Sometimes I find myself wondering if the honeyed, aurous caramel note is something of a kitch holy grail in fragrance. I know it gets dissed as a rather frivolous effect; a note for neon scents, Starbucks lattes and Angel clones. But increasingly, more and more niche houses are picking up this warm enveloping gourmand note and weaving it into sophisticated, adult fragrances that enhance and sensualise the skin whilst avoiding the more traditional garish glow and heady residues associated with mainstream foodie fragrances.
Toffee, caramel, cocoa, milk chocolate, popcorn, coconut, candyfloss, brown sugar, milk, coffee, loukhoum, marshmallow, dulce de leche, nougat, praline, marzipan, vanilla, crème caramel and honey – all of these things sweeten our lives and delight our palates. Just reading that list makes me weak. I rarely indulge in desserts and apart from chocolate and (very good) Turkish delight I rarely go on sugar rampages, but when these things are woven into scent for me to lavish on my skin… oh lordy.. then I become wild and sweetly out of control.
My collection of fragrances is ambrosial, with a largish amount of candied, toothsome gourmands. I have a HUGE weakness for them. I’m not really sure why. One rather slutty friend once suggested it was a desire to reek of sugared skin, inviting sexual consumption… sniffing, licking and nuzzling. In retrospect this was just a little wishful thinking on his part. All I really know is how much I adore the effect these strange and contentious notes smell on my body and how people react to my aura and sillage when I wear them. I say contentious as many people loathe gourmand fragrances, arguing that foodie notes are not natural perfume smells and lack subtlety or profundity in application and creation.
But as much as you can’t control who you fall in love with, the same applies to perfume; we love what our skin desires. We are slaves to molecules and our primal cerebral reactions. I can’t remember not liking this family of moreish dainties and delectable addictions.
I have been a huge fan of Shay & Blue since they launched in January 2013. I have all of their scents expect the Sicilian Limes and that is due to my citrus aversion more than anything else. It does however use salt rather beautifully, a dry cocktaily foreshadowing of the saline rush in Salt Caramel. I have previously blogged on the house, so please feel free to follow the links below and read my thoughts on Atropa Belladonna, Blood Orange, Amber Rose, Suffolk Lavender and Almond Cucumber.
Everything artistic director Dom de Vetta and in-house perfumer Julie Massé conjure up for this most immaculate and elegant of brands is studiously seductive. Last year’s Oud Alif was just sensational and restored my much eroded faith in an overused and ubiquitous ingredient. Julie Massé wrapped the oud in the most delicious embrace of dark chocolate, saffron, leather, vanilla and patchouli. These more tenebrous gourmand notes softened the intensity of the oud, while a really ballsy coffee-toned patchouli augmented the woody cocoa facet. Oud Alif smells narcotic on flesh, profound and reeking of seared, mellow spice.
Blacks Club Leather appeared earlier this year, a partnership with Blacks Club in Soho, London. Now I am a sucker for well-heeled leather in any form and this haunting juice was billed as the distillation of old English leather, aged books, crackling fires, brandy, smoke, wingbacks, ottomans, tweed etc. The essence of secretive clubs, the impregnated exhalations of all seeing, all absorbing walls. It has gravitas and a growling sex appeal that belies its quiescent opening salvo of leather and cognac. The animalic charms of sweet, malleable beeswax give BCL a plush sense of privacy and safety. There is just enough woods and incense to blow a little mystery through the composition, but not enough to obfuscate the sensuality.
The key to Shay & Blue’s success is pretty obvious actually; their fragrances smell bloody gorgeous on skin. Simple really. But I am still amazed by how much mediocre scent appears each year. I understand the need to make money and safely invest in slick and failsafe advertising. However in this age of immersive social media and olfactive awareness the success of a brand can be measured by its willingness to engage sincerely and stylishly with its adherents. Shay & Blue have done this from the beginnings of the brand, from pantone and font choices to flower harvests, product development and beautifully managed (and colour co-ordinated!) social media. By the time Shay & Blue actually starting selling online and then opened its first boutique, we had become quite familiar with perfumer Julie Massé and creative director Dom de Vetta. Each new release is joyfully diffused in a way that feels organic and entirely convincing. They are one of the few brands whose releases I genuinely anticipate with glee.
