In Japan, people like to say whether they overheat (‘atsugari’) or feel the cold (‘samugari‘), a classification of types that can lead to protracted battles over air conditioning and heating. As all my friends know, I am grotesquely samugari, and have a deep-seated fear of the cold, especially living in an old-ish Japanese house where the creeping fingers of chill have already started to press against the wooden panes. Reminding me, despite the relative balminess of this season, when October, November and even December are sunny and calmly autumnal, that the hateful cold IS COMING.
August in this country is laughably hot – a swamp of sweltering humidity and ant-under-a-magnifiying-glass sun, so boiling it can be debilitating. Yet I quite like it. For some reason, I even thrive in it, like a stone-basking reptile solar-panelling for storage. The second this radiation begins to dip at the end of September it alarms me, as though my power-plug were being pulled. I am hypochondriac, as you can probably tell, but my whole system can feel under attack.
One ploy against the incipient cold, a psychological barrier at least, is of course perfume. And there is nothing better for my spiritual insulation than a warm, true vanilla. I have something verging on a vanilla obsession. As I mentioned in my review of Frazer organics and her inspirations from tropical Madagascar, I practically froth at the mouth at the thought of actually being near to the vanilla orchids; of seeing the workers pollinating them by hand; watching the vanillin-specked, dark, glistening pods fermenting their sweet odour in the sun: those tiny flecks of vanilla you see suspended in custards and yoghurts that so entice me …..miniscule dots of aphrodisiacal pungency, flowing out into the cool, lactic, surrounding deliciousness..
My first vanillic epiphany happened at the age of 13 on a French trip at Easter, a feast attended by several branches of the family I was staying with that concluded with a huge vanilla pudding; un pouding à la vanille brought proudly in on a silver tray. When I spooned some into my young mouth it was as though I had ascended to paradise…I’m sure I must have mooned my eyes, groaning in schoolboy delight: a world of savours and almost lascivious pleasure I had never really encountered before in relatively flavourless England, where the only ice cream we ever had was from Quiksave.
This love of vanilla has never crumbled, and as a perfume ingredient or star player it has always been an essential part of my wardrobe. My cravings can be satiated by a good quality vintage Shalimar; Molinard’s icing-sugar perfect Vanille; Yves Rocher’s light orange-musk Vanille Bourbon, Kenzo’s Jungle Eléphant…I have even got through a bottle of Comptoir Sud Pacifique’s Vanille Extrême, which at certain stages in its development is quite simply monstrous in its saccharine artificiality. One of the best pure vanillas I have ever come across is another Italian perfume, I Profumi di Firenze’s golden fleece of vanillas, Vaniglia del Madagascar,a glinting, sweet elixir that you have to grit your (melting) teeth to if you want to survive through to the final, skin-licking stages, where you collapse in devilish, erotic, auto-abandon, and forget all concerns of cold, the wind and the weather. That was a great vanilla, but almost too great. Too sweet. Too concentrated.
The point here is that I get through these scents. The creations I have mentioned above (as well as two bottles of Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille) are empty. I don’t wear vanillas, I consume them, and as soon as the melancholy breezes start stirring I find myself craving that comforting, drifty aura of sucrée in which to muzzle and refuge.
Which brings to my latest bean pod acquisition, Vaniglia del Madagascar by Farmacia SS Annunziata, a mysterious company I have been reading about on Lucky Scent recently and lusting after. Not having a credit card however, (I’m sure you can imagine why), I had never been able to order any of this perfume. Then, this summer, at the wonderful Roullier White shop in South London which I was visiting for the first time, there it was, at the front of the shop – the first thing I saw when I went in. I bought some on the spot without having properly tried it, partly because I didn’t care – I wanted it, I liked the bottle, and I was having such wonderful lost-in-perfumista ramblings with the intriguing woman working there that it seemed only the right etiquette to buy something. A vanilla for the coming winter struck me as a good place to start.
In the London summer heat the scent was disappointing, somehow – too thin; at once laboured yet underwhelming. The reasons for this I will come to, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I put the bottle back on the shelf again, hoping its itme would come.
It has. And it has been delicious. But this is a perfume that is set to a strict slow motion, and it to took me a while to get it.
The first thing to say about the scent is that it is a parfum, but the bottle is 100ml, which seems like a contradiction in terms when fragrances of this strength traditionally come in 7ml, 14ml, or 30ml if you really have money to burn.
My first reaction to this, like a painting by Magritte, was
ceci n’est pas un parfum
as in terms of sillage it barely seemed to register, at least on hot, sweaty nights in London. But since the Japanese weather has cooled, and I have been spraying myself and my new hoodies with Vaniglia, I have come to realize that the perfume is structured like nuclear fission: compressed atoms of flavour which dilate outwards; slowly, at their own prehistorically ambered pace. This perfume just won’t let you rush it. It is set in thick, glacial, time-spaced layers that cannot be perturbed.
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One of the joys of Japanese culture is the universally loved traditions of sento and onsen – bathing rituals in local bath houses or hot springs where families, couples and individuals go to soap down, switch off and relax in cleansing pools of contemplation. From a therapeutic point of view, onsen, with their volcanically active, sulphurous clouds of mountain water pumped in are the best, but I am happier probably in a sento, for the smells: of steam, active ions, citrus soaps, humanity, and saunas made of hinoki.
I still can’t put my finger on why exactly, but the beginning stage of Vaniglia Del Madagascar caterpults me exactly into this environment every time I spray it on; the bitter orange top note (the website says lemon) and ambiguous ‘floral’ notes are more like a fresh, misty saltiness which I have never smelled in a vanilla before and which I have really come to appreciate since coming back to Japan this September. Where it felt odd in London, it feels absolutely right in my current context. This ‘sento ‘ stage of the perfume lasts for about an hour or so before the vanilla, essentially hidden from view by some alchemical trick, begins to appear and advance in depth and texture over a period of twelve hours or so, until you completely succumb to its heat-charged fullness and drape in it like a cream-silk blanket.
It is then that you realize ah yes, this is a parfum, it really is, especially when you wake up the next day and the sunlight bathes the golden glow. Vanilla, classical, resonating Bourbon vanilla, surrounds you, is set from your pillow. A sense, almost, of achievement. And for me, this delayed pleasure, the sensation of a whole day for the scent to reach its full, tantric potency, is quite glorious.
I’m still in the early throes of mania with this one, but I think it might actually be my all time favourite vanilla.