, for scents that may contain exactly the right notes might—just might—stunt our development, and keep us from having revelations. The more choices we have, the more specialized the commercial offerings, the more careful we must be to keep our imaginative and aesthetic horizons broad.
Reading this over, I realize this may sound preachy, but think of it as a sermon to myself, a reminder that, in fragrance as well as music, there’s much beyond Bach and Bowie to explore!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

notes from my lunar insomnia

La-Lune-The-Moon Ok, it’s the second day of my monthly lunar insomnia, so here’s my second musing on the link between the moon and perfume. I was thinking about D&G’s recent attempt to offer a niche line with their generally disappointing tarot-inspired fragrances (what is with the naked models as tarot cards anyway?) and their interpretation of the moon tarot card with a rather insipid fruity floral/woody scent, La Lune. Of all things, this is just the wrong fragrance for this mysterious card. Not to get all new-agey on you (I’m not usually) but I have spent some time with the Tarot in my life—I am a medievalist, after all, and the allegory of the Tarot appeals to my sensibilities—and the moon is one of the most powerfullune and ambiguous cards in the deck.
In the Tarot, the moon—the most powerful sign of mutability next to the Wheel of Fortune—has both positive and negative meanings. As you can imagine, it is associated with women, with their monthly cycles, and with their fertility. It also has to do with madness—lunacy—that can be brought on by cycles fo human life (think: menopause) but also that werewolfishness that some like me experience in a cyclic way when the round moon hangs bright in the sky.
It also has to do with the binary of life and death, and with sex—the only real thing—biologically speaking—lying between those two extremes. It has to do with the endless cycle of procreation and death to which all humans and all life are chained. Note the crustacean crawling out of the ocean in the top image. That is the nightmare of the unknown, of the subconscious, and also of the deep unexplored ocean; the things we know exist and don’t want to understand—all brought up by the moon’s powerful force.
moon All this is to say that Dolce and Gabbana’s La Lune is a deeply inappropriate fragrance choice to represent this spooky tarot card. Where La Lune is soft, ethereal, floral, and derivative, this card is destructive and creative, monstrous and beautiful, and extremely powerful in its paradoxes. If I imagine a fragrance that would be appropriate, I would want something extremely indolic (to represent sex and death), something with lots of cumin and musk (to represent the animal forces responding to the moon’s call), and something with herbaceous aquatic notes (to represent nature’s union with lunar forces both on land and sea).  In other words, this fragrance should be schizophrenic—both appealing and disgusting—and inescapable.
Well, perhaps it is too much to ask these days that a fragrance should deliver the symbolic idea its marketing directors cook up. I guess I get irritable when I see a fragrance house launch such an insipid, uninspiring offering when they could take a chance with a really uncomfortable concept and fragrance, and really knock the mass market’s socks off. Wishful thinking, I know!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

full moon fever

It is a full moon today, and I feel myself becoming owly. Question: is there such a thing as a lunar note in perfume. Lately I've seen a lot of frags list solar accord in their notes, which is supposed to smell like the sun on skin, but is there one that captures the clammy, mystical fragrance of the full moon?

Arguably, the whole genre of white flowers combined with exotic woods is intended to evoke the feeling of a luminous night of love on the full moon, but these are all very Southerly visions of what a walk in a garden in the moonlight in India or the deep South or Persia might smell like, with night-blooming jasmine, moonflower, lotus, gardenia, camellia, rose, etc. Is there an equivalent 'lunar' scent for, say, an English garden, or more perversely, a winter solstice night in the far North?

My dad, who used to be a choral director in a high school, says that he would always notice the kids acting strangely at certain times of the month. There would be more fights, less concentration, more love-related drama, the whole works. He would fins himself wondering every time--what the hell is going on?-- and then realize that it was a full moon that night.

