Rose. In all honesty, I prefer to eat or drink my roses rather than wear them as perfume. These are two of my favorite roses: rose black tea and ferni, an Iranian or Afghan dessert made with rice flour, milk and, often, rosewater and cardamom.
I don’t generally wear rose-forward perfumes—or many floral perfumes at all—because I don’t feel like myself in them. But I will say that Masque MilanoLove Kills captured my affection recently with its lychee and petals opening that reminds me of rosewater desserts. (Love Kills was also nominated this year for an Art and Olfaction Award—congratulations, Masque Milano and perfumer Caroline Dumur!).
If you had to pick your favorite rose smell—whether it’s a perfume, something to eat or drink, or your own rose garden—what would it be?
Malted chocolate, orange lollipops, caramel, brie cheese, horse barn/manure, maraschino cherry, coconut sunscreen, jasmine—these are smelling and tasting notes I wrote down during a honey tasting this week led by Carla Marina Marchese, a honey sensory expert and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society, in an online class through The Institute for Art and Olfaction.
Marchese led us through a sensory analysis of five honeys, all complex and very different from one another. As part of the sensory analysis, we looked at the color, consistency, and texture of each honey; the smell intensity and facets; and finally, the taste. Taste, texture, and smell are all components of flavor.
Before we opened the honey jars, we did a fun exercise demonstrating how essential olfaction is to flavor. We plugged our nose and tasted an unlabeled substance. It had the texture of granules and the taste was sweet: sugar. Then we unplugged our noses and tasted again: cinnamon sugar. The taste of cinnamon was undetectable without our sense of smell.
How would you describe the scent of tea? In perfume, there’s a wide range of possibilities within the idea of a “tea” scent—smoky, vegetal, nutty, milky, fruity, floral—and the texture can range from watery and refreshing to dry, even astringent. Some tea perfumes live in the sphere of wood, paper, or leaves, while some are soft florals. Many tea perfumes don’t smell like tea so much as the ambiance we associate with tea: delicate florals, chilly refreshment, chai spices, whispers of fruitiness, cleanliness, leaves and fresh cut grass, a relaxing spa.
What, exactly, is the common denominator? The best tea perfumes I’ve smelled are broadly characterized by a subdued disposition: compelling, yet restrained, calm, and collected.
My favorites so far are the classic Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert by Jean-Claude Ellena for BVLGARI (this was released in 1993 and was, to my understanding, the original tea perfume), Comme des Garçons’s simple and refreshing Series 7: Sweet – Nomad Tea, and Nishane‘s Wūlóng Chá, a crisp lychee oolong. Zoologist’s Elephant is a stimulating, astringent black tea nestled among big green leaves. Masque Milano’s Russian Tea is atmospheric, with hints of sweetness, hints of smoke, and a leather base. Le Labo’s Thé Noir 29 is tea-adjacent: smoky, robust, with vetiver, cedar, bay leaf, and the idea of black tea, while CH I Hate Perfume’s Russian Caravan Tea is as accurate and straightforward a black tea perfume as I’ve smelled.
Ever since I ate that matsutake mushroom dish a few weeks ago, I’ve been curious about the smells of different types of mushrooms. So last weekend I went to the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s Annual Wild Mushroom Show and got to see, smell, touch, and taste a lot of mushrooms! My new favorite aromatic mushroom is the candy cap, which smells like maple syrup with hints of curry when dried. It’s used in all kinds of sweet desserts. I was talking to @wurstillustrations and she mentioned that as she’s become more experienced identifying mushrooms, she relies on smell more than sight.
After the show, of course I rummaged through my library (**hoarder’s stockpile) of perfumes to find some mushroomy scents. 🍄
Chypre Mousse by Oriza L. Legrand is so weird and I love it. Frothy, mossy, loamy, with an odd green and aromatic sourness, no hard edges whatsoever, and a whisper of mint.
After the Flood by Apoteker Tepe also has a fresh, “forest floor after the rain” mood to it, but it focuses more on aquatic notes. This one has edges and contrast—like seeing the light and shadows of sunlight filtering through pine trees.
Cepes and Tuberose by Aftelier Perfumes departs from the “fresh” forest floor theme and goes full-on dirty sexy floral. It’s rich, earthy, and sweet with bitter orange and a hint of spice. Gorgeous.
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.