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

Saturday 13 December 2014

Samovar Dreams – ‘Russian Tea’ by Masque Milano

I first came across Masque Milano last year, when my senses fell victim to the smouldering floral-free vapours of Montecristo. Just when I thought I had put all contemplations of leathered air and cigar-stained ruination behind me, along came Delphine Thierry’s masterly composition for Masque Milano and I fell again.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – so much fine niche is coming out of Italy just now. Blood Concept, Hilde Solani, Nu_be, Tizania Terezni, Gabriella Chieffo, Meo Fuscini, Zeromolecole, Peccato Originale and Antonio Gardoni’s extraordinary Bogue: all of these differing, exciting houses, playing with science, food, sugar, smoke, memory, sex, family, love, death and desire. So much passion and intensity, emotion and spectacle.

Riccardo Tedeschi (left) & Alessandro Brun (right)

To this rather fabulous collezione of names I must add Masque Fragranze or Masque Milano as they are better known, co-founded in 2012 by Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi, two handsome and dynamic young chaps with diverse and fascinating backgrounds, Alessandro a Milanese by birth and Riccardo hailing from Assisi in Perugia. As Creative Directors of an exquisite artisan fragrance brand, the boys came to scent via a eclectic route of electrical and management engineering, jewellery-making, leather-working and classical guitar. This giddy mix of arts, artisan application and research led to Alessandro the teacher meeting Riccardo the student at the Politecnico di Milano where they were mutually impressed by one other’s obsessions, knowledge and desire to do things a little differently – with edge, style, functionality and of course great beauty. An orchestration of ideas and desires set them on a path to a luxurious and precisely conceived future. They immersed themselves in the knowledge, technique and dedicated pursuit of the scented wing beat.

First came a gilded and precise collection of skincare in 2010 that also includes two fragrances: Petra and Dolceacqua. The other pieces include cleansing oil, body lotion, soap, facemask and aromatic candles. The line is strikingly presented in architectural gold and white minimal designs with the brand’s unique trademark Deruta ceramic caps.

Then Alessandro and Riccardo wanted to create scent on an operatic scale with soaring sensation to move us and tell stories, guide us through moods and moments. This would be achieved through the inherently Italianate artform of opera, constructing a perceived four act piece of olfactory imagination composed by a personally chosen ensemble of perfume talents. This collaborative assembly of talented noses would compose scents for each scene. Eventually when the project is complete, the harmonious whole will cover a diverse and complex range of aromatic and psychological styles.

It is a very elegant and simple idea but one fraught with potential pomposity and camp melodrama. I am not an opera fan. Never have been, never will be. I can appreciate the piercing harrowing range of a flawed soprano, arias delivered with fire and controlled rage. But generally it is a medium that has always eluded me. Age has not softened me either, I have become even less tolerant of it as I’ve got older, most classical music generally actually. Weird really, but I digress. Masque Fragranze – An Opera of Life in Four Acts is an ambitious undertaking, an attempt to roll out a manifold and multi-layered assemblage of incredibly high quality and challenging scent. The guys want us to experience the various scenes of their scented life, see how the noses have chosen to interpret the operatic briefs.

The opera is masque, performance, charade; acts and scenes of love, loss, life and continuance interpreted by perfumers as masks that we might wear in our own daily performances, moving through words, emotions, moods and time.

Act I is inspired by life experiences, the processes of existence, journeys.

- Act I, Scene I is Terralba by Delphine Thierry.

- Act I, Scene II is Montecristo, also signed off by Delphine Thierry.

- Act I, Scene III is Russian Tea by Julian Rasquinet.

Act II concerns the tightening of emotions, the chiaroscuro of desire.

-   Act II, Scene I is Luci ed Ombre by Meo Fuscini

Act III is about romance and the fragility of relationships.

-   Act III, Scene IV by Cécile Zarokian is Tango

Act IV is Dreams and Reveries.

The operatic gaps are slowly being filled in, with moody set pieces as and when the boys find inspiration and the right nose to collaborate with. I love this idea of Masque Fragranze being a work in progress, watching and then inhaling the complex pieces as they appear. There might always be gaps, an unfinished symphony of sorts; this is fine too, enigma and truncation create beautiful mystery.

You can see where they are going, using vocal and theatrical metaphor, counterpointing it with carefully chosen and beautifully pitched musical imagery to create a scentscape of textures, weathers and backdrops. This is akin to the rolling scene changes and illusory techniques used in theatre to support voice and performer, in this case, nose and perfume.

The stand-outs from the line so far for me are Montecristo, Tango and now the deliriously sexy Russian Tea. Who would have thought ANYONE could have induced me to wear mint? I normally abhor it in scent. I took a huge risk blind buying this, but I had a gut feeling after reading the notes and provenance that Julien Rasquinet’s creation would be extraordinary. I wasn’t wrong.

The inspiration behind this beautiful scent is tea drinking in a café in a bookstore on the famous Nevsky Prospekt thoroughfare in Leningrad. I assume the bookstore in question is the famous Dom Knigi or House of the Book in the stunning Singer Building, an arresting Art Nouveau hybrid designed by Pavel Syuzor. Now we like to think here in Britain we know a thing or two abut tea and while this is no doubt true to a certain degree, no-one has socialised and abstracted tea quite like the Russians. It is the national Russian beverage, introduced to the country in 1638. It is not necessarily just about drinking tea, but the sharing of it, the gathering around it. The scalding liquid lubricates social interaction and passes time; pastries, cakes and biscuits are consumed, gossip and news is exchanged.

The heart of this is the samovar of course, literally a ‘self-boiler’ an item we traditionally now associate with Russia. They are used to concoct a immensely strong form of tea called zavarka, which is then in turn diluted into cups by very hot water from the ever boiling samovar. Sugar, honey and jams are often spooned into the tea as sweeteners and the liquid is sometimes slurped into saucers and slurped to cool it down. There is an old Russian saying: Where there is tea, there is paradise.

So back to our boys in the bookstore tearoom overlooking a snowy Nevsky Prospekt, opposite the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. They order the Russian Tea Ritual which is a teapot of boiling water, black tea leaves, mint and raspberry preserve. Now, I visited Moscow for work in early 2012 and the tea on my hotel breakfast trays always smelled smoky and burned, it was amazing. As a diehard drinker of builder’s tea, it took a good few days to adjust to this dense chewy tea. I could just have asked for something more generic, but I grew to rather enjoy this strange shock of churchy tea, watching early morning Russian TV as the light broke over the gathering angry cars in the gridlocked streets outside.

Pouring the boiling water over the fumy leaves and finger-crushed mint will smash together a duo of opposites: darkness and playful verdancy. This heady infusion would be further enhanced by a spoonful of sweet raspberry jam. This visceral shock of smoked caliginous leaf, berry and rubbed herb started the Masque Fragranze duo on an olfactory journey toward Julien Rasquinet and Russian Tea. Interestingly Julien’s wife Irina is Russian, so the marriage of olfactory ideas seemed a touch more perfect. In fact Russian Tea would turn out to be the last fragrance Julien would create as an independent in his lab in Normandy. He was offered a highflying position within IFF, based in Dubai and sadly had to close down his Norman base.

I was expecting an intense aromatic experience; both Montecristo and Tango have huge opening salvos, full of smoky, resonant promise. Tango develops into a lacquered bouquet of cinnabar spices and sticky resins and balms that just smells heavenly as skin heat activates the beautiful sweet clover and tonka in the base. The dance is one of spice and flowers, the exertion of sweat and physical heat and the veil of jasmine and hot rose. You have to be very careful with cumin in scent, it can be horribly overpowering and smell like old gym wear or curry leaf. In pitch perfect doses however it sets fire to petals and dusts an earthy peppered nuance through formulae.

The thing that really dazzles me with Tango though is how close the formula smells to being decayed and turned. In my scented travels I sometimes come across near empty flacons with the syrupy residue of perfumes lying stickily in the base. These evaporated, reduced, concentrées have strong vintage odours of creosote, face powder and sweet stale gateau. Oddly this is what I detect in the powerful drama of Tango and I love it. It’s a tricky balance, the suggestion of corrosion, whilst surrounding it in swathes of smouldering ambered ardour. But Zarokian knows her stuff and had produced in Tango (Act IV, Sc III) a scent of fire and passionate generosity.

Delphine Thierry’s Montecristo is simply one of the best parfums fumés I’ve come across in a while. It was my entry odour into the world of Masque Milano, so it set a very high standard. I love the olfactory work of Delphine Thierry, she has a singular atmospheric style that seems to imbue her fragrances with the romance and intense emotional blue of Turner’s more abstract oils. I have her smeared, unorthodox Castaña she created for Maggie Magnan’s gorgeous Cloon Keen Atelier. A scent of chestnuts, iris and woods that reeks of me in Paris when I was a student on time out, a little lost, grateful for hot chestnuts on a rainy Saturday with friends. She also made Akkad and Galaad for the resurrected Lubin line, two sensual and balmy essays in woods, vanillas, honeyed ouds, resins and the mysteries of ambrosial smoke.   