I have read that violent crimes and felonies increase noticeably in the days surrounding the full moon, and I, myself, have fallen prey to some pretty weird feelings on these days as well. It's like whatever I am feeling is intensified, heightened. I have found myself curled up in a corner of the kitchen, suddenly, unaccountably, sobbing. Or I have felt extremely amorous. Or really restless.

A perfume that heightens all these emotions, that captures the dark side of the brightest lunar night, has to exist. What is it?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Falling in love with Fracas

tuberose This week I spent five days in the city, and have been away from the blogosphere, but now I’m back to share all my news! The question is, what is the most exciting thing that happened to me fragrancewise? With my busy fragrance schedule (see my Birthday Pilgrimage) it’s hard to say, and I will surely be mulling over all my experiences online over the course of this week, but I think I must first come out with the most exciting news of all: I fell in love. And bought the bottle (thank God Bergdorf-Goodman was having a $25 off sale)  The lucky fragrance? Robert Piguet’s Fracas. I had never really understood what all the fuss over tuberose was about until I wore this. Yes, I’ve sniffed it before, and other insanely bold tuberoses like Tuberose Criminelle and Carnal Flower, but wearing 4 spritzes (overkill, I know!) of Fracas around Greenwich Village on this past Thursday night made me understand.

On me, Fracas smells like tuberose, yeast, and butter—and warm, unwashed sheets. And that makes me deliriously happy. My darling and I went to dinner at an absolutely fabulous Cuban restaurant, and as we wolfed down the light-as-air yucas fritas and the equally ethereal ceviche, the Fracas unfolded around me, making me feel like the back patio of the restaurant really was in Cuba, and that we were on an exotic vacation together, not just 4 hours from our home Upstate.  The yeastiness and the butteriness make Fracas seem almost fatty, like it could be eaten and enjoyed, which only adds to its deep sexiness, in my opinion. It also allows it to play very well with food, as my experience in the Cuban restaurant showed.FRACAS perfume

IN terms of longevity, Fracas hung on my skin and my silk scarf until the next morning, and again, the warm sexiness of the aroma made me want to lounge naked in bed for hours. It has been said before, by better writers than me: (see Grain de Musc, bois de jasmin, and Beth at Perfume-Smellin’ Things,) that Fracas smells like a woman’s warm skin after a night of love, and I couldn’t agree more.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have tried to purchase a fragrance as a souvenir of a meaningful trip; I find it helps me remember the experience as well as—or better than—snapshots, so it was clear I needed to get this gorgeous creation for myself as a reminder of that supremely sensual evening I spent in Cuba/Greenwich Village with my beloved.  

Saturday, April 24, 2010

comme des garcons red series carnation

Red Carnation I never realized how closely related carnations and cloves were until cdg connected the dots. While a superrealistic carnation scent, the clove supports and brings it out and the two notes dance together in a dipping and weaving mating dance; sometimes I smell clove, sometimes carnation, sometimes just enhanced carnation.  I also get an oxidized tea note. SO I wouldn't consider this a soliflore, although some may be inclined to, since the clove, tea, pepper, and rose notes only serve to round out and enhance the carnation scent, which is certainly the star of the show here. But to me, since the clove plays such an important role in the understanding and development of this scent, this becomes an elegant study in the ways the smell of chloroforms er, chlorophyll, and spice work together—how they are all part of a great continuum.

I am getting dimly remembered shades from my childhood of high school prom night dances on the reservation, that my dad would chaperone when he was a teacher there. I remember feeling such awe for the sophistication and glamour of all the dudded-up teenagers—the boys (men to me then) in their rented polyester tuxes with carnation boutonnières, and the women wearing those puff-sleeved Cinderella numbers. The carnation, now overlooked by a country that now buys orchids and birds of paradise for their 14 year-olds’ formal parties, was then king. I remember burying my nose in a fallen boutonnière, being amazed that such a prosaic little bud could have such a gorgeous scent, and then squishing its firm head in my hands, rolling it around on my palms to extract the fragrance, and finally, slowly, tearing the flower apart with the little pearl-tipped pin to smell all the separate parts.