Then there is the price point. I’ve talked about this before, but Dom has managed to create a luxurious brand with everything worked out to the last detail and still retail 30ml bottles of eau de parfum for £30, 100mls for £55 and his black label series which include the Oud Alif and Blacks Club Leather at £85 for 100ml. These prices seem insane considering the incredibly high build quality of the scents. Other niche brands such as Editions Frédéric Malle charge upwards of £150 for a 50ml of the Dries van Noten scent and Penhaligon’s recently pushed their price limit way up, asking £150 for the gaudy and divisive Tralala collaboration with Meadham Kirchhoff. Even the black-bottled Cologne Intense series at Jo Malone (Dom de Vetta’s previous olfactive employer) retail at £100. But we are well over a year into the life of Shay & Blue and prices have remained as they were when the brand launched.
I often use Shay & Blue as an example to friends, clients and Foxy followers of a brand that had managed to successfully combine a super-stylish niche profile with innovative colour-drenched social media and of course exceptional scent making. They feel small, familiar and intimately assembled as a company. Yet the undoubted cult status of the brand and the absolute wearability of their scents (the Oud Alif and Blood Oranges have been particularly lauded…) make them one of the most fascinating houses in recent years.
Now we have a full-blown swooning gourmand from Dom and Julie in the golden, salt-dusted boldness of Salt Caramel, a scent inspired by Charbonnel et Walker’s Sea Salt Caramel Truffles, perhaps one of the most ridiculously moreish bonbons ever. (Damn these sugared orbs…they are the Devil’s work I tell you…!). Charbonnel et Walker has been around since 1875 and holds a royal warrant to the Queen as purveyors of chocolates to the royal household. Based in the Royal Arcade on Old Bond Street, the brand’s silky dark chocolate is shockingly addictive. I confess to a terrible weakness for their English Rose & Violet Creams. They taste of heritage rooms and sweeping thirties diaphanous couture. The distinctive round boxes and elegant ribboning with the trademark font make the brand one of the most identifiable on the market.
The Sea Salt Caramel Truffles are sexy little chocolates, a smooth ganache of caramel-enriched airy truffle encased in an oddly saline-tinted shell. When you pop them in your mouth, the sugared exterior explodes with sweetness but is immediately hurled against a really beautiful mouthlick of sea salt. I love salt.. probably a little too much to be honest.. I tend to lavish it on food; my palate adores it, much more so than sugar. As a scent note, it’s a little trickier to locate and appreciate.
Lynn Harris’ Fleur de Sel for Miller Harris is a fabulous aromatic portrait of Batz sur Mer in Brittany where she spent childhood holidays, reeds and grasses whispering by windswept beaches under saline drenched skies. Maurice Roucel’s L for Lolita Lempicka is a delicious (and quite weird) blend of salt, sugar, cinnamon, musk and vanilla. An immortelle note lends a burnt driftwood tone to what is essentially an erotic portrait of skin drenched in tanning cream emerging from the sea…
I was incredibly excited when Shay & Blue tweeted about the Salt Caramel; Julie Massé had already used a melting dulce de leche note in Amber Rose, layering a silken milkiness over the May Rose and musks. It lends the scent an overall creamy lushness that is rare in floral gourmands. Sicilian Limes demonstrated how to twist salt through a composition, albeit a razor sharp and oddly Indian spiced one! I get huge whiffs of either immortelle or fenugreek off my skin whenever I have sampled this strange citrus. I do love the rosemary though and as it settles down I am reminded of Italian flat breads spiked with oily burnt shards of rosemary, tumbled with crystals of sea salt. Oud Alif also worked a gourmand note of dark chocolate into its smooth mix to partner the simmering shadows cast by the complexities of oud. Julie Massé chose saffron and leather to further enhance the profundity of the often-overworked oud. The result was a refreshingly elegant and approachable addition to the oud genre that relied more on mystery and allure than all-out skank.
