Tag Archives: Cedar

Shadow Play

-  a review of Montale ‘Boisé Vanillé’.

Have you ever noticed how your perceptions change in the dark? Somehow, everything except your sense of sight is heightened, sound and smell take on a new significance, and what you can see shapeshifts into other, more ominous things that almost seize a life of their own in the shadows that recede into the darkness. Even your thoughts morph into other forms and patterns, and what seems preposterous in daylight somehow makes far more sense in the witching hours after midnight. Those daytime stories of crystal-clear delineated form and logic fade to darkest gray like old Polaroids, and instead, the mind opens to myths and magic, to all the primeval elements that make us what we truly are and feed the dreams and stories we create, and so we grow, if only we will dare to look into that dark.

I think of all of these things, I think of that interplay of shadow and light, logic and dream, and I think of a perfume that somehow also exhales on the borders of light and shadow, its form shifting and changing into something otherwise and other ways unexpected, and that is another reason I love what I do – to meet the unusual and follow where it leads, even if it takes me further into the shadows. That perfume is Montale’s ‘Boisé Vanillé’, surely one of the most unique vanilla-themed perfumes I have ever encountered.

Until now, I have never tried any of Montale’s perfumes, kept away by other olfactory distractions and hesitant because of one note in particular that gave me serious pause for thought. Montale is a house known for its use of oud. With a few exceptions, oud and I do not get along well. That note of medicinal and apothecary puts me off in a bad way, unless it’s so seamlessly blended with other notes I hardly notice it’s there, or of such an extraordinary quality I can appreciate its other facets.

No oud smolders in ‘Boisé Vanille’, but ‘smolder’ is the operative word here…this is a perfume that pulses in the shadows, that changes and evolves, and is surely one of the moodiest perfumes I’ve ever had the privilege to sniff.

Vanilla, that glorious cured pod of a jungle orchid, can be interpreted in so many ways. From the cupcake ubiquitous of celebufumes and tweenie scents to the star player in the famous ‘Guerlainade’ of Guerlain, who used it to such stunning effect in Shalimar, or focused on the pod itself to effect no less stellar in Spiritueuse Double Vanille, or to Serge Lutens’ olfactory candied dream of Un Bois Vanillé – in all of them and countless more, vanilla lurks to evoke memories of childhood and a sweet-toothed comfort against the vicissitudes of life, or else to seduce with its likewise aphrodisiac pleasures. The scent of vanilla has been scientifically proven to heighten all other sensory impressions, something every perfumer knows who attempts to bottle seduction and succeeds.

‘Boisé Vanillé’ is not that kind of vanilla. This isn’t sweet in the slightest, has no associations with food or childhood comfort scents, and as I wrote before…it’s moody, shifting the ground and the expectations beneath your nose whenever you think you understand it to something else and otherwise and very, very different.

Many perfumes start out on a bright, soprano note of hello before they take you away on that magic carpet ride, but ‘Boisé Vanillé’ has other plans and another kind of ride in store. I read of notes like lemon, geranium, bergamot and lavender and conjure up luminous green, fougère ideas, but here, those ideas are subverted almost immediately by a darker heartbeat…cedar leaves, dark and smooth and bitter. A fiery tendril of allspice glows, intertwined with a patchouli so velvety plush and rich it pulses in the halflight that surrounds you, a suggestion of iris adding its own air of intrigue. This perfume is not short on intrigue.

Vanilla even I can detect above, below and throughout it all, but this vanilla is all base and all basso profondo, it chooses to show another earthier, woody face. If there were such a thing as vanilla machismo, I offer Boisé Vanillé as Exhibit A, although I think it should wear equally well on both sexes, so long as you have the attitude it seems to demand.

After a long, long while, as it leads you through its twilit dark, a magnificent tonka bean makes itself known. Combined with the basso profondo vanilla, the smouldering embers of allspice and that velvet-black patchouli, it evokes certain types of incense, yet no incense is listed, and that, too, is astonishing. Like all the Montales I’ve ever read of, it has the half-life and staying power of radioactive isotopes. When I wore it last, I could detect it quite clearly over twenty-four hours later, even after a bath and a shower.