To me, the ca2600carnationrnation is the smell of a big  night on a little budget, but all the more charming for that! I love this fragrance  for its uniqueness and longevity.

But the carnation wasn’t always relegated to the ‘filler’ section of the local florists. It has a long and storied history as one of the kings of the flowers, from the classical period on, but that, alas, is a tale for another day.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

adventures in sinaesthesia: scotch and scent

single-malt-scotch-brands I love scotch, because I love its complexity, its fragrance, and the way it looks in the glass. At a scotch tasting last night, I was struck by how much the protocols of Scotch tasting parallel those of fragrance. When we taste Scotch, we give greater emphasis to how it smells than to how it tastes; the more complex the scotch, the more difficult to understand and describe the scent, the more we value it. And unlike other beverages,  professional scotch noses never actually drink it; they evaluate the quality of the scotch based on smell alone. When we smell a  Scotch, we look for the scents of earth, peat, smoke, fruit, wood, dirt, brine, sulphur, grain, and spice among others, and physiological reactions like ‘nose burn’ the feeling of light pain from the rising alcohol of a Scotch. We also look for ways to describe the ideas we get about the kind of space the scent occupies—is it round, angular, smooth?

Smelling Scotch can help hone our noses for fragrance, and vice versa, since many of the scent catgories are the same. Learning the vocabulary oscotchf a scotch connoisseur opens up ones vocabulary for describing perfume, as well. The same is, of course, true for wines as well.

When we finally taste the Scotch, we look to see if it matches in flavor the smell that met our noses. We want to feel in our mouths what we smelled with our noses, a complete sinaesthetic moment of clarity. Scotch, like perfume and wine, will change over time in the bottle, and in front of our noses in the glass.

Crystal Old Fashioned Glasses - Pinwheel - Set of 6Another interesting parallel between the connoisseurship of scotch and that of fragrance is that it is often difficult to detect the line between the appreciation of the juice per se and the fetishistic attraction to the crystal bottle or glass containing it. I have seen scotch lovers’ crystal and bottle collections, and they can certainly rival those of all but the most devoted perfume bottle collectors.

And the final, most fundamental parallel between these two difficult elixirs: when they are right, they can make you high, deliriously happy, and drunk on life.

A Good internet guide to Scotch tasting

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Down with Princesses!


Down with them! Down! I really dislike the Vera Wang Princess ads. The girls portrayed in them remind me of the kind of overprivileged young women who populate the undergraduate population of my university. I always groan when I see this kind of girl in my classes on the first days of the semester; you can spot them from a mile away—always attached to their blackberrys, hoisting a huge be-logoed Prada bag on their anorexic shoulders, wearing a hideous and rather skanky outfit that you can tell is designer right away.

This is the kind of girl who shows up in my office crying if she gets

less than an A on the paper she plagiarized from the internet, who gets drunk and pukes at frat parties, who never worries about the future because she knows she can always work for Daddy’s firm. She never studies anything because it interests her;  she only studies subjects she needs to know to make lots of money. And worst of all, she speaks in a simpering baby whine that makes my ears curl.

It disturbs me that looking like a bratty, overprivileged child makes effective ad copy these days. Whatever happened to the mysterious glamour of yesteryear, anyway? Born to rule, indeed, and isn’t it unfortunate! The worst part of all is that people really seem to feel princesslike when they put this fragrance on, as these Basenotes reviews suggest, and don’t realize that the candy-sweet sugar confection this is cannot be a good reflection of their inner depths or their capacity to rule. Honestly, when I think princess, I want to think Grace Kelly,  not Little Miss Fancy New Jersey Pants here.

I know this sounds pretty snarky, and I apologize for that. Plus, I know this ad campaign has been out for a long time—it’s just been grating on my nerves ever since. Any readers out there who Love Vera Wang Princess’ aesthetic and want to defend it publicly? I’d love to hear it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mary Magdalene: Patron saint of perfume

I find it very interesting that Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of perfume. Her legend is so multifaceted, so sensory, and so deeply complex that I have to concede that she makes a perfect object of contemplation for the perfumer (and the lover of perfume, of course!). Her status (erroneously attributed to her in the sixth century by the ubiquitous Legenda Aurea  or The Golden Legend in English) as a reformed prostitute landed her squarely in the world of the sensual, and her ritualistic, emotive actions subsequent to her conversion only enhanced this reputation. For example, Mary Magdalene was believed to have washed Jesus’ feet with her penitent tears and a whole box of spikenard; perfuming them, if you will, with the liquid of new-found holiness. The passage is so super-sensual I’ll include it here:
Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly,
and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair;
and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.' (John - Chapter 12: 3)
Click to see an enlarged picture Although spikenard is not a common ingredient in modern perfumery, we can imagine the gorgeous scent of this earthy balm—spikenard smells a bit like valerian, a bit like vetiver--pouring out over the doomed man’s feet, and the luxurious spectacle of this woman wiping down the leader’s feet with her hair (generally depicted as red, the color of passion, or later blonde, the color of elite beauty in the Middle Ages and Renaissance) in a posture both of deep abjection and of great intimacy. It is that sensual intimacy, the sense of luxuriousness, as well as, arguably, the abjection of covering one’s imperfect human body with exotic unguents from animals and plants that gives the art of perfumery its great mystery, and it is all captured here in this one moment of pathos.
But Mary Magdalene is also associated with that most sensual of bodily adornments, hair, in other strange ways, and her hair also seems always to be connected somehow with the ideas of fragrance and death—it is important to note that MFile:Linz Schlossmuseum - Maria Magdalena 1.jpgM is also the patron saint of hairdressers (LOL). After her conversion, whe she was reputed to have retreated from the world in penance, some legends describe her as a wild hermit whose bestial nature fundamentally marked her body; she grew a silken hair all over her body! This is  a conflation of the idea of Mary Magdalene as a penitent sinner and hermit—and legends of hairy anchorites-- with the idea of wild sexuality, as embodied by Orientalist legends of wild women in the east whose ravenous sexuality manifests itself on their bodies, making them look more animal than human.
Her final link with perfume comes the day after the death of Jesus, since she is one of the myrrhbearers who come to the tomb to scent and embalm the body of the crucified leader, and, according to the story, find him gone! Here, the sensual aspects of fragrance intersect with the more morbid aspects of perfumery, since Mary Magdalene and her companions intend to perfume the body of a dead man. Perfume has been used to embalm corpses since literally the beginning of recorded history, and the legend of the patron saint of perfumery forces us to remember this fact. Interestingly, some of the most heady classic ingredients of perfume contain indoles, and share many qualities in common with rotting flesh—that super sweet smell that is both heady and overwhelming.
If you think about it—you don’t have to—the topnotes of perfumery combined with the woody, balsamic heart and basenotes, emulate the smell of an embalmed body,  with the topnotes, citrusy and indolic, reproducing the faint odor of corruption, while the basenotes replicate
the balms and unguents used in classic
Hairy Mary by simon_white.
enbalming. I know it’s gross to think about
this, but there it is. 

A link to Professor Witcombe’s interesting page on the cult of Mary Magdalene

German Legends of the Hairy Anchorite / Studies in the Platonic Epistl
Legenda aurea  Magdalena -- Medieval Songs for Mary Magdalene The Maudlin Impression: English Literary Images of Mary Magdalene, 1550-1700 (ND ReFormations: Medieval & Early Modern)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Geo F. Trumper’s Wild Fern—a true Fougère

For my birthday yesterday I received a surprise present from my father; a bottle of one of those scents from my childhood IMG_0191 that gets the wheels of my bittersweet memory turning. I don’t know what made my father decide to part with this bottle; it was a gift of a vintage bottle of Geo F. Trumper’s Wild Fern from one of the greatest bon vivants in my family of bon vivants, who sadly died of pancreatic cancer some years ago. I loved him, and miss him often, so anything that reminds me of him makes me somewhat sad—I feel like we lost him too soon. That said, I am very happy to have this bottle in my collection. It is precious to me.

