I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.
Friday, 10 February 2012
Rum-Soaked Love & Sorcery: ‘Vanille Absolument’ by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Part II
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
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.
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
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 VanilleSpiritueuse 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.