I can imagine anything with the right kind of cattle prod and very slight provocation. Yet I could never imagine in my wildest, phantasmagorical dreams conjure such a thing as Gothic vanilla, Gothic in the sense of melodrama, of shape-shifting intrigue, of those tales of the Mahabharata enacted by the Wayang shadow puppeteers of Bali. Tales that shift the ground beneath the audience’s feet as they watch, when heros prove to be villains after all, and villains another kind of unexpected hero, changing loyalties and evolving in the dark beyond from light to black, playing out their archetypal tales that lurk in the shadows that make us all encounter what we truly are or dare to be.

Notes: Lemon, geranium, bergamot, lavender, cedar leaves, allspice, iris, patchouli, vanilla, tonka bean.

Montale is available in many locations online, including Luckyscent, and First in Fragrance.

A big, fat hug and thank you to the very devious Dee of Beauty on the Outside, who made this review possible and once again put me on the primrose path to perfumed perdition!

For other reviews of ‘Boisé Vanillé’, I highly recommend my Scent Twin Suzanne’s, and Dee’s, too.

Image of Balinese shadow puppets: Wayang2u

A Scent of Sin


- a review of Guerlain’s ‘Spiritueuse Double Vanille’

Behold – the vanilla orchid, originator to one of the most beloved and abused essences in perfumery. Beloved when it’s rendered well, adding sweetness and spice and all things nice, despised when rendered as sugary cupcake overkill. Vanilla is an important part of one of the most famous bases in perfumery – the Guerlinade. Shalimar would not be Shalimar without that opulent, rich vanilla base.

You would never know that this little, unassuming flower is one of the most important in the world. You would never know that this dainty little orchid could evoke hints and intimations…of sinful, sweet and animal.

Few people realize just how animal, how nearly feral vanilla can be. Although I’ve liked and even loved vanilla as a component in many, many perfumes including Shalimar, I’ve never taken the trouble to actively seek them out, simply because…there are too many horror stories out there, and I’ve stuck my unsuspecting nose in quite a few.

Vanilla in general has a terrible reputation. Vanilla has become a byword for anything boring, bland, middle-of-the-road. It is a safe fragrance, a safe flavor, and ‘safe’ is not an adjective I like to keep in my vocabulary. When used to death in cheap scented candles, bath products, celebufumes or room sprays, I say it deserves every description of horror I can think of. The phrase ‘olfactory torture’ comes to mind. This is not vanilla, this is not what vanilla can and should be.

If any nose on Planet Earth knows vanilla, knows what it is capable of, knows its depth, its richness, its animality, surely it would be Jean Paul Guerlain. More than any other perfume house, Guerlain has elevated vanilla in many versions to superstardom. Always with that highly refined sensibility that (once upon a time at least and rather lacking lately) defines the venerable name ‘Guerlain’.

When I received a generous sample of Spiritueuse Double Vanille (SDV for short) from the equally beneficent Olfactoria, I was happy, but not excited. Happy – it’s a Guerlain. Like old loves and old friends, I’ll always give Guerlain a second, third, and twenty-fifth chance, even if they did release that trainwreck known as ‘Insolence’. Excited – well, there were other things in that Austrian package that got my motor running, so I left it at that.

Until I opened that sample of SDV. Oh. Oh, my. Oh, my gosh. Oh, baby! Oh! (Here follow a few epithets I try to keep out of a perfume blog, if not in real life!)

It is…boozy, whoozy, dizzyingly alcoholic without being potable – and that’s a good thing! I’m quite hazardous enough, thank you. I’d go so far as to say – just as was Jean Paul Guerlain’s intention, this is the moment you split open a vanilla bean and an entire alternate universe grabs you by the nose as a reminder that dessert isn’t always something you eat!

