Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

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9781594631412: Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

Winner of the 2016 Perfumed Plume Award

The “Alice Waters of American natural perfume” (indieperfume.com) celebrates our most potent sense, through five rock stars of the fragrant world.

Look out for Mandy Aftel's new book, The Art of Flavor, on sale in August!

 
Mandy Aftel is widely acclaimed as a trailblazer in natural perfumery. Over two decades of sourcing the finest aromatic ingredients from all over the world and creating artisanal fragrances, she has been an evangelist for the transformative power of scent. In Fragrant, through five major players in the epic of aroma, she explores the profound connection between our sense of smell and the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive. Cinnamon, queen of the Spice Route, touches our hunger for the unknown, the exotic, the luxurious. Mint, homegrown the world over, speaks to our affinity for the familiar, the native, the authentic. Frankincense, an ancient incense ingredient, taps into our longing for transcendence, while ambergris embodies our unquenchable curiosity. And exquisite jasmine exemplifies our yearning for beauty, both evanescent and enduring.
 
In addition to providing a riveting initiation into the history, natural history, and philosophy of scent, Fragrant imparts the essentials of scent literacy and includes recipes for easy-to-make fragrances and edible, drinkable, and useful concoctions that reveal the imaginative possibilities of creating with—and reveling in—aroma. Vintage line drawings make for a volume that will be a treasured gift as well as a great read.

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About the Author:

Mandy Aftel is an internationally known artisan perfumer and the author of six previous books, including Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume.  Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, Elle, In Style, W, and Bon Appétit, among many other publications. Aftel lives in Berkeley, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

An engraving from the 1576 English edition of The New Jewell of Health symbolizes the art of distillation, which was used to extract essential oils from fruits, flowers, and other materials.

The “Boat of Foolish Smells,” in a caricature engraving published in Josse Bade’s 1502 edition of La Nef des Folles (The Ship of Fools).

Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.

—PATRICK SÜSKIND, Perfume

Egyptians emptied corpses of their organs and filled the cavities with aromatics to prepare them for the afterlife. Romans splashed doves with rose water and set them loose in banquet halls to scent the air. Marie Antoinette employed her own perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon, who created bespoke perfumes to match the queen’s many moods. People have feasted on aromatic materials, scented temples with them, offered them to guests. Whatever the vehicle—flowers or food, incense or perfume—people in every time and place have gone out of their way to exercise and indulge the sense of smell. Why? Because no other sense makes us feel so fully alive, so truly human, so deeply, unconsciously, and immediately connected with our memories and experiences. No other sense so moves us.

As an artisanal perfumer who works with extraordinary aromatic ingredients from all over the world, I venture deep into the fragrant world every day. And one of my greatest joys is bringing other people there, too, and watching as they immerse themselves in the experience. Scent is fun, sexy, visceral, transporting: it reminds us who we are and connects us to one another and to the natural world. Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the one that reaches most readily beyond us, even as it most powerfully taps the wellsprings of our inmost selves. It has an unparalleled capacity to wake us up, to make us fully human.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde portrays the deep, instinctive connection between scent and our unconscious thoughts and emotions:

And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.

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 even consciously recognize what we’re smelling, we are carried away without our consent. Or we are stopped in our tracks, brought entirely into the present moment. (The next time you catch a whiff of skunk, try thinking about anything else at all.)

I’ll never forget the first time I smelled the intense aromatic essences that are the perfumer’s palette. I had signed up for a perfume class at a nearby aromatherapy studio. The teacher laid out many small bottles of naturally derived botanical essences for us to compose with: oakmoss, angelica, jasmine, frankincense, patchouli, kewda, sweet orange, lime. I leaned over to smell each one, amazed at how rich and complex and singular and stinky and alive they were, how transporting. As I took in the oils, in all their gorgeous diversity, it was as if a mirrored sensation were occurring inside me; I felt as if I were becoming one with the oils, as if they were entering me. I couldn’t tell where I left off and they began. I couldn’t and didn’t want to find the words to describe them; I just felt radiant and alive—as radiant and alive as they were. I fell in love immediately.

