I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Friday 18 July 2014

Imagining Nuances: The Terroir of Olfaction – ‘14°S 48°E’ by Richard Lüscher Britos & Vero Kern

‘Make no sound, do not speak: eyes, heart, mind dreams
are about to explore a forest…A secret but tangible forest.’

Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, Madagascan poet, 1901-1937

If you use the co-ordinates in the title of this most singular of natural perfumes, you will find yourself located in the north-eastern part of Madagascar, near Ambanja. This is ylang and vanilla country. The climate and geography of the region have forged perfect growing conditions for bourbon vanilla and one of the world’s most sensual blooms. Add frangipani, pink peppercorn, green mandarin, cocoa and vetiver into the mix alongside the sweet leathered sheath and you have the particular local materials needed to create a scent of remarkable grace and beauty.

The talented trio of friends Malvin Richard, Lukas Lüscher and Serena Britos launched their refined and handsome house in 2013. Malvin’s father Jean-Claude is a perfumer and created two of the RLB collection, 04˚N 74˚W, a coffee-infused gardenia scent inspired by Columbia and 36˚N 16˚E, a Calabrian harmony of honeyed citrus and woods.

From an early age Malvin was exposed to the aromas and complexities of olfactive creation. He has known Lukas since they were teens and the guys have grown up intrigued by the machinations of perfumery and the possibilities of somehow doing something different, utilising their travel experiences and producing a more natural product, reflective of distinctive areas or regions. The final part of the trio, Serena Britos is an expert in ethnobotany, a fascinating science that aims to explore and explain the often complex, ancient and vital relationships between man, cultures and fauna. Her skills, knowledge and field experiences were essential to the final solidifying of the Richard Lüscher Britos idea of creating high-end niche perfumery using only natural raw materials inspired by the concept of terroir.

Terroir (land in French..)is a term more commonly associated within viniculture referring to a specific set of environmental conditions – soil, climate, geography etc – that impact on the taste and finish of the wine. Winemakers often refer to le goüt du terroir, the ability to determine the provenance of the wine through literally tasting the echoes of the vine’s root system, soil, weather and climate. It sounds far fetched and pretentious, yet this idea of terroir lies at the very heart of the rigid AOC or Appellation d’Origine Controlé system which defines the French wine industry and many others.

The AOC system dictates that certain regions, through a set of geographical and climatically defined criteria impart distinctive and discernible qualities to the wine produced in the area. It also implies that a described appellation cannot be reproduced in a region outside of its designated area. It is a complex and much-debated system which aims to protect and promote the individual particularities and idiosyncrasies of a given place and set of unpredictable natural criteria. In recent times, the concept has been widened to apply to cognac, coffee, tea, cocoa beans and even beef.

Applying these rules to the scent or aroma of a particular region seems pretty crazy, even impossible. However utilising the concept of terroir provides a singularly fascinating and not to say challenging basis for a collection of natural perfumes. This is what Richard Lüscher Britos have endeavoured to do, map the key olfactory influences and traits within specially chosen areas across the globe. The areas they have chosen include the Canton of Valais in Switzerland, Ambanja in north-eastern Madagascar, Causse Méjean in Southern France, Columbia and Calabria in southern Italy. Each of the scents is a specific portrait of the flora and gourmand influences of the particular region. The Causse Méjean scent, 48˚N 03˚ for example looks at the dry, windswept lavender of the barren harsh plateaued region, spicing this with juniper and softening the blend with the sweet, smeared nuttiness of chestnut, an subliminal echo of a local dessert. In 46˚N 08˚E (Swiss Mountain Cowboy), Jean Claude Gigadou has created a hymn to Alpine woods, dense, resinous and green, snow-clad and smoky with the odd muffling embrace of lichen and moss clinging to the wet pine bark.

A lovely review of this can be found over at Cafleurebon by Nancy Lichtenstein, follow the link below: 

Vero Kern & Isi… 

So the wondrous Vero Kern works her magic with Madagascar. You all know by now how much I adore Vero and her astonishing sensual work. It is like nothing else. The skin becomes art in its magnificent pornographic structures. I have Onda, Kiki, Onda Extrait and Rozy Voile d’Extrait in my collection and they are a constant reminder to me of how truly beautiful, strange and persuasive perfume can be. Arguably Onda is her masterpiece, her Demoiselles d’Avignon, a scent so twisted out of time and shocking, its whiff and skank transfigures the mundaneness of everyday existence into glorious warped transcendence. It is brutal, dangerous, brazen and yet magnificently tender in its later stages, as lights fade and you sit on the edge of on unknown bed wondering if his name is really what he says it is and do you really care.

