If Perfume Be the Food of Love...
Hungry for an unforgettable new scent? Today's perfumes are redolent of caramel, fresh ginger, grapefruit, pink peppercorn, even just-baked bread.
I stand at the end of the long, elegant, crystal-and-silver-laid dinner table at the Carlyle hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. It's 7 p.m., and 17 guests are watching me. I hold 17 touches, the paper blotter strips perfumers use, all soaked in a raw material—an ingredient that's one of the building blocks of fragrance. What's unusual is that the material isn't a flower, not a rose or jasmine blossom; it's saffron. Similar ingredients—derived from spices, herbs, vegetables, and fruits—are used to make perfumes called gourmands, a fascinating, underrated category that contains, in my view, some of the best scents in the world. I find the gourmands mesmerizing, and I thought that doing a series of dinners pairing these fragrances with exquisite food might be a way of sharing their seductive pleasures with people who are unfamiliar with them.
When I asked Jimmy Sakatos, the Carlyle's executive chef, to help me come up with a menu, he thought I was a little nuts. To get him to understand my idea, I showed him the velvety, succulent Ambre Narguilé, by Hermès, which smells like caramel and subtle, nutty banana; Délices de Cartier, a delicately fruity confection; and Aqua Allègoria Pamplelune, by Guerlain, a delicious grapefruit scent. Jimmy smelled them tentatively. Then I handed him Bois Farine, by the Parisian house L'Artisan Parfumeur. It's an astonishing fragrance based on the scent of baking flour. Jimmy froze. "Now this," he said. "There's a bread dough I make that smells like this." We had the opening to our dinner.
Ultimately, Jimmy and I created a six-course culinary experience that tours the gourmand perfumes, from what is often held to be the first of the genre, Guerlain's legendary 1925 Shalimar, built on vanilla, to arguably its greatest example, Thierry Mugler's 1992 Angel, which uses ethyl maltol, the molecule that gives cotton candy its smell. (These two fragrances are paired with the dessert courses, one of which includes cotton candy.)
At the dinner, I pass around that touche dipped in a gorgeous saffron essence made by the Swiss company Givaudan. The essence smells of the soft, hypnotic spice, a pungent, burnished, metallic scent like dull platinum. Then I ask everyone to sample a gourmand fragrance called Safran Troublant, by L'Artisan Parfumeur, which takes that raw material, builds on it, and turns the fragrance of saffron into a sophisticated, polished, exotic perfume that smells of spice and gold dust and a breeze through an Indian temple. Jimmy served black bass with fennel and artichoke in a (you guessed it) saffron crustacean jus.
One of the most intriguing raw materials I share with the group is a natural ginger so effervescent, so incandescently fresh and tart, sweetly peppered, and aromatic that it takes your breath away. It perfectly captures the scent of an Asian summer morning. I follow that with the brilliantly crafted perfume Eau de Gingembre, by Roger & Gallet, which transforms the natural ginger into a finished superlative fragrance. I've seen people gasp on smelling this perfume—a balance of sharp and smooth, tart and crisply sweet.
Another brilliant gourmand fragrance we sample is Hermès' breathtaking Un Jardin Sur le Nil; it smells like green mango peel. To create this scent, Hermès perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena warmed the mango peel with a natural carrot essence (sniff the carrot essence by itself, and it's so smooth and buttery and delicate, it's like smelling warm silk). At the dinner, Jimmy paired Gingembre and Un Jardin Sur le Nil with butter-poached rock shrimp, heirloom baby carrots, and carrot-ginger emulsion.
L by Lolita Lempicka
Perfumer Maurice Roucel has transformed himself into a pastry chef and whipped up a confection for the skin: L by Lolita Lempicka. It's a delectable scent of cotton candy mixed with a touch of blond caramel.
Estée Lauder Pleasures Delight
With Estée Lauder Pleasures Delight, perfumer Annie Buzantian gives you the scent of a fruit salad—you can practically smell blueberries, strawberries, the ripe, almost-cucumber scent of melon—but she leavens it with a sea-air freshness that lightens the fruit and makes it deliciously refreshing.
Dior Hypnotic Poison
Dior Hypnotic Poison was created by the edgy, daring perfumer Annick Ménardo, and it's a masterpiece of brilliant kitsch in a classic gourmand perfume. There's a slightly toxic vanilla scent—you smell vanilla but with an edge of the plastic bottle it comes in, which makes it both alluring and alarming, an enticing equilibrium.
Délices de Cartier Eau Fruitée
Délices de Cartier Eau Fruitée smells like a berry smoothie with ice, not milk. This is the scent of just-crushed fresh fruit, cut bracingly with a chilly freshness.
Guerlain My Insolence
Guerlain My Insolence smells like a cross between an ice cream soda and a flower. It's part the scent of a fruit cobbler, part blossoms from the garden—a tricky blend of warm kitchen smells and a greenhouse.