I remember the smell of this bottle, the gorgeousness of the green marbled tin, my surreptitious sniffs at the lid—this is probably the very bottle that made me fall in love with Fougeres—and perhaps with fragrance in general!

It has a bitter citrus opening, deep anisic note, a definite greenness and a note of what might be bitter almond which quickly turns into a dusty scent—ever so slightly soapy.  It is so, so green, but somehow I also get a cigarry leather note, but that is probably the magic of association working on my nose—my late uncle was a smoker of expensive cigars—he had a wood-paneled, leather-upholsteredLester study in which to indulge this habit, and I am sure my memories of him have insinuated themselves into my perception of this juice—and that makes it even more special. 

I am now thinking that my attraction to old-fashioned colognes, difficult tobacco scents, and odd, bitter masculine numbers stems from the fact that in my family, women avoided perfume in general, while the men embraced it –tastefully—always selecting very classic scents that smelled like money, art, tobacco, and taste. This is typical in general on my paternal side. The women, while as artistically and aesthetically-motivated as the men, tend to avoid all outward displays of luxury, while the men wallow in it.

While my uncle Dusty was a devotee of the cigar, my father smokes a pipe, and somehow, this fragrance—only worn on very special occasions--always seemed to mix with his intense personal chemistry in very interesting ways, somehow bringing out the slightly bitter scent of his skin and downplaying the sweetness of his Borkum Riff pipe smoke. It was also confusing—it reminded me of my uncle Dusty, and when I smelled it on my father, it was like—visceral association overload!!! While I am sad that my father chose to give up what I see as one of his signature scents, I am also a little smug to now own part of my family’s patriarchal legacy.

I am planning a special feature interview of my father concerning his relatively recent adoration of dry-aged patchouli. Stay tuned for that--I am sure it will yield very interesting results.

See also:

l’eau de sweaty man

annick goutal mandragore: decoding the witchy mystique

balmain vent vert

Sunday, April 18, 2010

best fragrances for Mothers' Day gifts

mom flowers A well thought-out perfume could be the best Mothers Day gift choice ever if you follow a few simple guidelines. Your mom will be flattered and happy that you took the time to seek out a custom scent you know she will love,  and it is one of those gifts that keep gibing; every time your mom spritzes on that fragrance she is sure to think of you lovingly. Before you go shopping, take a few minutes to think about the following items, and you are sure to choose a perfume that pleases mom!
      • determine whether your mom is a romantic or a classic or a minimalist, a sensualist or a prude, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. For example,  a sensualist may be more drawn to musky fragrances, but if your mom was too shy to give you the ‘birds and bees talk’ and never divulged her secret hopes and desires in your memory, you might consider sticking with florals
  • has she ever mentioned a smell she particularly loves? You can search Basenotes database for those specific notes. For example, if you remember having heard her mention that she loves the smells of cedar, roses, and vanilla, search Basenotes for examples of fragrances that contain all those notes (my search found 140 results of fragrances containing all those notes!)
  • If you can’t remember her mentioning any smells she loves, what kinds of fragrances mom kitchendoes she use to scent her home? What flavor of dish soap? does she have scented candles? what is the name of her laundry detergent. Taking stock of all these household fragrances could let you know what categories of scent she likes. For example, think about whether her dishsoap is lemony, herbal, minty, floral, or unscented. her choice could lead you towards a fragrance category.
  • Do you have a favorite dish she prepared for you when you were young? My mom made a delicious rice pudding, filled with vanilla and cinnamon, so I might present her with a fragrance I found that features those notes, explaining that it reminds me of her unique cooking and how happy I was when I was little

