Most people are more familiar with the more innocuous and traditional baking personas of vanilla. Sweet, soft and safe. Cakes and biscuits, milkshakes and of course the only ice cream that really matters. Vanilla is even a byword for safe. My god, he is so vanilla…… Even that is a challenge.
As well as multifold uses in the food industry vanilla and the isolate vanillin have been used extensively in perfumery for well over a hundred years. Vanillin is a naturally occurring isolate of vanilla in the pod. It was discovered in 1875 by the chemists Haarman and Tiemann. There is approximately 2.5mg of vanillin per vanilla pod and then it was successfully synthesized, creating a sweeter, cheaper alternative to the natural extract. It was also discovered that vanillin could be extracted from eugenol, a constituent of clove and this revolutionised both the perfumery and the food markets.
Traditionally vanilla essence has been bitter and wan, a poor substitute for the real thing. But now, cooks, both professional and in the home want the unique creamy, custard note that only the pod and real vanilla extract can lend to flavouring. The difference in taste is shockingly different. The bitter acidity of essence compared to the fragrant smoky golden glow of pod, paste and extract.
The vanilla plant is an orchid; its name derives from the Spanish vainilla or little pod. This is the diminutive form of vaina, the Latin word for vagina; a reference to the way the pod or sheath is split open to reach the seeds. It is the Queen of Spices and the world’s second most expensive after the weird and golden bready scented saffron harvested from the crocus stamen.
Vanilla is a very labour intensive crop. The orchids are fertilised by hand after it was realised the orchid used only one species of bee, dramatically limiting its rate of reproduction. Each aromatic leathery bean ripens at its own rate, dictating a highly intensive regime of constantly checking the crop for harvestable pods. Hence the high price tag in super markets and specialist delis. Bourbon vanilla from the spice island of Madagascar is considered to be the finest in the world. The growing conditions on this unique habitat off the South Eastern coast of Africa are said to be near perfect for vanilla cultivation.
In fragrance vanilla is a vital note in oriental perfumes, providing a deep rich background to woods, grasses and assorted floral effects. Vanilla often feels like a texture in fine fragrance, so beautifully woven through the composition, folding, wrapping, smoothing, and easing out the drydown. To me the effect is akin to threads of gold in tapestry, illuminating and adding subtlety, warmth and lustre.
Take Maison Guerlain and their famous guerlinade base that magically transforms so many of their classic perfumes. Perhaps containing jasmine, rose, orange blossom, iris, vetiver, tonka bean and of course vanilla. The legendary guerlinade is a distinctive and incredibly soft accord that rounds off the edges and drapes a gauze of mystery over surrounding notes. The true nature and form of this complex and multi-facetted blend of top-secret notes is very closely guarded by Guerlain. Its presence in their perfumes is unmistakable, lending glorious, swooning vanillic warmth. As much a signature as the Mousse de Saxe is to Parfums Caron. Guerlain’s beautiful vintage Jicky is built around vanilla and lavender, with brushstrokes of civet and oppoponax. Aimé Guerlain used a clever blend of the newly discovered vanillin and vanilla extract. Vanillin is sweeter, toothier, more buzzy and instant. The blend worked like a dream and Jicky set a pattern of vanillic sorcery that has echoed down over the years through the many Guerlain releases.
They are an addiction to many. I know because I adore them and I love this phantom of vanilla that lingers and roams through the Guerlain scents like a shade that cannot rest. It blooms through my beloved Samsara and Nahéma, lending a timeless and haunting insouciance that will never go out of style. Vanille Absolument has the same power over me, to trap and hold me. It fills the space around me, has genuine depth and emotion. Like the great past Guerlain fragrances it has texture, mood, bite and presence. It is like being haunted by a terrible restless beauty.