This is carnal vanilla, as sinful as that third chocolate truffle and as sexy as that silk slip that slides down the shoulder just…enough. There are pink peppercorns, bergamot, Bulgarian rose and ylang ylang in there, say the notes, but what I get is boozy, whoozy, faint-making killah vanilla, the kind of vanilla that is no relation whatsoever to anything sold as ‘vanilla’, or indeed anything defined as ‘safe’, ‘bland’ or boring.

SDV is anything but safe. Somewhere among all that overt nuclear vanilla impact floats a hint of cedar, a whisper of incense, a mere suggestion of benzoin, weaving in and out and through that vanilla vixen that murmurs…’come closer, if you dare’, and then buries her teeth in your neck. And oh, that vanilla, so sweet, so lethal, so carnal, oh…

This is horizontal Hitchcock territory. Boozy. Here I go again, and I swear, I was sober when I began this review. Sweet, animal and borderline feral, gourmand – in other words, everything yours truly should absolutely hate in a perfume, and yet…Yes! Yes! Yes! Puleeeze…Just put me out of my misery and buy me a bottle already!

Since I first began writing about perfume on this blog, the occasions I’ve been sideswiped by a perfume have not happened all that often. This is one of those. Just to commit the ultimate in sacrilege, I’ve tried layering this with Atelier’s Grand Neroli on a whim, and my, it was glorious. Gilding an already perfect lily, I tried it with Serge Lutens’ Fleurs d’Oranger. The jasmine gives up the ghost (who would have thought it?), and the tuberose comes all the way out to play in the sun with the vixen, and meanwhile, I can’t hold one coherent thought that won’t get me arrested should I ever attempt to act it out in public.

Spiritueuse Double Vanille is…intoxicating, in all the best senses of the word. It lasts and lasts and lasts and lasts. It is sweet but never cloying and utterly delicious. It is sinfully wicked in all the best Guerlain ways, dark, devastating.

I can’t imagine what the burgeoning perfumophile Scorpio would say to this one should I wear it on a latte date, and he usually has plenty to say about whatever I wear. But I can imagine what he might do. It’s that kind of vanilla, and that kind of perfume, and that kind of dangerous.

There are cheaper ways to get this kind of thrill. Buy four of the best vanilla beans you can afford, and chop them into smaller pieces. Throw them in a food processor with one cup of plain white sugar and blend until the sugar turns gray-brown and the vanilla beans are pulverized. Pour this concoction into a tightly sealed container and leave for at least a week. Use this instead of vanilla extract or bought vanilla sugar, and you will know everything there is to know about something that isn’t safe, bland or boring. Vanilla will never be the same again.

Not even in a perfume.

Notes: Pink peppercorn, bergamot, incense, cedar, Bulgarian rose, ylang ylang, vanilla, benzoin.

Devilscent – the Tauer edition


a review of Andy Tauer’s “Incense Extrème”

Imagine – a film noir Friday night in November, with rain-slick streets full of people out for a good time, the kind of Friday night you just know something will happen. You can taste the possibilities in the air.

Imagine a woman – not old, not young, disillusioned with her life and all the hopes she has been forced to leave behind her, sitting in a near-deserted blues café in Copenhagen over a glass of mulled wine near midnight, thinking about the one-knight stand she just left. She’s also thinking about the one thing that gives her any hope for a future of her choosing, thinking about making that hope a reality. But if she knows anything, she knows the deck is stacked against her. She’s too old, too jaded, too guarded against the vicissitudes of life to really, truly believe in that one, last hope.

Which is when the Devil arrives to make a deal, to make her dream come true. He doesn’t show up with horns and hooves in a cloud of sulphur and brimstone, he doesn’t look anything like those stereotypical monster images of ‘The Devil’. Instead, he’s dangerous bait – a dead ringer for one of her own favorite erotic fantasies, and even so, she knows…he’s the Devil. How does she know?

She can smell it.

The Devil, you see, emanates a scent. And the woman in that Copenhagen café is a diehard perfumoholic, so she knows to take that scent apart. There’s frankincense in it and labdanum, something dark and bitter, something highly erotic and very, very dangerous.