    Has she a favorite scent that she can no longer find or that has been discontinued? Can you find a big bottle of it on ebay?
  • does she garden? If so, are there any particularly fragrant flowers in her garden,  or flowers she’s 054_19A particularly proud of?
  • does her mother wear a ‘signature’ fragrance? Can you buy that for her? This is not the most creative option, but it’s a safe bet.
  • is the bottle itself attractive; will she feel like you ‘splurged’ on her and thus enjoy the luxury of using your gift? This means—excepting only the most specific of cases—that you must avoid celebrity scents, which can come across as cheap and ‘mainstream.’
  • make sure to think carefully about scents your mom doesn’t like, or that upset her. My mother hates the smell of aldehydes (the bubbly-smelling synthetic element used most famously in Chanel no. 5) and often gets carsick when she smells them, so any perfume I bought her would need to lay off the aldehydes.
Remember, the most important thing here is not the fragrance itself, but the fact that you, her loving son/daughter, took the time to think about and locate that special bottle. Be sure to spin a narrative that relates to your mother why you chose x perfume over all other choices. In my case, I might say: “I have been thinking about your delicious rice pudding lately and remembering all the times you nourished me when I was young. I found this scent (let’s say I give her Hermessence Ambre Narguile by Jean-Claude Ellena, which smells like vanilla, cream, tobacco, and raisins) and it reminded me so much of a bowl of your comforting rice pudding that I just had to give it to you, to let you know how much your love over the years means to me”…etc. You probably get my point.

I hope this little guide will be useful as you navigate the vast world of perfume to find the right thing for your mother this Mother’s Day.  Good luck, and happy hunting!

My birthday pilgrimage

Today is my birthday, April 18th, and I have always found it significant that it also happens to be the day that the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales set out on their pilgrimage, “the holy Blissful martir for to seke/ that hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.” As a medievalist, I love it that I share my special day (well, at least the day of my birth) with one of the greatest compositions in the English language, as well as the fact that the tales open with an invocation of springtime and rebirth, an idea that I am always in love with this time of year:
"Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote/ the dorughte of March hath perced to the roote/ and bathed every veyne in swich licour, / of which vertu engendred is the flour...and smalle foweles maken melodye / that slepen all the nyght with open eye/ So priketh hem Nature in hir corages, / Than longen foolk to goon on pilgrimages /And palmeres for to seken straunge strandes / to ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes."  

 I keep trying to convince my husband that it is deeply significant that he was born on Shakespeare’s birth and death day (and Cervantes’ birthday as well) but he doesn’t seem that impressed ; ).  Whatever the case, like the birds and creatures awakening from their winter hibernation in the Prologue of the Canterbury tales, I feel a deep urge to procreate, to feel the sun and rain on my skin, and to travel, to ‘seek out strange and sundry strands’—or, to put it more prosaically, to get out of dodge.

 Anyway, I bring all this up because I am preparing to go on my own little pilgrimage, an aesthetic pilgrimage, to the Big Apple for six days this week. I hope to soak up as much culture (and fragrance) as possible before heading back to my little upstate NY town. I am planning to catch Renee Fleming as Armida at the Metropolitan Opera and La Traviata, and have dinner at my favorite Apulian restaurant I Trulli, catch the exhibition of The Mourners at the Met, and a host of other activities—like dim sum at my favorite Chinatown restaurant and Ethiopian at The Queen of Sheba--

but you are probably only reading this for the fragrance info, so I will map out my plan for my fragrance extravaganza. On Wednesday, it’s off to Brooklyn, first to the Botanical Gardens to check out and smell all the blooming things and hone my nose, then to CB I hate perfumes for sensory overload and back to the fragrance district to do some shopping. Then a trip to at least some of my favorite boutiques; Caron, Bond No. 9, l’Artisan, Aedes de Venustas, and Henri Bendel. And Bigelow Chemists, which I have never visited