Vanillin and various combinations of it with other vanilla tinted balsams and resins dominated perfumery for decades until an explosion of garish neon bright scents engulfed the market in the early 90s. Vanilla became sugar, candyfloss, caramel, lollipops, butterscotch and every other conceivable permutation of tooth shattering brightness. These were poured in liberal quantities into fragrances that radiated from the skin with the subtlety of drag queens at Mardi Gras. The beauty and poignancy of vanilla as a base, it’s power to wrap, sooth and seduce was slipping away into the past.
However in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the use of true vanilla, the pod and its patisserie rich extract. Three of the best have been The Tobacco Vanille for Tom Ford, Vanille Galante by Jean Claude Ellena for the Hermessences series and the Double Vanille Spiritueuse for the Guerlain Art et Matière series by Annick Menardo. All three of these powerful, rich vanillic oriental scents use the highest quality vanilla absolutes to achieve quite different effects.
The smoke and honey of Ford’s hazy addictive scent is a porn shoot with overflowing ashtrays and sweating skin. Leather and sunshine bleed though it as it drops onto the skin. But the vanilla and honey accord is warm and inviting as if to say, hey it may be porn, but porn is sex and sex is sweet.
Ellena’s Vanille Galante is an indulgent finger-licking dessert of layers of trembling creams whipped through with air and traces of spice and jasmine and a strange almost smoked caramel effect. It is the sweetest of the three and very French. It reminds me so much of living in Paris as a student and visiting a patisserie on the corner of a street near the Gare de Lyon where I used to buy huge milles feuilles and indulgently peel back the layers and indecently savour every last lick of cream.
Annick Menardo’s complex and divisive scent for Guerlain, Double Vanille Spiritueuse is astonishing, disturbing in its vanillic intensity. Obscene and churchy, the vanilla smells distilled and almost pornographic. You feel you should be atoning for it in confession while muttering obscenities under your breath. It is an incredible fragrance, so liberting and sensual. It burns off my skin like sweet brown fire with wafts of crème brulée and singed woods. It makes me want to fling open the confessional doors, spray liberally and burn the church to the ground as I leave.
And now we have Vanille Absolument, another deeply sensualised interpretation of vanilla. Bertrand Duchaufour has imagined the pod as skin, wrapped around the most delicious rum and raisin internals, underpinned with dripping balsamics and the most exquisite amber and woods. His trademark atmospherics vibrate, shimmer and open out on the skin, widening Vanille Absolument into a panoramic wonder. The top has clove and a moreish dried fruit note he used to great effect in his dirtyfilthysexy Al Oudh. The dried fruits reek of booze, like the bowl of mixed fruits my mother used to drown before adding to the Christmas cake each year. The smell is intoxicating and very nostalgic. As the fruit starts to drink in the alcohol the osmosis is sublime. There is of course a heady rum note in the top as well as a subtle dash of mandarin that I missed for a while but it drips down through the heart with grace and a golden piquancy.
The initial blast can be dizzying in its intensity, pungent with a whiff of what seems like burnt butter. This butyric twist is lit through with plumes of smoky tobacco and rounded off with the Sophia Loren like beauty of tonka, the forest green licorice of immortelle and beautiful narcissus absolutes. This heart of smoke and mirrors precedes the final dazzling act of vanilla absolutes, smoked woods, musk, benzoin, tolu balsam and mosses. These base elements sway slowly across the skin like an ancient ritualistic dance in a room walled in amber, the air tense with a mood for love. Dancers clad in fibres spun from golden spider silk. The rhythms are slow and liquid, heads and fingers roll, skin sparks fire. The scene unfurls like a sensory hallucination. Everything is honeyed, sweet, smoked and warm, lulling the senses. Skin feels kissed and caressed.
The trademark Duchaufour depth gives Vanille Absolument a dangerous and giddying addiction. It is like wearing a` dream of abandonment. The more I wear and wrap his scents around me the more I am convinced he is a latter day sorcerer, akin to Prosopero, manipulating the elements around him to dazzle and disturb us with perfumed majesty and iconic quietude. I will wear this and wear this and love my skin forever.