Snow doesn’t have a smell, exactly, being made of water—but the combination of cold and humidity is its own experience for our nose. While humidity helps our noses smell, in cold temperatures odor molecules don’t travel far, and fewer of them make their way into our cold-numbed noses. We register the coldness of the air with our trigeminal nerve, which is not the same as olfaction, but we process the experience similarly. The effect as we breathe in through our noses is cooling and refreshing.
The smell of snow, in some ways, is made up of the smell of our snowy environment: pine and fir trees; the environmental smells captured by the relative warmth of the pavement on a cold day; if we’re lucky, the smells of the winter cabin from which we watch the snow fall. The smells of snow may be ones of imaginative association: peppermint, white chocolate, cedarwood, frankincense.
All of this I had the occasion to ponder as I enjoyed @scentsofplates’s “50 Words for Snow” kit, with an herbal tea, chocolate “snow bark,” frankincense aroma candies, fizzy scented bath tablets, and an atmospheric playlist to listen to. The multi-sensory imaginative experience felt like a “snow day” unto itself.
When this year’s wildfires began burning a few weeks ago, I reached for Chris Rusak’s Io—dry heat and a California forest becoming incense. It quickly became #tooreal and I had to put it away for a different season. Kitty Guo articulates it in her essay “Where There’s Smoke: Perfume and California Wildfires” when she writes, “IO is sweet and sublime: soft footfalls on a bed of pine needles, a soaring forest cathedral, a night spent under the stars. But it is also seeded with threat and precarity, a sense of teetering just on the verge of disaster.” In Chris’s words, Io is a perfume “about survival…It’s about this idea how in California, we’re constantly surrounded by wildfires and death and burning, but at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to live and get to tomorrow.”
Kitty wrote her essay earlier this year, before this most recent season of wildfires. For her the scent of wildfire smoke is nostalgic, bringing to mind idyllic childhood summers. Though the smell has undercurrents of danger and devastation, finding a perfume that captures the smoky summer scent of her memories has become her white whale.
Reading Kitty’s exploration prompted me to revisit some of my favorite smoke perfumes (other than Io, of course). Bois d’Ascese by Naomi Goodsir is a deep, meditative fragrance of woodsmoke, tobacco, and peated whiskey. Burning Leaves by CB I Hate Perfume is an accurate rendering of its namesake, sweet and nostalgic. Kilauea by Olympic Orchids is a volcano erupting against the lush backdrop of a tropical paradise. Ummagumma by Fzotic is for when you think you want smoke, but really what you want is to curl up in a blanket and eat something chocolate.
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.
Happy Halloween! Today is the perfect day for Bat by Zoologist Perfumes. 🦇 This cavernous beauty was created by local Seattle-based perfumer Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids Perfume. It’s the scent of a dank cave, humid nighttime soil, bananas and soft fruits beginning to rot. It’s a little bit leathery, a little bit earthy, a little bit sweet. This formulation was recently discontinued, which is its own kind of horror. 👻
Last weekend I dressed up as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo, and I also happened to choose a Zoologist fragrance for the costume. Since Velma is always snooping around haunted places, I went with Moth. It’s a dusty indoor floral that becomes more and more musty in the dry down—it often makes me think of Miss Havisham.
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.
If you are ever in Portland, Oregon, you must visit Fumerie. ❤️
When I visited this weekend, I asked the incredible shop owner Tracy to help me discover some new “unusual gourmands”—I love Korrigan and Upper Ten for Her by Lubin, and Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, but wanted to expand on the theme. We went in a delicious fruity direction with Mandrake and Wolfsbane by Parfums Quartana, Or du Sérail by Naomi Goodsir, Sådanne by Slumberhouse, and Dambrosia by Profumum Roma.
Lavender is a polarizing scent, surprisingly to me! It’s one of my first scent loves, but when I ask people about the smells they like or dislike, a lot of people declare that they hate lavender. In perfumery, lavender comes in two distinctive forms: essential oil (steam distilled), which is a top note that has a more medicinal, herby aroma. This is what most people think of when they think of lavender. Then there’s lavender absolute (long story short: dissolved), which is a middle note with a softer floral aroma. It smells more like the actual flower—which is all over the place here in the PNW. 💜