Bite me!

a review of Aftelier Perfume’s ‘Fig’

Some people, I’m told, are only able to associate a certain brand of cookie with the word ‘fig’. I feel sorry for them.

Not only are figs one of the oldest cultivated plants on Earth, grown before we even grew wheat according to archaeological evidence, they are also surely among the most maligned. They bring up associations of those lunchbox staples of my childhood, or else sorry, solitary dried Smyrna figs left over on a Christmas platter after everyone plundered all the dates and nuts, somehow reminding us of a future we try to keep at bay with sunscreen and retinoids.

Unwanted, unloved and taken entirely for granted, what could one possibly love about figs? I’ll tell you.

On a scorching hot day in August the year I graduated, I found myself in a fig grove on a hillside in Arcadia in the Peloponnese – in Arcadia ego – with a German engineering student from Stuttgart I somehow acquired in a Bern café and a bookish Swiss philosophy student who joined us on the ferry in Brindisi. This fig grove faced south into the sunshine against a vertiginous mountain, and I can close my eyes and recall that breathless heat beneath the shady fig trees that seeped into our bone marrow as we polished off the last of our lunchtime wine-with-no-label, the entire landscape around us eerily silent in the siesta. It was too hot to move, too hot to think, and yes, it was much too hot for that, too. So as we lay back and peered up into that green canopy above our heads, I realized that some of those figs were ripe, that a few were about ripe to bursting in that timeless August afternoon. The only figs I had ever known were dried, and here they were on an Arcadian hillside, sun-kissed and whispering loud enough to be heard over the goats’ bells in a distant field…

‘Bite me.’

Something about that purple-red flesh beckoning under skin the color of a livid bruise, something I needed to know. I reached up and plucked it, and as I felt it drop into my hand with a velvet soft thud, while the German watched with one eye open and the Swiss philosopher snored away his wine against a tree trunk, I finally understood how Eve felt, not long before she invented the world’s first sustainable fashion line.

In a ripe fig straight from a sunkissed tree is the sum entire of purple sunshine, an empire of sweet and savor, no relation at all to anything in dire need of a facelift on a Christmas platter. Fig contains hints of spice and earth, sweet and very slightly bitter to offset it. It’s the kind of fruit that practically begs you to tear your teeth into that oozing, seedy, perfumed flesh and immerse yourself face first into a whole new sensory geography of ‘luscious’. Add in the thyme-oregano scent of the Arcadian countryside, the still air of siesta in August, and the pungent aroma of rock rose that grows everywhere on the hills like weeds, and it all adds up to one seriously wicked indulgence.

This is what comes to mind when I wear Mandy Aftel’s ‘Fig’. That first, fatal fresh fig in my life, when my horizon shifted, my world grew larger and my taste buds were realigned.

I’ve worn and loved several fig scents, among them Diptyque’s ‘Philosykos’, all bitter-dry heat and Grecian sunshine, and Olympic Orchids’ ‘A Midsummer Day’s Dream’ which is far greener and grassier. Both are great for different reasons, but ‘Fig’ is something else.

Mandy Aftel’s version seems… red-purple like the flesh of a fig itself and it smells purple, too, with that fruity pink grapefruit tang and grand fir, say the notes, but there are no spikes in this evergreen tree. Woven around it like a promise is a green ribbon that must be the fir my head tells me, but my amygdala tells me otherwise. ‘Fig’ gives my amygdala ideas that are all kinds of fruity truths with consequences.

If gourmand is a perfume category based on sweet, edible-seeming perfumes, then this gourmand is the first ever perfume I’ve nearly wanted to eat. Every hint of fruit and spice a fig can contain is found here with the pink pepper and the viridian jasmine sambac that keeps it from ever once nose-diving into lunchbox cookie territory, blooming away on my skin with all its seductive anticipation.

All the while, this luscious purple-hearted perfume sings sotto voce of breathless August afternoons beneath the green canopy of an Arcadian sky, and right before I’m about to gnaw off my wrist, a heady drydown of Africa stone and fir absolute decide to do me in. Fig jam, says Mandy Aftel’s website, and if that’s what it is, I want to be tarred and feathered in it, I want to wallow in it, I want one fig grove instant to live eternal in my mind these thirty years later, when a velvet-soft, bruise-black fig fell into my hand to such fatal effect, bursting open to show itself, that fragrant, sweet, luscious, jammy, spicy, sexy red-purple flesh that whispered…

‘Bite me.’

Top: Grand fir, pink grapefruit
Heart: Pink pepper absolute, jasmine sambac
Base: Africa stone, fir absolute

Aftelier’s ‘Fig is available from the Aftelier website, from Scent and Sensibility in the UK and from Sündhaft.

Disclosure: My sample was provided by Aftelier for review.


Honeyed Blooms and Meadows Sweet

– Reviews of Aftelier Perfume‘s ‘Honey Blossom’ and ‘Wildflowers’

Last night, trying to ground myself after a frantic Saturday that completely conspired against me, I went out for a walk in the summer twilight, which this time of year is well past 10 PM. As I walked around my neighborhood on a Saturday night, noting the honeysuckle blooming on walls, the elderflowers with their musky, earthy scent that my compatriots like to convert into a favorite summer drink, breathing in all the ghostly aromas of a summer night in July, a luminous, intoxicating ribbon of something green and unmistakable wove its way into my awareness.

High summer is finally here, and the linden trees are blooming, and if ever a high summer night had a signature scent, linden blossom would surely be one of them. There could be no better time to review Aftelier Perfumes’ ‘Honey Blossom’.

‘Honey Blossom’ was created as part of a unique perfumer’s collaboration with Andy Tauer to highlight a linden blossom CO2 extract. Last year as the project unfolded, readers of Nathan Branch’s blog were able to get a unique look into the process of perfume making and the challenges both Andy Tauer and Mandy Aftel encountered along the way.

Andy Tauer created ‘Zeta’, which I reviewed in late April, and although I can certainly appreciate its beauty, I couldn’t wear it at all. I had no choice but to dub it the Honey Monster, because it very nearly ate me alive.

So I was more than slightly apprehensive when I opened up that tiny vial of ‘Honey Blossom’, wondering if this one, too would devour me whole and entire.

In a word – no.

‘Honey Blossom’, I’m thrilled to say, is an entirely different perfume, for all that it highlights the same linden blossom CO2 extract. Mandy Aftel chose mimosa, with its particular sunshine-yellow sweetness to highlight it, and these two, the mimosa with its almond/marzipan facets and the linden blossom with its green, heady character dance a perfect waltz in tandem, seamlessly whirling on towards a dizzying orange blossom heart that never dominates or takes over. The orange blossom opens up its doors and joins in that mimosa and linden blossom waltz and this somehow becomes linden blossom but better, a unique twist on a beloved summer perfume accord that normally tends to take the alternate name for linden – lime – a little too literally.

There is no lime in this linden, just the near-narcotically addictive, sweetly dripping nectar of the blossoms themselves that teeter towards honey but never do fall into the beehive, waltzing their sweet, joyous ménage à trois with the mimosa and orange blossom on my skin in dizzying figures that whisper of warm summer twilight and puffs of sunshine caught in thousands of creamy yellow blooms. As it dries down, a downy accord of ambergris and benzoin with its vanilla touch wind down the waltz and slow down the linden blossom to a glow that fades away like the stars above in a high summer sky that never gets completely dark at this time of year.

I’m reminded of those lines from William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, although here, the angels are the blooms of a linden tree…

“Unseen they pour blessing.
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.”

It was a privilege to be privy to the process of creating a linden blossom perfume through Nathan Branch’s blog, and an even greater privilege to be able to compare the two different interpretations of the same CO2 extract. Both ‘Zeta’ and ‘Honey Blossom’ share that same soft yellow glow, but the similarities stop there. I can admire ‘Zeta’ for the beauty that it is, but I can never wear it. Unrequited love is so over-rated! ‘Honey Blossom’ sings in a different key with a different pitch, pouring its joy and blessing on all things good, waltzing around in a summer twilight beneath the blooming linden trees.

‘Honey Blossom’ was one of three of Mandy Aftel’s creations (The others were ‘Lumiere’ and ‘Candide’, which I reviewed here) to be nominated as a finalist in both the European and American FiFi awards as Fragrance of the Year, Indie Brand.

Meadows Sweet

There was a moment back in January I can clearly recall on a July afternoon, a moment I stood outside my work on a lunch break on a dismal, cold, foggy day and thought to myself…this cold, this damp, this gray…is all you will ever know, and winter will never end. When summer seemed an all but impossible concept, some delirious fevered dream of light in a month that has so little at my latitude in January, and heat that seems so outrageous on such a chill, gray day.

I can remember I went home and wrote a perfume review that night, the kind that would remind me of what I knew but could scarcely believe in January…sooner or later, summer will return and the flowers bloom again, sooner than I always think it will be summer, and I will feel that delicious kiss of sunlight on my skin that makes me think of things I can so easily hope, like possibilities, like feeling every inch alive.

The review was for Olympic Orchids’ ‘A Midsummer Day’s Dream’, but where Doc Elly’s perfume takes you out on the grass and beneath the fig trees, from the bark of the wood to the leaves and the fruit in all its stages, Mandy Aftel’s ‘Wildflowers’ takes an entirely different tack.

‘Wildflowers’ is a solid perfume, a delicious way to wear perfume entirely for yourself and no one else. It has little sillage and an understated presence, but when something is this beautiful, I don’t much care. The feel of the solid on my skin is probably the best I’ve ever encountered in a solid perfume, smooth as silk charmeuse, and if this were a body butter, I’d buy it by the tub, it’s…that good.

Instead of grass and a whole fig grove, this is a meadow full of flowers, all the flowers of a hot, perfect summer day of sunshine and blue skies, the larks singing high in the air and the buzz of bumblebees in the flowers, some of which you know, and many which you don’t.

So lie back in the meadows and watch the world from the ground as you breathe it all in….the verdant kick of lime awakening your senses to your surroundings, a whole bouquet of heedless, fragrant flowers blooming in random profusion and careless, elegant abandon by nature, all if it spelling the kind of peerless beauty artifice can never know, and as that meadow seeps into your consciousness, draining away all worries and cares, the demands of your day and the weeks ahead, a sweet scent of hay, some of it fresh-cut, some of it dried gathers force, and you become, as so often happens with Aftelier perfumes I’ve noticed, one with the moment, the flowers far too many and too beautiful to pluck and take with you, the larks in the sky above you and that sugary hay that is nothing more or less than the quintessence of every summer-blooming, sunshine-soaked grass that ever grows.

Maybe I should just amend that to…every summer day that lives forever in our memory, the kind we need to be reminded of on dismal, foggy January days. A memory, a recollection of S-u-m-m-e-r, period.

If summer somehow eludes you, if you need a reminder that some day, heat and light and sunshine will return, the wildflowers will bloom and hopes and possibilities will be every inch alive, that even you will be every inch alive and aware in a perfect meadow moment, then you need to try ‘Wildflowers.’

Meadows should always be so sweet, and flowers should always bloom in such plentitudes, just like those possibilities that seem such a distant, nebulous dream on a dismal January day.

Notes for ‘Honey Blossom’:
Top: Mimosa, linden blossom CO2
Heart: Orange blossom absolute, phenyl ethyl alcohol
Base: Ambergris, benzoin

Notes for ‘Wildflowers’:
Hay, wildflowers, Mexican lime

‘Honey Blossom’ and ‘Wildflowers‘ are available from the Aftelier website, from Scent and Sensibility for UK customers, and from Sündhaft.

Natural Luxuries

Aftelier Spotlight Week

– a spotlight on Aftelier Perfumes

Last night as I went to collect Spider-Man Jr. from saving the neighborhood from Green Goblins and other hazards, I noticed what had been bubbling away at the back of my consciousness for a few days. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the most heavenly scent. A combination of blooming elderflower and mock-orange wafted its way into my nose, the musky, fruity scent of the elderflowers mingling with the heady aroma of mock-orange, that we here in Denmark call ‘fake jasmine’, perfuming the air with its distinctive, unmistakable scent. Jasmine will only grow in sheltered conditions at this latitude, but mock-orange blooms everywhere here, and when it does, I know that high summer has arrived.

Those ubiquitous mock-orange bushes with their white, bridal flowers and their heady, heavenly scent are an example of natural perfumery at its finest. So I thought on a warm summer evening, which brings me to the topic of this week’s spotlight and one of the biggest seismic shifts in my own perfumoholic perspectives – Aftelier Perfumes.

Mandy Aftel – writer and perfumer extraordinaire – is rightly considered a pioneer of the natural perfume movement. Perfumes created with all-natural essences and oils, perfumes every bit as luxurious, special and rare as anything we perfume writers know, love and afford as we can. I knew of Mandy since her collaboration last year with Andy Tauer in creating a linden blossom perfume, Tauer’s ‘Zeta’ and Mandy’s ‘Honey Blossom’, but I had until recently never tried them, or indeed any natural perfume at all.

Natural perfumes came to my attention with the Outlaw Perfume Project’s ‘Mystery of Musk’ last year, a defiant stance in the face of IFRA restrictions and an important political perfume statement of its own. In the process, many perfumes were created that were, in a word, staggering for their breadth of scope and execution and to the best of my knowledge, no participant or human test subject broke out in hives because of it.

There it was. There I was, with my hard-wired preconceptions of ‘natural’ perfumes and unfortunate associations of bad patchouli and inferior blended scents, scents I would find in health food shops and artisanal markets that really didn’t impress me much, and certainly not with any associations of ‘luxury’.

So I was rather excited when Lucy of Indie Perfumes introduced my writing to Mandy, and in no time at all it seemed, a small collection of samples arrived. I can still feel my excitement as I looked at that pretty tin with its tiny treasures packed in orange and purple tissue paper, wondering what secrets they held.

Little did I know that the moment I unscrewed the first of those sample vials, my world would change…forever.

The Japanese have a Zen term called ‘satori’ – an instant where your entire perspective shifts and whirls and changes, when your horizon is forever broadened in a heartbeat and you get it, all of it…

That was me the night I opened up ‘Cepes and Tuberose’, and that cold chill of satori, something powerful, numinous and soulful wafted out of the vial and into my consciousness, and ever after, my world has not been the same that it was. It was the rush of something infinitely strange yet hauntingly familiar, some secret I knew but had forgotten.

I have been swiped sideways by perfumes not a few times this past spring and summer. That is nothing new. Never in my life was I blasted to olfactory bits to bedrock as I was by ‘Cepes and Tuberose’. For here was everything I had looked for in natural perfumery but had yet to find. Peerless beauty and the underlying hint of strange that accentuates it, the sleight-of-hand of a true and committed artist, a statement and a unique identity, all contained in a tiny sample vial.

I’ve since reviewed ‘Candide’, equally stunning, and thanks to Mandy’s generosity, more reviews are coming this week, starting with her justly famous ‘Tango’.

Because I’ve come to realize that natural perfumery – not something many of my fellow Danes are much aware of, if at all in this conglomerate-dominated age – is the one thing that gives me hopes for a future of perfume – to remind us all of the beauty that surrounds us every day in everything that grows and lives. When scents are prohibited in the workplace, when natural essences used for thousands of years are banned, ostensibly to protect the allergy-prone but in reality to promote proprietary synthetic blends, in some cases with unknown side effects, when the world we live and breathe in is farther and farther removed from anything truly… ‘natural’ – we need an artist like Mandy Aftel, an artist committed to a vision of what perfume should and could be, a perfumer who believes that ‘natural’ and ‘luxury’ are not mutually exclusive.

Once upon a time, perfume was an attempt to capture that moment in a garden or the woods when we breathed deeper and happier and felt elevated above our humdrum human existence and our everyday selves, out on a summer evening to collect a little boy for bedtime, when suddenly we realized with a shock to our awareness…

The elderflowers are blooming, and the mock-orange, too.

And elsewhere on Planet Earth, an alchemist is hard at work to freeze that moment in a perfume…