By then I’d already lived for more than twenty years in Berkeley, California, where I had a thriving psychotherapy practice and had written a few books. The city itself had had a profound influence on me from the moment I arrived there, after an upbringing in Detroit. In Berkeley, I found the bohemian ambience I had longed for, an energy that was palpable in the streets, in the restaurants and cafés and shops. It felt as if behind every Arts and Crafts façade there were people making pottery or jewelry, writing books, doing improv, inventing new recipes, collaborating in a kind of rampant cross-fertilization of creativity.

As it happened, I moved into an Arts and Crafts house right behind the restaurant Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters had just begun to spread the gospel of locavorism. Three houses down was the original Peet’s Coffee, where Mr. Peet himself roasted the beans. My block was redolent with the smells of fresh coffee and of vegetables roasting in Chez Panisse’s wood-fired oven. In Detroit, front yards had been clipped, manicured, rolled-lawn affairs, but here in Berkeley people’s front yards overflowed with casual cottage gardens of fresh herbs and heritage roses, fruit trees in bloom, jasmine and wisteria climbing from basement to attic. I had never seen such a gift to the street! Despite Berkeley’s reputation as the epicenter of the counterculture, the aesthetic it was steeped in was simple, almost Old World. It spoke to me, and it played a great role in shaping my own aesthetic. Working with the best ingredients, doing only what needed to be done and no more—this became my creative mantra.

It was a mantra that guided me through several career turns, fueled by the Berkeley milieu. As a weaver I worked with a range of natural materials—horsehair, goat hair, wool, silk—learning to spin them into yarn, and dyeing them with herbs and lichens I gathered. I developed an appreciation for the ways that raw materials were grown, processed, and used all over the world. Later I trained to be a therapist and focused my practice on artists and writers, to whose brilliance and creative energy I was drawn. Researching a book I was writing on Brian Jones, founding member of the Rolling Stones, I was drawn to his fascination with the costumes and music of other cultures, and to the way he embodied the conviction that anything is possible and that creativity is what life is all about.

I wrote another book, The Story of Your Life, marrying my fascination with plot and narrative to what I had learned about character and transformation through my years as a therapist. Then I decided to write a novel, with a perfumer as my protagonist. I knew nothing about the craft of perfumery, but its aura had allure. I signed up for that perfume class, little dreaming that in the process of researching my novel I was about to discover my true calling and become the artist I had only planned to write about.

Not only did I fall in love with essential oils, but I discovered that I had a knack for blending them. Just as sometimes you meet someone it seems you’ve known forever, the essences, with their distinct personalities, had a mysterious familiarity to me. I could appreciate their textures and shapes almost instinctively, like a language in which I was already fluent. As I started making perfumes, I could identify where and how I’d made mistakes, and in correcting them I learned so much about the way each essence interacted with others. I set up my own perfume business, a true cottage industry. Gradually I developed a following for my artisanal fragrances, developed from entirely natural materials that I sourced from all over the world.

At the same time, I immersed myself in the rich history of scent, acquiring more than two hundred rare and antique books on perfumery, one book leading me to the next as I fell under the spell of their charm, beauty, and eccentricity. Discovering the universe they contained was like being the first explorer in a cave that harbored the unsullied pottery and intact arrowheads of a lost civilization. In the stories of perfume, one could relive the world being discovered, retrace the footsteps of the people who came upon spices in faraway places and learned to extract the aromatic oils from exotic plants. In their intricate woodcuts and engravings, old distilling apparatuses looked like crosses between lab equipment and the tools of witchcraft. It wasn’t just the history of perfume I was discovering. I had entered a heady world in which perfume commingled with medicine, science, alchemy, cooking, mysticism, cosmetics, and craft. There lay the richer, more synesthetic sensibility of a bygone time, a beautiful and mysterious universe of magical things jumbled together.

Eventually I did write another book of my own, not a novel but Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume, which introduced perfumers and “perfumistas” to the sensual history of natural aromatics and the building blocks of creating perfume with them. The nascent natural/artisanal perfumery movement embraced the book, and I began to teach the art of perfumery as well as to practice it. I also began to confer and collaborate with chefs and mixologists who were coming at natural essences via food and drink. I found myself in the vanguard of a surge of interest in scent as a key component of flavor, an exciting new arena I explored in a cookbook I coauthored with Michelin two-star chef Daniel Patterson.

In my nearly two decades of peregrinations through the world of scent, the wonder of encountering amazing new fragrances has never left me. And everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve had the joy of giving other people that experience. Sometimes they try to head me off, claiming they are “not into perfume.” Instinctively repelled by their exposure to an olfactory diet that’s the equivalent of fast food—the assaultive, artificial scents that saturate what we eat, our cleaning products, mass-produced perfume, the very environment—they’ve come to believe they have no appetite for scent itself. Watching them discover authentic aromas and their sensual pleasures is profoundly thrilling, like watching a starving person feast on a delicious meal. It’s these experiences of reawakening people to scent that led to this book. I wanted to write next for everyone, not just for the perfumers and perfumistas—though I think they too will find new information and inspiration here, as their passionate interest in high-quality perfumes has fueled the trend toward niche brands and small-batch perfumery.

As Michael Taylor observes in Rembrandt’s Nose, that great painter intuitively understood that the nose was the key to understanding a person’s face. He painted noses that “possess a will of their own.”

They have their own inclinations and seem to obey their own promptings rather than the laws of objective resemblance. They are long and slender, flat and squat, smooth or wrinkled, bony or fleshy, dainty or gross, pitted, scarred, inflamed, unblemished—less, one feels, for reasons of fidelity to the sitter than for reasons dictated by the artist. . . . He rendered the complexion of a nose with the same fastidiousness that he brought to paraphrasing the sheen of velvet or fur. In his portraits and self-portraits, he angles the sitter’s face in such a way that the ridge of the nose nearly always forms the line of demarcation between brightly illuminated and shadowy areas. A Rembrandt face is a face partially eclipsed; and the nose, bright and obvious, thrusting into the middle of halftones, serves to focus the viewer’s attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light—an overwhelming clarity—and a broody duskiness.

I feel a bit about the nose as Rembrandt evidently did. The nose is idiosyncratically central not only to our sense of smell but to our sense of who we are, in our most primal appetites. For the idea of appetite pertains to food as well as to all the sensual and spiritual experiences that drive us, give us pleasure, make us feel more alive in the 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.

As I researched and thought about the deep ways that perfume touches our most primal selves and the collective self of our species, I realized that I had the makings of an adventure story of sorts, an entrée to writing about scent as a series of excursions into the fragrant world that I think will return you more awake and alive, more profoundly able to “smell the roses.”

To narrate it I chose five landmark scents—think of them as five rock stars of the aromatic world. Each represents 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 (and also to the art of cooking and flavoring). And each touches on—and stirs—one of the basic appetites that define us.

  • CINNAMON, among the spices, attests to our appetite for adventure—the pursuit of the exotic and the luxurious. It’s a link to an era of risk and discovery, a time when not all was mapped and known.
  • MINT, among the herbs, speaks to the lure of home—our hunger for the familiar, the authentic, the native. Mint is the quintessential American plant and a link to the “weird old America” of a bygone era that lives on in the national character, beneath the topsoil of modernity. But it is also indigenous to almost everywhere, a universal symbol of welcome.
  • FRANKINCENSE, one of the deeply aromatic resins traditionally used in incense, represents our inclination to the spiritual. The trees these resins come from are like a manifestation of the urge they embody—to reach beyond, to transcend our temporal being by means of ritual and out-of-body experience.
  • AMBERGRIS, an animal essence, is testament to our unquenchable curiosity—our fascination with the unusual, the strange, the wondrous, the “other.”
  • JASMINE, among the floral fragrances, stands for our yearning for beauty, for an aesthetic that embraces the evanescence of our existence as well as what endures—an aesthetic embodied in the Japanese design philosophy of wabi-sabi.

· · ·

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman reminds us that our prehuman selves started in the ocean, relying on the nose to seek out food and identify enemies. “In our early, fishier version of humankind . . . smell was the first of our senses,” she writes, and cognition evolved from it: “Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled.” Scent has helped each of us, since we were babies, to recognize what is of us (famil...

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