The beautiful turbulence of Montecristo is its ferocious animalism as it explodes out of the bottle. Yes, it’s a little faecal and dirtysexy but jeez so much fragrance these days is dull and sanitised to the point of tepid transparency. The sheer FUCK YOU of this is fantastic. It’s the Golden Stone/African Stone aka Hyraceum that really sets fire to this boozy bonfire of tobacco, woods and balms. Hyraceum is a rare sustainable source of potent animalic musk/hide like effect that comes from the weird little rock-hopping hyrax rodent things. Strangely, they are related (very distantly) to elephants and have unique sucker style paws that allow them to clamber and zip about on rocks successfully.

Over generations, hyraxes always locate their middens in the same place and over time, this collection of faeces and urine buries itself and essentially fossilises. Dug up, soaked in alcohol and distilled into tinctures, Golden Stone, in small doses can dramatically enhance the base notes and overall depth of oriental or woody formulae. The smell is incredible. The lovely Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery very kindly sent me some recently, in 10% solution. Sweet Lord…it was fricking marvellous. She said it smelled of ‘horse urine soaked shavings and fox fur’..(she knows how to get my attention!) and indeed it did and then some. Horse mane, damp dog, but oh my.. into the skin, rubbed in, a little warmth, the animalic permutations are divine. 

I’m digressing a tad here, but it’s important to understand how singular the rawness of Montecristo’s impact is. Blending this visceral feral note with rum, ambrette and styrax is asking for trouble but in the hands of a talented perfumer like Thierry, the result is one of refined assault and abiding sensual surround. 

So Russian Tea had tough competition, but my god it delivered. The enormous mint note looms at you like a sudden vast liner in a mist-covered ocean. I have only liked one other mentholic scent and that was Phaedon’s über aromatic Oriental Mint, which smells of freshly, brewed mint tea and Egyptian cigarettes. This is a very different experience, sudden and very emotive. The mint is bitter, shredded and violently released, the peppered facet to the exhale is brutal. This is the moment in the ritual the boiling water hits the smoky tea and mint leaves, exploding the conflicting odours outward. Then the raspberry, a moment of sugared soothing, a spoon of red-berried glory sliding off a tarnished spoon. The raspberry is wild though, with a hint of feral leaf, the smokiness of the tea smelling of garden bonfires drifting over tangled fruit bushes.

There is a lot of wood in Russian Tea, stoking samovar fires or just plain birch forest, silent and silvered in the background. It is a very Russian theme, an echo of the Siberian woods and trade routes taken by merchants and their caravans of goods including the powerful black tea that is the sexy centrepiece of Rasquinet’s Russian Tea composition. Apparently the smokiness associated with classic Russian tea blends has its roots in the long, slow journeys across the Siberian steppes. The tea was obviously transported on animals and over time, the combination of nightly watchfires and close proximity to animal hide imbued the tea leaves with powerful, redolent aromas. The notes list magnolia, an odd and unpredictable note in perfumery, either utterly fake and cloying or so fleeting as be pointless. Here however it has a ghostly presence, like a flower blooming out of season. It lends a creamy, honeyed sweetness to the heart of a robust and unusual formula. I love the dryness of the scent. This sounds odd, considering how rich and baroque the fragrance seems as it develops, but it is fact remarkably austere. Each time I spritz it on my skin, I am struck by the wit and reverence of the blending. Rasquinet’s close collaboration with the Masque Milano boys and the brief given to him regarding his work has produced another bravura entry in the Masque Milano line. They haven’t really put a foot wrong yet really, each scent in their ambitious operatic arc has been unique and gorgeous. The assemblage of harmonious performance perfect.  

Like the hot, berry drenched, smoky beverage, Russian Tea is ideally savoured intensely, slowly, languorously, inhaled with pleasure and disturbance at the sheer wonder and eccentricity at such scented construction.

Returning to the thematics of opera, this scent is a journey of small experiences written large in olfactory fireworks. I was genuinely enthralled by the mint, tea and raspberry triptych; it smells divinely strange and unfolds on the skin with tremendous unorthodox beauty. Building a palpable sense of mystery into perfumery these days is well nigh on impossible, but Riccardo and Alessandro have achieved something rather deviant: a collection of embellished and aesthetic perfumes that engage, astonish, arouse and seduce. Bravo boys, my skin adores you.    

© The Silver Fox 2014

Disclosure – from my own collection

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  1. A man who uses the word 'tenebrous' is a man after my own heart. Very partial to 'crepuscular', personally.

  2. Ooops - scrolled down too far to leave my comment, which relates instead to your latest post - love 'Simmered Astonishment' too!