The perfect recipe for trouble!

When I wrote a nothing little short story called “Midnight at the Crossroads Café” some time ago, it happened by ghostly dictation. I sat down in front of my laptop with an itch to write, inspired by a picture that really got my motor running – and wrote. I didn’t think, didn’t analyze, didn’t weigh my words at all. Somewhere along the line in the two hours it took to write it, the Devil’s scent arrived and never left, weaving the seductive trail of its character in and out of the storyline that followed just as other perfumes did, because that’s the kind of woman the protagonist is and that’s the kind of woman I am, too.

I’ve been hunting for that scent ever since. In that quest, I came across Andy Tauer’s “Incense Extrème”. One of the ultimate incense scents along with the Comme des Garçons line, so the story went, and it went on the shortlist of Things To Try.

On a trip to Copenhagen, I drove my sister nuts by hauling her to a shop and proceeding to try out the Comme des Garçons incenses – Avignon, Zagorsk and Kyoto. I liked all of them, but they were too…orthodox in their approach, too literal in their interpretation. They are all exceptional incenses in each their own ways, but no Devil resides in those bottles, no intimations of taboo drip from those liturgical nozzles of sanctity.

Incense Extrème shares the same evocative sense of sacred space with its three cousins, but I’m delighted to say there’s nothing in the slightest liturgical about it.

In this cynical age, we’re all too likely to forget that for our ancestors, incense was what divinity…smelled like.

With that first, potent spray, Incense Extrème takes you…there. Not beneath the soaring Gothic arches of some venerable cathedral, but there, far out in the desert beneath the light of a million stars, the sands whispering their nocturnal secrets as an old, spiky Boswellia bleeds its fragrant tears.

This is no shy, retiring incense that flirts and hints before it retreats, yet neither does it bludgeon you with dogma as the CdG’s are apt to do.

Like the tree that is its focus, Incense Extrème is timeless. The cedar and juniper, the coriander and a suggestion of petitgrain leap out of the bottle shocking you awake and aware. Orris is listed as one of the notes, but if that’s true, this is no relation to any other orris I’ve been privileged to meet. No carroty, buttery iris, no suggestion of anything the slightest bit floral. Instead, that radioactive cedar/juniper blend evolves from an aria at the beginning to a low, vibrant thrum, underpinned by a bitter, smoky labdanum and ambergris that keeps the incense floating and weaving throughout the top notes all the way to the far drydown that doesn’t arrive until a good six to eight hours later.

It is linear but not boring, dry as a desert wind, and thanks to that cedar and juniper, the brittle green-brown of desert sage. Very contemplative and serene, in fact I’ll go so far as to say this is my kind of chill pill. Wearing Incense Extréme, I can handle nearly anything life might throw my way.

Yet it is not the Devil’s scent. It’s very clean, very refined, very…civilized. With a touch of animal, slightly less cedar and more labdanum, a faint but distinct whiff of, well, goat, it could have been.

I don’t care. For the days when I need stainless steel armor for protection, for an evening I need serenity, for the nights I need to focus, I need Incense Extrème.

Yesterday, if I can get it!

Notes according to Basenotes:
Orris, cedar, Indian frankincense, ambergris, myrrh, labdanum, coriander, cumin, lavender

Where the Wild Things Are


- a review of Olympic Orchids’ “Olympic Rainforest”

Surrounded as we are by all the questionable odds and ends that in the Western hemisphere encompass the term “civilization”, it can sometimes be easy to forget that in spite of all we do or have done to “tame” them, there are still wild and untouched spots on the globe where the wind still whispers, and trees still gather to sing the songs trees always seem to sing to me.