When the perfume executives at Estée Lauder were introduced to a natural pink peppercorn material made by the flavors and fragrances company Firmenich (a scent pure and exotic and extraordinarily lovely), they made an excellent decision: "We're taking this raw material off the market," they told Firmenich. "By contract you'll sell 100 percent of your production to us, and we'll put it into one of our perfumes. No one else will get their hands on it at any price, and yes, we'll pay you a premium for it." The Lauder perfumers mixed this pink peppercorn into Pleasures, a surprising scent: Underneath its modern, fresh floral exterior hides a natural pink peppercorn gourmand heart, which gives it a biting, almost fruity spiciness. At the dinner, we pair it with steak au poivre and delicate pommes soufflé.
Gourmands can also be built from excellent synthetic re-creations of food scents. Yves Saint Laurent has two: Baby Doll takes a brilliant, neon-glowing mix of synthetics called cassis base—an elixir that smells like berries swimming in white-hot halogen light—and turns it into a delightfully sugared perfume; In Love Again is a high-powered fruit salad—powered with several synthetic fruit materials; it's as if you could taste Technicolor.
Where can you find gourmands? Everywhere. Les Belles de Ricci Liberté Acidulée, by Nina Ricci, and Essential, by Lacoste, both contain tomato leaf, one of the most wonderful raw materials in the world; tomato leaf essence smells like a hint of the red ripe tomato fruit, strongly cut with a lemony-rosy geranium scent and freshly mowed grass.
Missoni's Missoni, has an "accord" (the industry term for a scent carefully created from a blend of notes) of whipped milk chocolate—what Missoni calls a chocolate ganache. And this perfume absolutely smells of chocolate, but what's fascinating is that the perfumer added an accord of flowers and got a hybrid floral-gourmand. For one of the dessert courses, Jimmy paired the Missoni with a sweet, warm, dark brownie. Tommy Hilfiger's Tommy 10 goes one better, interlocking three different food accords: a synthetic cranberry, a natural tangerine, and a luscious synthetic cream. The result is a mouthwatering scent so light, it floats atop the skin. Tommy 10 smells like a creamy fruit smoothie perfectly balanced between the cream, the tart berry, and the tangy citrus.
There are even gourmand fragrances that create the smell of food that has no smell. My favorite is from a small niche French house called the Different Company. The perfume is Sel de Vétiver—vetiver salt. It was created by the young perfumer Céline Ellena, who made the scent of salt with, principally, three raw materials: livèche feuille, an herb that grows in France; a synthetic molecule called salicylate (the only way I know to describe it is to say that it smells like what gasoline would smell like if gasoline had no smell at all and were pure vapor); and iris resin, the scent of the most delicate ethereal balsam wood with a tiny hint of musk. It is an unearthly perfume, deep and cool and liquidly dark as the water in a stone well at midnight. The magic is that salt has no smell. None at all. And yet, impossibly, this smells like salt: a scent of a salty sea breeze over sand and cool, wet dune grass.
To accompany Sel de Vétiver, Jimmy created a tasting of hamachi and bluefin tuna with the Asian green vegetable tatsoi, presented on Himalayan rock salt. We follow that course with a Japanese rice wine, paired with a perfume from Fresh called Sake, one of the most original and beautiful scents I know. You can smell the warm, sweet acid of Japanese sake, like the scent of sugared vodka, but the perfume rounds this out and creates a scent that's part edible, part enveloping cotton cloud.
I'm not sure which people like better, the raw materials or the finished fragrances made from them. They love to inhale the perfumes, like Tom Ford's Black Orchid, a voluptuous, uninhibited gourmand that contains an extract of sugarcane from the rum distillation process (Jimmy created a vanilla-rum milk shake everyone wants more of). And L'Artisan Perfumeur's Ananas Fizz, a perfume that refines pineapple (ananas) into a lovely, fresh scent, which we present with a pineapple tarte tatin.
But people love the raw materials too. At the Carlyle, I hand around a touche dipped in dimethyl sulfide. "Wait until everyone's smelled it," I say, "then I want you to tell me what you think it is." A few have no problem identifying it. "Truffle!" they say. That's right; dimethyl sulfide is the compound that gives truffle its superrich, earthy-fatty smell. (It lends an amazing power to a perfume.) When I pass around a touche that no one can identify (ethyl maltol), I tell them what it is (the molecule that smells like cotton candy). They grimace and say, "Of course! How did I not..." and lean in hungrily to smell it again. Which reminds me of the great thing about gourmand fragrances: You can close your eyes, inhale deeply, and let your appetite, as well as your nose, guide you to what you like best.
Chandler Burr is the fragrance critic for The New York Times and author of the upcoming book The Perfect Scent (Henry Holt).
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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