A Kiss in the Gardens of Love

shalimarsrinagar

-       a review of Guerlain’s Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar

Dear M. Wasser,

We really can’t go on meeting like this. You in your elevated stratosphere at the venerable Maison Guerlain, and I, one lone perfume writer in the void you likely are not even aware of, even as I’ve applied my suspect prose to some of your works and on occasion been less than charitable in my estimations.

If you’re bracing yourself for the next barrage of mellifluous dressing down, I regret to disappoint you. This will not be one of those reviews, because as you are surely aware, s*** happens.

And in this instance, one of the greatest and grandest and most celebrated perfumes of the 20th century, an ode to love, to a garden or two, to a starry-eyed Moghul emperor and his dearly beloved, and to the perfume that somehow managed to wrap all of it up in one sumptuous embrace and sear itself into the memories of millions of women who wore it and the men who adored it…

Shalimar.

It pains me a great deal to say this, yet say it I must – much as I appreciate its splendor, its opulence on anyone who isn’t me, its sheer operatic scale of influence and scope, I am no acolyte at the temple of Shalimar.

You see, M. Wasser, Shalimar has one fatal, Freudian flaw.

My mother wore Shalimar. In fact, it was her favorite Guerlain, which is the very reason I can never, ever wear it.

For as all daughters must, I, too defined myself in my mother’s despite, and on that long-ago May day at Guerlain on the Champs Élysées, when all of its wonders were mine for the taking and it was time to choose my own manner of fragrant explication, I chose not Shalimar but Jicky. Life had yet its pleasures proved, and I was nowhere grown-up enough for this Grande Madame. I would have felt like a four-year-old dressing up in Maman’s hat and high heels, only to hear her laugh at my audacity.

No matter.

Nevertheless, I remembered watching you in the BBC documentary ‘Perfume’, and how you were given the unenviable task of rejuvenating this Grande Madame for a younger clientele, saw your trepidation at messing with a masterpiece, and who could blame you?

Stuck in my nowhere corner of northwestern Europe, Shalimar Parfum Initial was alas nowhere available until this past fall, when I encountered it in a Florentine department store, only to find myself bemused to discover that perhaps my own issues with Maman had made me more than a little biased for no good reason at all.

Because I adored it even if I am no longer young in the slightest. It stuck in my mind like all the best fragrant stories do, with a tantalizing ellipsis that implied… to be continued.

As it will, I can assure you.

One day, as friends with a common passion do, one dear perfume friend sent me a sample of your 2012 release, the euphoniously and impossibly named Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar, made to commemorate an exceptional harvest of Sambava vanilla, and whatever hesitations I might have had in my own biased history with La Grande Madame were swept away in an instant by a deliciously decadent vanilla cloud of… oh, be still, my beating heart!

I know it well. Your deft touch of decadent gourmandise has undone me before in the now sadly discontinued Iris Ganache, and Jean Paul Guerlain’s sumptuous Spiritueuse Double Vanille is one of my own exalted vanilla thrillers.

No doubt as Jacques Guerlain certainly intuited and Jean Paul was well aware, you surely know that vanilla has a rather unique effect on the human mind – it elevates our perception of all our other senses, whether tasted or inhaled.

You see where this is going.

Once upon a time not so long ago, I trained as a pastry chef, and came to know that not all vanillas are created equal. The flirty floral dolce far niente of Tahitian vanilla, the no less floral, earthier Mexican vanilla, which was used in this year’s Ode à la Vanille and that grande dame of them all, Bourbon Madagascar vanilla with so many woozy, boozy, woody, deliriously rich symphonies of aroma it’s almost an insult to call it mere ‘vanilla’.

So here we have your tribute to an exceptional harvest from Madagascar’s northeastern Vanilla Coast, a Sambava vanilla dancing in tandem with a reorchestrated Shalimar – less leathery and animalic than its grandmother, and yet, one thing about it really makes my sweet tooth ache.

The name. What was the marketing department thinking, apart from humiliating non-French speakers at Guerlain counters and having a good laugh at their expense? For quite a few people, French is quite bad enough, thank you. So for the purposes of this review and to distinguish it from its illustrious ancestor, I shall call it Shalemur.

And although I would not necessarily label Shalemur ‘cute’, it is certainly at least as fluffy as any lemur.

Certain elements of both your own Iris Ganache as well as Shalimar are immediately apparent – its seamlessly constructed iris-y bouquet de fleurs (jasmine and rose, so they tell me) but the dark, earthy iris heart dancing its own delirious tango with cedar and patchouli is only too happy to bring in the bright Malagasy sunshine for the journey too, the bergamot, the mandarin and the lemon adding their own macaron de citron laugh, but front and center finds this… vanilla. Warm, enveloping, sweet yet not sugary in the slightest, it’s the kind of megawatt superstar vanilla other vanillas aspire to be when they grow up. I’ve been hard-pressed to tease apart the many elements of Shalemur, because basically, who the heck cares when it’s this good? The perfume writer bangs her head against her keyboard in frustration, whereas the woman floats away on a fluffy cloud of iris, cedar and that dangerous, erotically charged vanilla, cooking up her dangerous, vanilla-charged dreams and the rest be damned.

Hours upon hours of them, and it’s all your fault, M. Wasser. Much, much later, Shalemur becomes woodier and darker, with incense overtones, opoponax hints and tonka bean shadings and it’s a marvel I have any intellectual capacity to think at all by now.

It boils down to an old Moghal love poem in perfume:

If there is a Paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this,

it is this.

Ring-tailed Lemur Love

Lemurs do it, too. This insidiously lovely, decadent, delirious ode to vanilla is a stolen kiss in the Garden of Love.

Whoever knew it could be found…on the way to Madagascar?