So Shay & Blue are no strangers to the subtleties of the gourmand note and it was only a matter of time before Dom and Julie applied their considerable skills to the seductive gastronomic charisma of a full-blown gourmand fragrance for the house. For me, the lure of a successful gourmand fragrance lies in a smooth and accomplished golden confection, a tawny sense of allure that speaks of honeyed skin and aurous, blissful pour. Rather this than the sickly jarring augmentation of sugar and tooth in the neon perfumes of gaudy celebrity. Ultimately, wearing a gourmand is the act of transforming one’s skin into a gustatory playground.
In an article for Stylist Magazine Nigella Lawson, surely one of the most sensual and hedonistic cooks of our time, wrote:
‘I’m in the middle of a love affair with salted caramel. It’s heady, it’s passionate, it may - like the stalker’s obsessive focus – not be entirely healthy, but I take the view that few in this world have the luxury to be blasé about pleasure. There’s simply not enough of it about for us to gainsay what gifts are offered up for our enjoyment. True, for many, self-denial has its own exquisite agony, but I am not among their number. For me, a “more is more” kind of person, I don’t want merely to experience pleasure, I want to wallow in it – gloriously and gratefully – while it lasts.’
Welcome to Salt Caramel. On the skin it is heaven, sweet salty heaven. The licky-licky salt effect just bursts through layers of caramel and musks, beguiling the somewhat startled senses. You are prepared I think for sweetness and yes it’s gorgeously candied, but the dry, blueness of the saline rub is just fabulous. It actually dramatically increases one’s craving for the ultrasugar. This dichotomy swings back and forth as the fragrance spreads like honey on hot skin. The struggle lies in the skin itself. Do I go salt or sweet? Yet as with food, we often smell them together and side-by-side. It’s a very odd sensation; just on the cusp of what Nigella goes on to refer to in her article as the ‘bliss point’, the moment when the mouth-feel of something is sheer perfection. The same could be said of Shay & Blue’s Salt Caramel a bliss point in scented skin when the meld of gourmandise and niche perfumery is this damn good.
We will all smell different in this most decadent of caramel kisses. The vanilla, sandalwood and tonka bean further enhance the ambrosial lacquer the scent lays down on skin. The tonka in particular has a certain smoky resonance that works beautifully with the aridity of the salt. In gastronomy, salt has the unusual effect of counteracting any potential bitterness that caramel can sometimes impart to flavour.
Sampling, buying and wearing so many gourmand scents over the years I have realised one of the main problems is sustaining or maintaining any semblance of a smooth evaporation curve in the sweeter elements that we often crave in the scents in the first place. What is often left at the end, whimpering, is a somewhat generic benzoin-suffused artificial vanillic note. It’s tough to sustain the interest. You don’t want full-on sweetness for hours on end, but you do want echoes of honey, caramel, lactones, chocolate to linger and settle with gentle suggestion and style. Like one truffle too many, the craving can so easily tip into queasiness and aversion.
Salt Caramel joins some esteemed company for me. I have other delicious caramel tinted scents I wear. Prada Candy from 2011 was a huge benchmark for caramel scents in that it presented a truly chic and desirable reflection of the candied dream. It is pretty good actually, lovely stylish work by Daniele Andrier, a MASSIVE dose of benzoin, caramel, vanilla and some casual musks but pretty much just the resin. I went through bottles of the stuff; I found it so beautiful to layer under other fragrances as a kind of honeyed balsamic base. If I’m honest I prefer the L’Eau version with added Italian citrus notes and sweet pea. It’s rare these days that flankers out-dazzle their pro-genitors, but Candy L’Eau uses the caramel to lay more of a gauzy veil as opposed to the more intense spray tan of the original.
