- 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…
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.
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.
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.