Yours most sincerely,

The Alembicated Genie

Notes for Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar: Mandarin, bergamot, lemon, cedar, iris, patchouli, jasmine, vetiver, rose, leather, sandalwood, opoponax, musk, civet, Sambava vanilla, incense and tonka bean

So far as I’ve been able to determine, Shalemur is becoming nearly impossible to find. But if you do, let me know!

With profound thanks to Ruth and to Maggie.

Photos: From the Shalimar Bagh gardens of Srinagar. And two lemurs of Madagascar.

Afloat in a Chocolate Sea

-       a review of Aftelier Perfumes’ ‘Cacao’

Close your eyes and think of all the wonders Europe never knew until Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs.

Tomatoes, chiles, peppers. These are all fine, all good, but more marvels waited to slay the unsuspecting in the verdant jungles of the Yucatàn, and of them all, two in particular would have a lasting impact on the European culinary landscape. These nearly five hundred years later, both are so ubiquitous by now they’ve become bywords for opposite ends of a spectrum…one unassuming if pretty pale green orchid, whose fermented seed pods fired all our imaginations and that is vanilla, and the seeds of a small jungle tree that ignited passions, restored the mind, gave strength and stamina and was used as both currency and luxury tax. Say the word, and I can guarantee a whole onslaught of images in your mind…silky, smooth, sweet, sinful, and nearly impossible to resist…

Chocolate.

Where would we be without this delicious marvel of the mouth? One story of the conquest of the Aztec declares that Moctezuma drank fifty cups of xocoatl – a bitter, frothy drink of cacao, chiles and vanilla – a day, but then again, he also had 300 concubines. Surely, they drank xocoatl, too?

Here’s what I know – botanist Carl von Linné was surely giving himself away when he invented the name for the cacao tree. He called it Theobroma. The food of the Gods. Von Linné was (also) a lifelong, dedicated chocoholic.

Some of us are addicted to chocolate in its many forms – or simply chocolate in any form.

But to wear in perfume? Once upon a time, I would have said…not so much.

Nothing against dessert, it’s just I’d rather eat it than wear it, and when I’ve worn it, I’ve found myself wanting to eat it.

So it was until friend and fellow perfume blogger Carrie of Eyeliner On A Cat sent me a decant of Guerlain’s magnificent Spiritueuse Double Vanille. Arguably one of the greatest vanilla perfumes ever created.

When next she murmured…iris and white chocolate, I had to own that one, too. Since then I’ve adored chocolate notes in perfumes, so long as they’re a) not combined with patchouli overdoses (Angel, here’s looking at you) or b) and done with all respect to the divine cocoa bean.

Carrie’s nudge sent this perfumoholic over the edge!

Chocolate is never just…chocolate. It can be amazingly complex, floral, fruity, and densely aromatic – if not outright narcotic in a way that no other food item quite is, yet if anyone at all could turn that complexity of aroma into perfume, it would be Mandy Aftel, who has a spectacular talent for defining ‘aroma’ in new, daringly delicious ways.

Cacao is nothing if not…delicious. For the alcohol base for this perfume, she macerated cocoa beans specially selected by master chocolate maker Steve DeVries with a floral Tahitian vanilla for a full year.

Just the alcohol base for this perfume, and already this chocoholic is drooling on her keyboard.

Cacao is a marvel of a perfume, not only for the dedication to craftsmanship and the concept of chocolate that waiting a full year for an alcohol base implies, but also for the way it opens with a bright, trumpeting, clarion call of citrus – blood orange and pink grapefruit, say the notes – which isn’t what I expected from something called ‘Cacao’.

I expected a full, dark, silky chocolate kiss, and what I got was a wake-up call. Hello!

Citrus and chocolate are old, familiar friends, but Cacao has yet more surprises in store, because some time later, the real surprise – and the real genius of Cacao – kicks in for reasons I shall presently explain.

I don’t know precisely what kind of cocoa beans were used for that alcohol base. The three varieties of cocoa bean, Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario, which is a hybrid of the first two, have very different flavor profiles. Most of the chocolate consumed today is Forastero cocoa, but truly dedicated chocoholics have a preference for Criollo chocolate for its ethereal, flowery nuances, and these are precisely what Mandy chose to highlight with the inspired addition of jasmine sambac and grandiflorum, elevating an already lush and sensual  blend into the plush and downright decadent stratosphere of chocoholic gourmand heaven, and if that’s not genius, I don’t know what is. For all I know about jasmine (which is quite a bit by now), this combination of jasmine + chocolate was invented in some alternate universe where Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas sang into the blend in flawless harmony…‘What an inspired idea that is!’

As those glorious blooms fade into the twilight, the coup de foudre comes forward to take my breath away… the opulent, flowery wonder of Tahitian vanilla, those fatal, fragrant cocoa beans and somewhere along the way, my definition of ‘chocolate’ and my concept of ‘gourmand’ has once again been rattled to bedrock in all the best ways, and by Golly, I would so wear this to unnerve a fellow chocoholic, and by Golly, the guy wouldn’t stand an almond’s chance in a chocolate bath!

Cacao brought out the voodoo of Carrie’s inner child, and it brought out that gluttonous chocolate-loving side I usually try to forget. “All you need is love,” said Charles M. Schulz, before he went on “But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

Thanks to Mandy Aftel’s ‘Cacao’, it hurts even less, when this former gourmand-averse perfume writer wants nothing more than to swim this perfectly executed marvel and float in a fruity, flowery Xocoatl sea, where all the most delicious, decadent dreams always come true!

Aftelier’s ‘Cacao’ is available in parfum and eau de parfum from the Aftelier website. Steve DeVries chocolate wonders can be explored here.

Disclaimer: A sample of Cacao eau de parfum was provided for review by Mandy Aftel.