Vero’s work is divisive. This is a good thing. Great work should be loved and loathed. Who the hell wants to be mediocre? So I was very intrigued to read Val the Cookie Queen’s account of the RLB launch in Zurich, Switzerland, attended by Vero.

I already had in the back of my mind the memory of a short read somewhere about a brand using naturals and the concept of terroir, but I hadn’t really pursued it. Adding Vero and Andy to the mix made me realise how intriguing and ambitious the project actually was. 

As I have already mentioned, Vero’s scent is located in Madagascar, Ambanja in the north east of the island to be more precise. The majority of the island’s precious vanilla production is located in the same region. Vanilla planifolia is a fickle orchid, requiring meticulous care and attention in order to produce the richly scented pods loaded with tenebrous, tarry seeds. Originally from Mexico, the orchid had a unique symbiotic relationship with a particular species of Melipona bee, native to Mexico. This meant reproducing the orchid as a crop was impossible outside of the plant’s natural habitat. The breakthrough came in 1841 with the discovery by an indentured 12-year-old slave boy named Edmond Albius on the Réunion Islands. He found a way to hand pollinate the vanilla orchids; all attempts to artificially pollinate before this had proved to be financially ruinous and unsuccessful. Edmond’s discovery transformed the world of taste as we know, allowing vanilla to be cultivated all over the globe, without the need of the Melipona bee.   

Vanilla planifolia

Vanilla is now grown in various parts of the world, but the vanilla planifolia or Bourbon Vanilla, (named for the Île Bourbon, the former name of the Réunion Islands) is specific to Madagascar, the Comoros and Réunion. The taste and very importantly the odour of Bourbon Vanilla are very sensual, rich and warm, with toasted tobacco, hay and almond facets. As befitting the world’s 2nd most expensive spice, (the No 1 is saffron…) the scent is regal and mysterious. It is hard to imagine a world without vanilla and I certainly can’t imagine my Foxy perfumed life without it. I am obsessed with he profundity and allure of true olfactive vanilla.

Canaga odorata, the 'flower of flowers' 

While the vanilla note is exquisitely rendered in 14˚S 48˚E, according to Vero, this is an ylang scent. Canaga Odorata, the flower of flowers is a luscious marvel, the creamy curling yellow blooms need a hot, wet climate and preferably volcanic soil to grow in. So the Madagascan microclimate is pretty perfect. The distinctive custard-tinted flowers are harvested by hand, usually by women at particular times of the day and the flowers are then steam distilled in huge vats, resulting in various grades of finished ylang distillate. There are far too many components in ylang to explore properly here, but Madagascan ylang does contain high levels of both geraniol and geranyl acetate, both of occur naturally in fruits and flower and lend the ylang a deep sweet, plasticised aroma. There are also traces of benzyl acetate (for a soft pear-drops and banana jasmine tendency), safrol and alpha pinene that imparts a muted mossy drift over the floral radiance.

Vero and I have become great cyber-friends, chatting across the electronic ether to one another and I let her know I had bought 14˚S 48˚E and how much I loved it. I asked if she elucidate her scented workings a little for me; I was very intrigued to know how challenging it was to work with 100% organic and natural materials. I also wondered if Vero had been to Madagascar as part of the brief or if she used her olfactive imagination to assemble a beautiful fiction of scent and effect. 

It was clear from the beginning that I wanted to create the terroir scent with complete oils, so no fractions or isolates. Everything else seemed not opportune to me for this venture. The difficulty with complex oils is, that they are proper blends with sometimes up to 400 components and therefore must be very carefully mixed together. I had the additional problem with my main component of Ylang Ylang as the use is restricted by IFRA. After many trials however it seems time now, that my creation, my tropical coastal jewel, reflects the many facets of its unique terroir.’ Vero Kern

As an artist, for that is indeed what Vero undoubtedly is, she researched and imagined a Vero version of Madagascar, rich and seductive, lush with rain and moist, steaming soil. The skies exploding with gorgeous water on the crops of cocoa, rice, pepper, coffee and vanilla in the fields and villages below. A great writer can create extraordinary places in the mind and never leave his own house. I think sometimes, travel and the relentless exposure of social media have dulled our ability to truly imagine places. Okay, there may be oddness and exaggerations but surely the conjuring of destination in the mind is a magical, sacred thing? Vero’s olfactive manifestation of this fertile glittering north-eastern part of Madagascar is a sublime mix of research, botanical fact and her own perfumed virtuosity.