When I think of primeval places, wild and untouched forests without the human stain, places that epitomize “forest”, an immediate picture springs to mind – the temperate rainforest. They are nothing like the tropical jungles we normally associate with the term. Mosses and ferns grow so prolifically they almost take on a sentient life form of their own, ferns so lush, so large and so green it seems they could easily eat you under a full moon, and a few hours later, all that would remain would be one heavenly scented fougère burp, a sigh, a rustle of the trees above and order is once again restored – the order of the forest, where humanity is but a passing intrusion, until the next full moon. If any location on Earth could embody J. R. R. Tolkien’s Entwood to me and make me utterly believe in the existence of Ents, it would be a temperate rainforest.

Such a forest is what Doc Elly of Olympic Orchids pays homage to in her perfume “Olympic Rainforest” – an ode to the Olympic National Forest of Washington, and the largest expanse of temperate rainforest anywhere on Earth. I have never been to Washington, never seen that timeless forest or those monster ferns and mosses, but it just so happens that a member of my household went to college at Evergreen State in Olympia and has many happy memories of the Olympic peninsula. He was the obvious test subject. With no knowledge of perfume as such – beyond the standard male “I know what I like”, and with only the name to go by, his first statement was: “Oh. Oh! Oh, I like this! I’d wear this! This is great!” He promptly demanded I apply more – so I did. These few hours later, I have not heard a word of complaint, apart from the occasional “I still like it”.

Olympic Rainforest” is a fougère. Indeed, with those full moon man-eating ferns, how could it not be? But unlike so many other fougères of tarnished reputation and cursed ubiquity (Drakkar Noir, I’m looking at you!), this has nothing of the barbershop vibe so many of them nosedive into. This fougére is not your standard Harris tweed-wearing, well-mannered British gentleman exuding stiff-upper-lip suavity.

Instead, this fragrant green imp likes to take a walk where the wild things are, out where nature is never tamed or subjugated. It walks that verdant, fern-encrusted path where nature awes the human with its scale, its greenness and the splendor of its trees, that atavistic breath of growth and life that seems so much larger and more timeless than our own, exhaling the kind of oxygen that really does recharge all your interior batteries. And did I mention that just like the Olympic peninsula itself, it is…green?

Straight out of the bottle, there is that kick of lavender that characterizes so many fougères, but also a citrusy swirl, too, not lemon but bergamot, a bergamot with teeth, and I like bergamot with dentition. Beware the ferns!
Juniper sneaks in on stealthy feet, waking me all the way up to that atavistic forest, and a hint of wood, old-growth wood, rich in the centuries-old sap of the seasons, the quickening of spring and the slow drip of autumn, the deep, deep sleep of winter and the still of a breathless, warm summer day in the shade. There are florals in the mix somewhere, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you precisely what they are. Cedar I found and maybe a dash of pine, a smooth, fresh cedar without any of that pencil-shaving edge that Atlas cedar can have. It smells redder and somehow richer, the pine without any aerosol associations whatsoever.

I’m reminded of a few lines from an old, old Welsh poem…The Câd Goddeu, or The Battle of the Trees, from the Book of Taliesin:

When the trees were enchanted,

In the expectation of not being trees,

The trees uttered their voices

From strings of harmony,

The disputes ceased
.

Breathe in. Breathe out. You are at one with the trees, the ferns, with every living thing that grows around you.

‘Olympic Rainforest’ is incredibly well-blended and tenacious – there are still verdant, woody traces over nine hours after I applied it on my skin.

If you love fougères, if you love to evoke that call of the wild and take an olfactory hike in a virgin, untouched forest, you will love this. I do, but it veers just a little too masculine to my nose. On my roommate, it’s heavenly. It must be all that testosterone. Call it the Green Man.

Thank you, Doc Elly, for that walk on the real wild side, and I enjoyed every minute of it! Somehow, ferns will never appear quite the same again…

If this is a taste of things to come – as indeed it is, since I have plans to review as many of Olympic Orchid’s scents as I can – then my nose is in for several treats. Doc Elly is undoubtably a perfume talent to watch for – and I haven’t even started on those orchids yet!

When I do…watch this space! ;-)

Image: The Quinault Rainforest, WA