Ever since I started the Pierre Benard Challenge back in May it has renewed my awareness of the scents around me. That might sound odd from someone who enjoys writing about perfume, but I tend to focus on the perfume under my nose. That leads to me missing the ambient world of odors around me. One thing this effort has done is to make me look up from the bottle and breathe in more consistently. Earlier this week after being outside in the early fall weather with the dogs I entered the house to the comforting smell of cinnamon. It completed a connection which I had not explicitly understood as this being the scent of autumn.
The reason the house smelled of cinnamon is a lot of our fall pastry cooking requires lots of it. If I were writing this twenty years ago there would just be cinnamon. Except I discovered there are many varieties of cinnamon all of which have their own flavor and scent profiles. We have four different kinds in our kitchen: Vietnamese, Ceylon, Indonesian, and Chinese. Just like the perfume ingredient oud, terroir seems to make a difference.
When it comes to apple pie the Chinese cinnamon is our choice. We tend to use the tarter apples in our pies, so this sweeter type of spice is used to take some of that edge away. For cinnamon rolls we want the strongest flavor we can get and that is the Vietnamese type. For my beloved snickerdoodle cookies it is the Indonesian cinnamon I mix with sugar to coat the dough in. For everyday use on my oatmeal or cocoa the mellow Ceylon cinnamon gives me just the bit of flavor I desire.
When I walked into the house this week there were two apple pies cooling. A cinnamon roll was waiting for me to have with my morning coffee. I thought this is the essence of autumn the humid scent of cinnamon from baking.
The perfume which gives me the same thrill is Estee Lauder Cinnabar. It has always been a fall favorite because of its cinnamon and clove heart.
I know for many it is the pumpkin spice mélange which provides the demarcation of summer into fall. In out house it is cinnamon which does it.
When I reviewed Mandy Aftel’s recent release Palimpsest she mentioned it was inspired by the research she did for her new book, “Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent”. I received my review copy a little over a week ago and spent this past weekend completely enthralled by Ms. Aftel’s new book. This is Ms. Aftel’s fourth book on scent and it is by far her most accessible.
Ms. Aftel starts off with an introduction on how she fell in love with making natural perfume after a number of previous careers. She realized that scent was important to her and that she wanted to learn how to create perfume. She immersed herself in the history of perfumery and after her years as a perfumer she has come up with a simple truism, “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.” That sentence encapsulates what great perfume does for me and what it aspires to.
Mandy Aftel (Photo: Foster Curry)
For this book Ms. Aftel decided to focus on five raw ingredients: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each ingredient gets its own chapter. It starts with a history of the ingredient but there are delightful tangents as well. One of my favorites comes from the Cinnamon chapter where she found a set of five rules for perfumers in ancient Constantinople. It directs where the perfumers can ply their trade so the pleasant smells will drift up into the Royal Palace nearby. They are also directed that, “They are not to stock poor quality goods in their shops: a sweet smell and a bad smell do not go together.” I think there are some modern perfumeries which could be reminded of these old rules.
The last section of each chapter is dedicated to experiencing the ingredient as a raw material and it includes recipes for different fragrances and ways to use it in cooking. For an even richer experience for these last sections; on the Aftelier website there is a Companion Kit which has all five of the ingredients to allow you to actually play along as you read. I received one of the Companion Kits and it greatly enhanced my experience. Plus there is enough to allow the reader to choose to use some in whatever way seems apt.
Ms. Aftel’s previous career as a writer along with her experience as a natural perfumer allows for a perfect synergy as the author is also the expert. It is an important distinction when it comes to describing a sensory experience in words. I believe it is Ms. Aftel’s intimate relationship with these materials which allow for her to communicate about them so effectively and beautifully.
There are very few books which can reach outside the small circle of those of us who are obsessed with perfume. I believe Fragrant is going to be a book which does have a much wider reach because it is as easy to read as a true-life adventure. For those of us who love perfume and the raw ingredients within them Fragrant is going to give you new perspective on these ingredients. I learned so much I didn’t know about ingredients I thought I knew a lot about.
The section of my bookshelf which houses the books on scent and perfume that I think are essential is pretty small. With the publication of Fragrant it just got one volume bigger.
Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of Fragrant provided by Riverhead Books.