Vero’s blending is at once masterful and mysterious. Anyone expecting the full boudoir strut and straddle of say Rubj or Onda will be very surprised by the surreptitious charms and spiky sensuality of this rarefied composition. This is a scent of beauteous place and atmosphere; everything assembled with the utmost grace and delicacy. Vero has demonstrated great restraint in her handling of the key ylang motif, a note that can occasionally subvert or drown formulae with its unctuous fleshtones. It can be a troubling scent, causing headaches and nausea in high doses, hence its reputation as an aphrodisiac. The skin flushes, the heart races, love burns and reeks of skin and sluttish want.

Almost perversely, Vero has ghosted this most fleshy of blooms, starved it until only a translucency of desire remains, an ambient glow of spice-washed petal and aerated corsage. Madagascan green mandarin, Messina lemon and the fragile crumble of baies roses (pink peppercorn) add a little texture and sweet heat to the floral haze. It is ever-so-faintly dusted in cocoa as the base notes begin to rise through the sensuous chicanes of settling. The benzyl acetate in the ylang reinforces the indolic indolence of the frangipani, a note much strived for and rarely achieved with any degree of accuracy. Here it is lithe and coy, with a balmy come hither poise.

Working with Mr E so much on Les (deux) Garçons compositions has really opened my senses to the astonishing nuances of aromachemicals. We were using alpha and beta pinene in a scent recently to add some verdant forest facets to some mods for future projects. Vero’s manipulation of the ylang has caused this molecular component of the natural floral oil to breathe a shiver of turpentine through the fleeting flounce of blooms.

Vetiver in the base reinforces this seductive sense of the tropical and as it settles gently into the skin it seems to smell nutty and roasted. The notes on the website mention toasted corn… and yes it does, but in a very particular way. I knew there was something in the base that caught my attention, something with personal resonance. I’ve mentioned before I spent much of my childhood living and travelling in the Middle East and West Africa. These years have saturated my olfactive memory with an evocative portfolio of aromas. Certain smells can still bring me to my emotive knees in recognition of a place, hot rain, melting road, duststorm, market, guava tree….

So this strange corn nuance…. All I can think of is winding down the windows of air-conditioned cars as we travelled dusty African wreck-strewn roads and smelling roasting corn in the heated air. There were always women dotted along the routes squatting near fires, thrilling flames with woven palm or lovingly shaped cardboard fans, back and forth over the glistening, squealing cobs, their husks shucked off and sizzling beneath them. I know it’s going to sound pretentious and dramatic, but corn never tasted as good again. Why would it, tied as it was to the smell of burny Van Gogh bright corn in scraps of salty paper in the austere security of chilled expat vehicles.

The echo of this roasted African roadside maize is a haze of contentment in Vero’s delicious homage to ylang ylang, the flower of flowers. The more I wear this rare and secretive scent, the more I fall in love with it. I know it never be be a bestselling fragrance or feature prominently in blogs, wowing the masses, it is an odour floating beautifully in the hinterlands of niche. But 14˚S 48˚E is outstanding olfaction by a perfumer at the height of her powers and deserves scrutiny, skin and a certain kind of romantic obsession.

Whether or not it captures the reality of the Madagascan terroir as intended is something I feel only the RLB trio can truly answer. I’m not sure it matters to me as a wearer; the brief set to Vero was of course fascinating and apparently quite challenging. What interests me is the result of a rigid and atmospheric set of parameters meeting a perfumer with a truly powerful understanding of skin and sensuality. Sex, body and effect are the motifs that bleed through Vero’s perfumed oeuvre. She has had to rein in her normal proclivities in order to focus her considerable skills on presenting us with a succulent, rarefied location and a portrait of ylang ylang that is both alluring and aloof. I am so glad I have 14˚S 48˚E in my collection, it feels unorthodox and lush, my senses seem to crave it; I keep catching tendrils of petal, spice and smoky maize and have to keep reminding myself, yes I smell that damn good. I am a coastal jewel.     

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