And, of course, no trip to the Big Apple can be complete without some serious sniffing time at Bergdorf Goodman. Jealous yet? Anyone have any other recommendation for a non-native perfumista in the big city?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

strawberries, sugar, and cream

NO perfume can capture the absolute delight of strawberries andIMG_4289 cream, and that is a great pity. Today I enjoyed my first bowl of fresh cut strawberries floating in whole milk and sugar, and I have to say that few things delight me more. I love the tangy, acidic muskiness of the strawberries in contrast with the smooth creaminess of the milk, and the way the fruity juice from the strawberries slowly turns the milk pink and imparts the most beautiful flavor. 

I was racking my brain for a scent that emulates the unique joy of this culinary combination, but all I could think of were failed attempts (Miss Dior Cherie, Victoria’s Secret Strawberries and Champagne). I have not tried Fragonard’s Juste un Baiser, which supposedly has notes of strawberry and vanilla, but I would be surprised if it were successful. I remember trying a Voluspa fragrance a long time ago thcurlylocks 3at seemed like a very tart, floral, wild strawberry, but alas, I have forgotten its name…. Another I must try is Neil Morris Perfumes Woodland Strawberries, but I have to get my hands on it first. I ramble.

Does anyone else find it amusing that my first idea of domestic happiness came from one of my favorite nursery rhymes sung to me by my mother, and that in some ways, that ideal has yet to be surpassed? I quote it here, from The Original Mother Goose:

Curly Locks, Curly Locks,
Wilt thou be mine?
Thou shalt not wash dishes,
Nor yet feed the swine;
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam
And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream.curlylocks

Ah, if only my waistline and pocketbook would permit such excess, such would be the life for me!

It is interesting to compare three classic illustrations of this nursery rhyme. The first, by the great illustrator Kate Greenaway, appeals to me the most, because it is both romantic and realistic; the charming young suitor is luring the lovely daughter away from the drudgery of her daily chores with what is surely a very sweet-smelling bunch of fresh strawberries. The second, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright,  offers us a fantasy image of Curly Locks’ lifestyle post-marriage. She looks awfully young to me. And the juvenilization of this nursery rhyme is taken the farthest by curlylocks 2 Jesse Wilcox Smith as seen below.

Whatever image you prefer, the fantasy of leisure and sensual pleasure is the same, and I always find myself humming that little nursery rhyme my mother sang me around this time of year, when I dip into those luxurious bowls of strawberries, sugar, and cream.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Changed Blog name and Address

AFTER some deliberation, I have changed the name of this blog from “Life As Art” to “hortus conclusus,” which I feel better represents the nature of this site. “Life as art” seemed a little too general, although I like the idea behind it, that aesthetics should be an integral part of one’s life.  I chose hortus conclusus as the new title because it draws upon multiple layers of history art and symbolism. Hortus conclusus is Latin for ‘enclosed garden,’ and was first writ ten down in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, in that great erotic—and fragrant—poem, the Song of Songs: “Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus”: An enclosed garden is my sister, my wife, a sealed fountain. In the Middle Ages, my area of research, the hortus conclusus was a popular kind of garden cultivated by many, as well as a powerful symbol of the erotic potential of a virginal woman. I like to think of perfume as a kind of ‘enclroman de la roseosed garden,’ the glass bottle a wall surrounding a garden of delight that is impossible in nature, or a ‘sealed fountain’ that, when opened, releases a spray of luscious liquid.

Since the purpose of this blog is to share my literary and historical perspective on the appreciation of fragrance and its integration into a daily life lived aesthetically, the use of a time-honored symbol of delight and fragrance as a mascot for my musings makes sense, I think.

Thank you for your patience as I hone this blog; like a diamond in the rough, it needs work to become a multifaceted, glittering gem, but I promise you, dear readers, that this will soon become a very fine blog and resource indeed.

The Medieval Garden  Medieval Gardens (Historic Gardens)  The Medieval Garden Design Book (The International Design Library)


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