Fragrance Material: Frankincense

I’ve been having fun burning frankincense and other resins as incense lately. Frankincense specifically is one of the more light, “clean”-smelling resins with notes of lemon and pine.

Trees of the genus Boswellia ooze the resin “tears” from “wounds” that harvesters cut into the bark.

My favorite frankincense perfumes are Avignon by Comme des Garcons which perfectly evokes that high church blend of frankincense and myrrh that Catholics will remember from their childhood; Passage d’Enfer by L’Artisan Parfumeur, which showcases the cleaner side of frankincense, somewhere between freshly showered and cool & cavernous; and Camel by Zoologist, rich and warm with incense and sweet dried fruits. Do you have a favorite incense or incense perfume?

Fragrance Note: Lily

My love gave me a bouquet of lilies and roses a couple of fragrant weeks ago. The lilies’ aroma overpowered the roses from the start; our apartment has been filled with their scent.

For the first few days, my primary experience of it was my association with funeral homes. After a while I moved past that and was surprised by how animalic they smelled, almost savory, like a floral ham. The scent seemed stronger from a distance—it asserted itself in the room, but when I stuck my nose into the bouquet, it became shy and I smelled the softer scent of petals.

I found this spread about lilies in Nez Magazine issue 6, which was fun to read alongside my experience.

Smellscapes: Smell Maps

A different way to interpret place: the smellscape. These “smell maps” by Kate McLean are beautiful visual representations of olfactory experience.

Kate leads groups of “cartographers” on smell walks to catalog smells, then finds the common ground in their perceptions—because inevitably, everyone perceives an olfactory landscape differently.

What are the smells that characterize your city? Your neighborhood?

Culinary Smelling: Matsutake Mushroom

I had just started reading a section of The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about the matsutake mushroom by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, when it was time to go to dinner. I was surprised and delighted to see the list of specials—there it was: matsutake mushroom, served with preserved pine, currants, and herring roe. I had never heard of matsutake until about an hour before, and I wasn’t 100% sure I was remembering the name right, but I had to order it.

From what I’d read at that point, I gathered that matsutake had a polarizing scent, and that it could overtake and ruin a dish if you didn’t prepare it correctly (Tsing described throwing out an entire stir-fry when the matsutake’s flavor invaded every bite). I was expecting a strong and distinctive aroma, but was a little disappointed to find the dish perfectly inoffensive. Light and earthy, with an outdoorsy aromatic lift, probably from the pine, and a hint of salty marine breeze from the roe. The mushroom was served raw and sliced thin, yet its smell and flavor was mild. Ordinary.

After dinner I went back to the chapter I’d read and realized that I hadn’t yet encountered an actual description of the smell. I kept reading. Tsing says that for the Japanese people to whom matsutake is so delightful, it’s a nostalgic smell. It “smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell … It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.” Eventually she breaks the news: “It is time to tell you that most people of European origin can’t stand the smell.” Even though matsutake flourishes in the PNW, Tsing says that white mushroom pickers find the smell “nauseating,” describing the smell as “mold,” “turpentine,” and “mud.” When I googled matsutake to try to find out what kind of smell I should have expected, the first hit was this description from California mycologist David Arora: “A provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and ‘dirty socks.’” I felt a little bit shortchanged to have been given such a pleasant dish.

“In Glorious Smell-o-Vision”

How cool is this? The (remaining) original “Smell Brain” by Hans Laube, the smell-disseminating organ for the only feature film written for scent: The Scent of Mystery in 1960. Miles of tubing disseminated scents to the audience at key moments of the film.

The film and its ambitious scenting mechanics went down in history as failed experiment: the first and the last major motion picture to be written for scent and screened with scent. Recently, however, the film and its scents have been screened again by @inglorious_smellovision, who has a documentary coming out soon! Visit their website to read more.

Perfume is a Language Worth Learning

perfume bottle

“Perfume is a language whose speech is worth learning and unpacking as one would a poem, book, or film. Scent is a path to getting closer to our senses, to instinct, and to our bodies and the earth at a time when those attachments are threatened.”

—Barbara Herman in her wonderful book Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume