Wilde's musing on the evocative nature of scent is a perfect opening to Mandy Aftel’s new book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. The answer to his question about why certain scents do what they do to us will delight, provoke and surprise you –– this is a book you are going to want to spend time with.
Mandy Aftel, NYT photo by Jim Wilson
“Wilde knows that aromas can take us anywhere, that they are a magic carpet we can ride to hidden worlds, not only to other times and places but deep within ourselves, beneath the surface of daily life, We close our eyes – we do this instinctively before we inhale a scent, as if preparing for the internal journey -- and before we can even consciously recognize what we’re smelling, we are carried away without our consent. Or we are stopped in our tracks, brought entirely in to the present moment.”
“Scent is a portal to these basic human appetites – for the far-off, the familiar, the transcendent, the strange, and the beautiful—that have motivated us since the origins of our species.”
Cinnamon bird in a cinnamon tree (Peraldus 1190-1271)
To do this she chose five scents – cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris and jasmine, with each representing “ a key story line in the history of scent, intricately bound up in its adventures and intrigues and moments of discovery. Each also represents a class of material from which are derived the ingredients essential to the art of perfumery.”
She spins a web with history and her knowledge of her craft, but also addresses the physiology that shapes our relationship with the scented world, one that most of us know precious little about
Olfactory bulb (Vasalius 1543)
Did you know that our brains evolved from olfactory receptors, so that we owe our very thoughts to our primal perception and reaction to scent? Also, scientists recently discovered that we have scent receptors all over our bodies (this came out after the book was published). We perceive scent through our whole being, not just our noses – we absorb the world around us. I read about it in a great NYT’s article that revealed that skin, brain liver, heart, lung, spleen even sperm have them. These olfactory receptors can actually tell other cells to regenerate – the scent of sandalwood has helped heal wounds – scent-based medicine may soon be reality. It is no wonder that scent affects us in such fundamental ways.
Distiller, (Puffvonshrick, 1478)
That’s why her book is so revelatory. Mandy understands this at an elemental level. Reading it will change the way you think about the scented world around you, even within you!
To begin, Aftel encourages an enlightened approach to the art of smelling –– exploring the layers, shapes, memories and feelings that a scent evokes (think of the smell of something that you can summon from your past that is strongly connected to an experience or a place or a person – for me anytime I smell old books I am transported to my grandfather’s study).
Alchemy, (New Jewell of Health, Baker 1576)
She reveals the architecture of a perfume with its notes of high, medium and low and the balance they must have to make a successful fragrance and explains the different elements that go into making scent – what the difference is between isolates, absolutes, essential oils and hydrosols –– she shows the place of her 5 scents in the hierarchy of the perfume’s structure and explains how to make your own scents with marvelous recipes for making scented oils, solid perfumes and traditional, alcohol based frangrances to suit every mood and personality.
Distillation, (New Jewell of Health, Baker 1576)
She speaks brilliantly about a scent's unique character. Many of us think of “just rose” or “just lilac”. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are an infinite variety of ‘rose’ scents as there are of ‘lilac’ scents. Depending on the flowers that go into them and the techniques used to extract the scent as well as storage and age – they can be astonishingly different. Even the 'where' of them matters, “Like wine, spices and the natural essences derived from them have terroir – the distinctive nuances of the soil, air, and water where they are grown. In their case, it is usually an especially exotic terroir. But (as with wine) a particular source terroir is not a guarantee of quality. The quality also depends on the variety of the plant, its health and growing conditions, the harvesting process, how long the plant sits before it is distilled, and under what conditions and methods it is distilled.”
It reminded me of when I was a kid and I listened to a program (hosted by David Dubal) that played many versions of famous piano pieces. Until then, I always thought of a work as “Chopin’s Barcarolle’, I had never thought of the incredible diversity of interpretation of the same piece, of the differences in Cortot’s version or Lipatti or Hoffman. Each pianist brings his particular genius to his performance. The same is true of the distiller’s interpretations of raw materials – from ham-handed to revelatory. Mandy uses her elegant, educated sense of smell to choose the ingredients that speak to her and the choices are reflected in her work. They have a very personal, very intimate connection to her. It’s not just the perfumer’s choice of which scent to use in the creation of a perfume, it’s also the perfumer’s selection of raw material to use to make it –– each step has the artist’s imprimatur. Another perfumer, with different raw materials, could make the same perfume recipe and it could be quite different because the perfumer had chosen their scents to their own taste.