I really liked the melted waffle-cone quirkiness of Unknown Pleasures by John Pegg at Kerosene Fragrances. The interesting aspect of this scent is John’s use of Earl Grey tea and lemon over the honey, tonka and waffle cone notes. The caramel is drizzled through like a lovely summer cone craved on a rare British summer’s day. You can almost smell the cheap Mr Whippy ice cream melting done the sides of the cone and onto your fingers. A cunning and comforting scent. Every time I wore it, I smiled. That speaks volumes about how interesting it was on my cynical hide.
Gerard Ghislain is best known for his luxurious Histoires de Parfums line. I own 1969, Moulin Rouge and Music Hall. I love his work, its reeks of originality and a certain French style of insouciance and barely concealed decadence. But he also has two other very different diffusion lines. One is the travel/airport themed Scent of Departure, a line of city named scents with very distinctive packaging inspired by the abbreviated airport tags tied onto luggage. The other is the delightful Alice & Peter, five fragrances in very well made cupcake-styled bottles, unashamedly gourmand and frivolously moreish. My favourite (and currently sitting in my scented study like a joyful toy) is Showy Toffee, a very singular mix of caramel, ozonics, cut grass, lilac and chocolate. It is surprisingly diaphanous with the caramel note cleverly concealed behind a transparency of buzzy floral approximations. Not the most sophisticated of scents but then I’m not always in the mood for high culture and this giddy cupcake thing is lovely.
Another caramel-tinged construction worth mentioning is Praline de Santal by Parfumerie Générale, although strictly speaking it falls down more on the nuttier, smeared side of things. But Pierre Guillaume uses a really defined patisserie style of poured, craquelure caramel across a wonderful woody hazelnut note. It is drier and more aloof than a more obvious foodie gourmand but no less atmospheric for it. In fact Pierre Guillaume has created some truly outstanding gourmand fragrances for his line over the years including Felanilla, Musc Maori and Aomassaï. Pierre seems to instinctively understand how to assemble the effects of golden sweetness and then create edifices of unexpected light and strangeness around them.
I can’t really talk about caramel scents without mentioning Parfums Mugler’s sublime Alien flanker from the Le Gout du Parfum series in 2011. Michelin-starred chef Hélène Darroze was asked to sublimate the four classic Mugler scents – Alien, Angel, Womanity and A*Men with key gastronomic notes; thus augmenting the main characteristics of each cult perfume. A mulchy dark cocoa was plunged through Angel, lending the scent a dark simmering sophistication. Fig chutney laced Womanity; the sweet and spicy fruit notes working delicately with the scent’s unusual and much vaunted caviar glow. A*Men was the least interesting (are men generally just not considered connoisseur enough?), sprinkled with pimento in half-hearted attempt to fire up a rather dull incarnation of their best-selling men’s aroma. But the best of the quartet was Alien, a scent that has travelled far and wide from Ropion and Bruyère’s radiant, musky classic. Darroze chose buttered salted caramel to enhance this most solar and expansive of fragrances. In many ways, it was the most perfect marriage of nuances, the jasmine sambac dipped in golden sugar and left oozing and glossy in the dark.
So as you can see, the Fox loves his gourmands. My perfume study is littered with candied luminous delights. For me though, Shay & Blue’s cultured and stylish Salt Caramel is one of the finest I’ve worn for a while. Skin smells seriously halcyon and lickable. Yet rather than the often gimmicky faltering of many foodie scents; in the talented hands of Julie Massé, the thoughtful positioning and alliance of caramel and salt have been raised to the olfactive equivalent of classic French haute-patisserie.
It’s still tremendous fun though and after the fabulous crash of salt and sweet hits the senses it becomes a truly beautiful scent, naughty, fulgent and quietly sensual. A scent to indulge in, drown in, over and over again. As ever Shay & Blue have managed to seduce the senses while creating a fragrance that oozes desirability and considered sophistication. Do yourselves a scented favour, get some Salt Caramel and get candied this summer.
For more information on Shay & Blue, please click on the link below: