A strange thing has happened to me. I have gone off vanilla. And although I think I can trace the moment this happened (and some of you were there with me), it still kind of shocks me, having spent the most beautiful holiday of my life two summer ago on a vanilla plantation in Java, swooning with vanilla suffocation in the upstairs drying room as the beans gave off their woozy, heady smell, gazing at awe at the vines; and more than half a lifetime of being swathed in vanilla-based, sweet and orientalic perfumes. (me sneaking out at dawn with a shaky iPhone, to take a short video of the exquisite environs of our little cabin (Duncan is curled up asleep inside) : Durian fruit, coffee trees, and papaya – which you can’t see –  but most of all snaking vanilla vines climbing up trees; workers in fields, and me in a state of in-the-moment bliss)


I think that the Vanilla Talk I gave at Perfume Lovers London last spring just probably took me (and the collected audience) somehow over the edge (“I’m in a vanilla coma” said one attendee”), like a heroin user blowing his synapses with his final hit, or an alcoholic teetering over his own mental brink with his final bottle of Dewars. There was so much vanilla, what with my preparations and selections leading up to the event, to sampling and appraising various different parfums vanillés ad nauseam, to reading up on tons of vanillic historical and agricultural facts, that by the time the night was over and the air was replete, claustrophobed, and stinking with sweet, sticky perfumes that were being sprayed left right and centre during the talk itself (along with the savouring and appreciation of different vanilla bean varietals: Tongan, Tahitian, Indonesian, Indian…) and all the spraying of samples into little vials for people to take their vanilla fix home, that the sheer sensory overload, not to mention the volume of nervous terror that had preceded my first ever public speaking (I think it is probably more this, actually: that connection, in my subconscious: although I really got into my stride and eventually enjoyed it, meeting people and letting my passions show, my natural extrovert coming to the fore, before everyone arrived I was possibly more nervous than I ever have been in my entire life and was practically ready to hurl myself from the window. If Helen hadn’t been there to sort me out I think I might have). Perhaps this sheer adrenaline overdrive, anxiety, all compressed within the potent, deep brown sweetness of vanilla, was the catalyst that took my feelings for this beautiful substance from love and ease to quease.

I haven’t been able to wear it since.


A perfume such as Maria Candida Gentile’s Noir Tropical, then, which I discovered at a trendy Shibuya shop along with four or five of the Arquiste range yesterday as we walked in a sun-filled daze after a hedonistic night in Shinjuku, just isn’t quite right for my current sickly-averse mindset, even if a deeper part of my brain stem is still instinctly drawn towards anything with the word ‘tropical’ in it (I was imagining some kind of dark, pineapple-permeated fug). In fact, this is a very well made, natural-bean scent with a pronounced sweet and tipsy rum and sugar cane note running underneath a sublimated almond interior, wafting for hours on the skin, with some vague similarities to Vanille Absolument/Havana Vanille by L’Artisan Parfumeur only more organic; rich; densely packed. There is definitely a sweating, hidden- histories-of-the-southern-seas aspect to this scent I can imagine enjoying this on someone else, but for the reasons I have already explained above, I just can’t go there at the moment.


Some perfumes, particularly of the classical, ‘Golden Age’ school, are complex, gradated and layered, almost like symphonies or chamber works with different movements and emotions concealed within themselves only to be released, delicately, at a later hour. The modern niche aesthetic is often more of an ‘instant hit’ – what you see is what you get- even when the ingredients are of the highest quality. A Rothko block of dense colour rather than an dappling Impressionist painting: a potion or elixir, an accomplice. And although I sometimes miss the great pointillist balance of classical perfumery (the pure genius involved in controlling such a panoply in a way to make it sing), I also just enjoy a really good smell, if you know what you mean; a dot of deeply concentrated scent that you can just put on your skin, live with , and enjoy as it accompanies you throughout your day.

Loree Rodkin’s Gothic II and Farmacia Annunziata’s Cara are of this breed – rich, pleasing smells that will work if you like unadorned gourmand simplicity. Though the word gothic usually signifies something shadowed, sinister, vehement, Gothic II is anything but: it is homely, comforting, trustworthy, and easy. A deep patchouli heart (with both Indian and Tunisian essences,) is fused with rich Madagascar vanilla in the familiar, blocked, manner, although the addition of nag champa, incense and cloves produces a more overall effect of honey, an effect that continues for a long time on the skin until the patchouli and vanilla again come to the fore. What is good about this scent is that there are no rough or unpleasant edges detracting from the core theme, which, though a touch unimaginative and simplistic for me, is nerve-numbing, consoling, and potentially addictive.

. cara

Cara is much lighter: a mere trifle, really, but if you like your almond and vanilla mixed together in one blend, this works nicely as a very light and airy-sweet mood enhancer, with a talcum caramel heart and fresher, almost sport-fragrance top notes that give the perfume an ethereal edge. It is hard to imagine a more unthreatening perfume (which isn’t necessarily a recommendation), but there is also a reassuring familiarity about it, a play-doh, vanillic halo that I can imagine swirling around someone in a clean eddy of light, veiled, childlike innocence (which is).


L’Histoire Charnelle (‘a carnal history’) is another sweetened patchouli perfume, albeit with an unusual twist: a fruited, spiced, coconut aureole up top that to me on first smell smelled as though it had been buried in turmeric. There is an extremely dusty quality about this perfume (something I always associate with that spice), possibly the combination of nutmeg and cinnamon (and pear, of all things), alongside the tangerine and bergamot that, all combined, I find slightly offputting, even as I am tempted to smell deeper. Eventually, as the fizzy bristle of the top accord subsides, the coconut/vanilla/tonka theme then becomes more apparent and solidified, with the very lingering, resonant patchouli beneath consistenly making itself known and apparent. This is quite a sexy, unusual scent I would say, and it could make a good signature scent for a woman or man who wants to remains outside the loop, though I am not ultimately sure whether the perfumer, Hubert Maes himself, has all the disparate notes within the blend sufficiently sewn together.



The same cannot be said of Anima Dulcis, a perfume that caused quite a stir when it came out three years ago when the new perfume house of Arquiste was launched by founder Carlos Huber. I immediately liked the range when I smelled them then in London at the Harrods Haute Parfumerie, particularly Fleur De Louis and Flor Y Canto as I just love well made, entrancing florals, but Anima Dulcis (‘soul of sweetness’) is also a very well-executed scent that quite appeals to me- a rich, deep, but appealing spice-chocolate perfume with a curious and unusual concept attached: a seventeenth century convent in Mexico (The Royal Convent Of Jesus Maria), the nuns absorbed in the preparation of of chilli-infused chocolate drink in the hallowed halls, strirring and chatting amongs themselves as they wait for the head sister, the only nun who can finish it (the recipe is secret). Like all the perfumes I am discussing today, this is another vanilla-centred scent with a strong patchouli facet, but here, there is much more heft, the main theme being a very brooding and hypnotic natural cocoa absolute, infused with cinnamon and chililes a la Mexicana ( I also always drink strong, thick,hot chocolate with vanilla bean and red chillies – I love it on a hot winter’s night). This idea is translated here very well into perfumery – everything is harmony. Though not as distinctive or odd as I was perhaps expecting it to be given the chilli idea – this is an eminently wearable perfume – Anima Dulcis strikes me almost as being a kind of next generation Opium: tightened, no way as leopard-printed and satin-scarved as that seventies classic, but still, sultry, dense and magnetic, and with floral orientalized reverberations of that orange-licked spice (It also quite reminded me of Histoire De Parfums George Sand).

I found myself going back to my wrist again and again as we headed home towards the station, the spot where I had applied the perfume a source of continuing dark, exotic scent: the level of sweetness just right, the vanilla – that beauteous, brain-altering substance – not dominating, here, lolling somewhere softly condensed down deep side within the blend, undulating, but still kept quite comfortably in check.


Filed under Almond, Chocolate, Gourmand, Patchouli, Vanilla


  1. I was quite drawn into your video. What a beautiful slice of life. Surprisingly, a lot of people dislike vanilla. Wonder what it would take for me to go from “ease to quease”!

    • Doing just what I did.

      Literally O.V.E.R.D.O.S.I.N.G on the stuff.

      I mean I still do like it, of course, especially in the Guerlain vanillin way, but the raw bean smell in perfume I can’t quite go for at present.

      That holiday, though. That plantation. It was sheer heaven for me. Just waking up there to the sound of the mosques rising up from the valley; the fresh air, and all the vanilla, it was like an unsinkable dream.

  2. The contrast: the walk along a path of tropical awakening nature in the raw and the beautiful, packaged, controlled and closed bottles.
    Almost as If you did not let the genii out of their human made prison.

    My screen gave off smells, as I followed you down into the trees and the bushes. I loved it..

    My vanila experience is the opposite of yours, evasion was my way. And I am now slowly appreciating the sweetness, starting with the pods, hesitatingly drawing them into my Senses. Maybe I like sweet sticky things more, now I’m getting older. My mother drank ‘advocaat’ , beaten eggyolks with sugar and alcohol (eggnog?), and whipped cream, when she was past eighty, a thing she would not have dreamed of, being a vermouth and bitters aficionada.
    I go your way, vice versa, funny, almost growing back to unknown roots. Vanila to me is a very earthy odeur. I did not know they grew on vines, creaturen of the air also I’m happy to see!
    So Guerlain is a possibility. What else would you recomrand to a budding V-appreciatora, aside from the above? I think I’m more of a layered type than the all-in-one fell swoopish blaster. And I adore spices!
    I Hope you recover from your Vanille Spleen
    Nature heals in her own way and you will always have Java!

    • I really will. I hesitated whether to share such a private dream space with god knows whoever might see it on here, but then it has been two years now, and I have lived with it, and so felt it was a good time to put it up. To many people it probably just looks boring, anyway, but in my case I don’t think either of us have ever been happier. To get up, go to the main house and have breakfast with the family, and then have lessons on vanilla – education in the tropical forest I was in HEAVEN.