Parfum Prive with ambergris and orange flower
Perfumes are complex formulas. When they work, all the elements coalesce in a moment of alchemy and become a single fragrance. Don’t let a name fool you into thinking a perfume is one simple ingredient –– it takes a lot to construct a great rose perfume.
Just because a perfume says gardenia or shiso doesn’t mean that is all that is in it (Aftelier's perfumes are HERE). Like that great pianist, Aftel interprets a theme using scent notes. It’s really quite extraordinary. I think most of us are completely unaware of how much goes into that morning spritz of scent.
I would like to think that Aftel’s experience as a therapist plays into her art as a perfumer. In making a great perfume, she translates feelings and emotions as she goes about choosing and aligning elements and gives a spirit or a soul to her creation.
“For me, to create with scent is to touch magic, in a process that eludes words… the perfumer is like the alchemist, who undertook to convert raw matter, through a series of transformations, into a perfect and purified form…. The ultimate goal was to reunite matter and spirit in a transformed state…. Following the dictum solve et coagula (dissolve and combine), the alchemist worked to transform body into spirit and spirit into body, to volatize that which is fixed and to fix that which is volatile.”
This is the divine moment of locking when all the scents coalesce into a perfume –– all the elements become one. “The ultimate expression of locking is the creation of an original fragrance with its own identity, shape, and texture... there comes a special moment when I recognize the birth of a separate and complete entity….”
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 71v
“The Arabians say that the dry sticks, which we call kinamomon, are brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb. The method invented to get the cinnamon sticks is this. People cut up the bodies of dead oxen in to very large joints, and leave them on the ground near their nests. They then scatter, and the birds fly down and carry off the meat to their nests, which are too weak to bear the weight and the fall to the ground. The men come and pick up the cinnamon. Acquired in this way, it is exported to other countries."
Along the way there are discourses on materialism, scenting the home, wabi- sabi (a favorite conceit of mine) and of course scents and food.
Yes, food –– because all five can be used in your kitchen. The mint and cinnamon in the book are known quantities, as is jasmine even though we think of it only as a perfume. Using frankincense for anything but being burned as incense in religious ceremonies might surprise you but can also be added to drinks and food. The book helps you see them them all with fresh eyes. There is also a chapter on my own favorite, ambergris. It is unknown to most as it is both rare and expensive but has been added to food for thousands of years. It has only been slumbering out of fashion for
100 years or so.
Perfume Makers, Rudolph Ernst (1854-1932)
My blog is full of ancient recipes using the essences (if you want more, Mandy also has another book out called Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance with modern recipes using essences and absolutes). It has been a great adventure exploring her catalogue of food essences and discovering fabulous old recipes to use them in.
Mandy was kind enough to include 2 recipes of mine in the book and I will share one with you – Frankincense Shortbread with Lavender (the other was for Jasmine Ambergris Chocolate). It is a good one for experimentation because it’s a great base –– you can use many different essences to make the shortbread – like rose or jasmine or even a bit of fir or thyme or orange or ginger. I’ve made them with many different scents and loved them all. I think you will too. They perfume your mouth when you eat them and are fabulous with a good cup of tea. Since they have no egg, you can add a few drops of essence and taste for strength before you bake them. Best to start slowly and work your way up. You do lose a bit in the cooking so I like to go full out but try it slow at first. WARNING: make sure you use food grade essences like Aftelier’s. Many are made with chemical solvents and are impure and not something you would want to eat.
2 c flour
½ c sugar
1 c butter (2 sticks)
pinch of salt
4-7 drops Aftelier frankincense (to taste)
1-2 drops Aftelier lavender (to taste)
Preheat oven to 325º
Combine the sugar and the flour in your food processor. Cut the butter into chunks and sprinkle on the flour.
Sprinkle the minimum amount of frankincense and lavender on the mixture (not all in one place –– spread it out) and pulse a few times. Taste the mixture and add more if you would like. Process in pulses till it comes together
If you want to make cookies, roll the dough out to about ¼” and cut the cookies. Put on a parchment-covered cookie sheet and chill for 15 minutes (give them a bit of room, they spread a little).
Then bake for about 10 minutes. When you are done, remove from oven and you can press a pattern, gently, into the top.
If you would like the cake form of this, press into a 9” or 10” round pan. Smooth, and with the tines of a fork, create ‘slices’. Cook for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned and remove from oven. Let cool just a bit and slice along the tine marks. I actually did both –– the cake is much thicker than the cookie so they are great to have together for variety.
Fragrant has been recommended by Time Magazine and Vogue already -- you will love it too.