      As for vanilla, I will of course always love it but I honestly couldn’t start recommending scents to you write now as it is so out of my current brain waves. Actually, when I started this blog and no one was reading it, on instinct I wrote to the lovely Birgit of Olfactoria, asking her what I should do, and she suggested I do a guest series for her. It ended up being quite a big series of installments on vanilla perfumes (which I should probably collect and publish on here one day), but every drop of my vanilla passion is on there should you care to look. Most of them are very sweet, but there are more smoky versions as well. Go and have a look and tell me what you think s’il vous plait.

  3. I do understand the overdosing on vanilla, I really do. While I love vanillin a là Guerlain, I do not usually enjoy it outside of sweet treats. I having also overdosed years prior on vanilla scents, damned L’Artisan Vanilia, do not veer towards it as a primary note.
    I have been intrigued By Anima Dulcis for a while now ( love Infanta en Flor) and may now have to give it a try; more so because I also adore chocolaté mexicana, so it might be bearable. As long as things do not become to sticky sweet, we have a chance.
    I have seen Noir Tropical and been intrigued by the name. I might give that a go also.
    Hopefully we will all be able to enjoy vanilla scents again, it really is such a comforting note.

    • Yes it is great with the Arquiste scents that there are niche perfumes that I actually like for once ( I hate so many of them ). They strike me as very well made with a nod to the past but also pleasingly delineated and contemporary.

      As for vanilla, L’Artisan Vanilia was a DREAM (so pretty and unique). I hate that they replaced all their nice perfumes with the horrible experimental crap by Bertrand Duchaufour (Vanille Absoluemnt just makes me physically gag). Vanilia was as delicate as a hummingbird flittering around a light yellow orchid; a meringue, it was divine (and not that vanilla-y in a way). As you say, the vanillin tinge at the end of something like Vol De Nuit is just perfect for me at present. My full on sweet vanillas are just sitting untouched on the shelf for the time being, but I am sure that a cold day will come one winter when I suddenly feel I need it again.

      • Arquiste scents are really lovely. Truly, a niche brand that is pretty nice…quelle surprise!
        L’Artisan used to be so lovely, but now they are almost too experimental in what they are offering. I do enjoy Seville à l’Aube, but not enough to pay the price for it. Vanilia was something amazing, I truly adored it so much, but then it became too dessert-like on me.
        I just enjoy my vanillin dose via Guerlain, but someday I may (like you stated) have to revisit my vanilla scents.

  4. grayspoole

    Great post! Your description of your mood during your vanilla presentation was so self aware and so funny…worthy of Wodehouse. Wish I could have attended, but since I am vanilla phobic, I might have been carted out on stretcher. Like Brielle, I can handle old school vanilla, not the modern stuff.

    • Until recently I could take it thick and sweet as you could give me, but now ( I hope temporarily) I have become like you.

      Glad you liked the description of that experience: it was an overloaded way of describing it, perhaps, but it was exactly how I felt.

  5. MrsDalloway

    I really like Anima Dulcis – I wore it a lot as an evening comfort scent this winter. The smooth round heavy bottle is a pleasure too. Have you tried The Architects Club? I liked it when I tested in Blooms and might get a sample. Basically another smoky vanilla after the gin opening.

  6. This was what I remember seeing very early on in my discovery of theblacknarcissus, this video. For some reason, it has never left my mind. I love it.

    For some reason, although vanilla is my favourite flavour in desserts and I love the smell of fresh vanilla pods/beans, I’ve never really explored vanilla in fragrances. It can bring so much to a perfume (Shalimar!) but I tend to get so absorbed in chypres, non-vanilla-centric vintage orientals and aldehydic florals that vanillas are mostly – inadvertently – ignored. I also find that some of of them are just too sweet for me to enjoy, or just a little dull. I seem to remember Mona di Orio Vanille as being rather unique, although I don’t remember if I actually liked it. Anyway, I’m a dud as far as contributing to the comments, other than to say this was a very, very interesting read.

    • I was hoping this video was the Javan memory you were referring to and delighted that someone has finally commented on it.

      It is a private memory, really, and I wasn’t quite sure if I should share it, but it is ‘the other side of vanilla’, the actual vines and I was in an enraptured state as I took it.

      • What, did I miss the wild orgy or criminal offence??!!!

      • What do you mean?

        No I was just ecstatic being in those natural surroundings . Discovering it all that morning.

      • Oh, just because you’d said it was a private memory and you weren’t quite sure you share it, and I was thinking, “Jeez, our dear Neil bravely bares his soul on a regular basis, what might he possibly be hesitating about revealing to us? I saw some nice plants and things, but maybe I missed a crucial something-or-other? What could it be??!!” and then my crazy imagination and obviously dreadful sense of humour came up with sex and/or murder. You had to be there. 🙂

        I am now well chagrined.

      • Phew. Thank you.

        Humour can be tricky, especially if the people involved haven’t even bloody well MET. That’ll learn me to not be so cheeky.

      • I am not that kind of person, clearly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s