I am intensely familiar with the smell of natural vanilla. Intensely: as if I myself, in a former life, had been a grain of unctuous vanilla ‘caviar’, emanating oily vanilla-ness gaily from within my warm, brown seed pod.
Having stayed on a vanilla plantation in Java and seen the process of vanilla bean cultivation and after-production first hand, standing in an Indonesian family’s drying attic and being overwhelmed by the intoxicating scent of natural vanilla; from crates and crates of the beans just stacked there in open caskets, giving off scent, each one of them replete with vanillin and hundreds of other natural aromachemicals, so different, so so different from the ‘vanilla’ you get in most perfumes – far deeper, leathery, textured, complex and animalically three dimensional (if not as easy or even as necessarily pleasing), I learned, with own my nose, that this is a fulsome, living and breathing smell; of a multi-dimensionality you simply don’t get from the synthetic vanilla we all know so well – a much clearer smell that maintains a smoother, lighter, more crystalline and ice-creamy transparency.
No. Vanilla beans in the flesh, and in great profusion, so strong that your brain tastes of it and you dream it again at night, are far more savoury, masculine and obstinate than one might expect; percolating and ruminating within themselves oleaginously and without compromise. As a result, I think of vanilla pods almost more as creatures than as just a ‘spice’, the way in which the air root of the vine is constantly searching and moving down towards the ground to gain anchor, the fact that the vanilla orchid flowers on one day and on one day only (and if you miss it, you miss the pollination, which is done by hand); the way the pods have to gestate for such long periods, hanging fecundly and with high suggestiveness, before they are ready to be plucked; even the curing process itself, when the beans (which have no scent until cured) are ‘killed’ before being wrapped up in shrouds, and put in wooden boxes, and lovingly and caringly placed in the sunlight to sweat and be cured, and embalmed, like miniature mummies.
When I came back to Japan with my suitcase (illegally) full of vanilla beans and living orchids that we managed to keep for a fairly long time though ultimately the climate was wrong for them here, I tried, without much success, to make decent perfumes of my Javan vanilla beans; doused in spirits; soused in vodka to infuse the browning, tangible molecules I was always trying to get the blend right with (see my Black Narcissus Java review for the one exception that didn’t turn out too badly). Yet there was always something off in one or more of the later stages; the strange, bodily, dirtiness always coming out on the skin at some later point, just one of the vanilla pod’s inevitable facets, something skeezy you don’t get in the ‘purer’ synthetic (which is why Shalimar is so seamless). The pod always seems to spread itself out and not curtail its unrulier, oozier elements – it is quite a difficult essence to control, which is why it is very interesting for me to smell Mandy Aftel’s new and quite original take on natural vanilla extract, Vanilla Smoke.
From the first microsecond of smelling this perfume, I was plunged immediately back into the world of vanilla steeping – the type here is unquestionably natural, and I found the vanilla pod department of my brain cells lighting up the second I whiffed it – but it has also been cleverly smoothed out; lit up, decorated but also rounded, in all the right places with intuitively (and counter-intuitively) chosen aromatics. We are immediately aware of a smokiness, as the name of course suggests, but here it is a fuzzy and soft, warm and gustatory smoke, rather than, say, the broiled ham horror of Le Labo’s Patchouli 24 (I used to love the bonfire aspect of that scent, with its strong vanilla undertones, but once I had honed in the birch tar, barbecued meat-fest lurking at the heart, I could never put it on again). No. This is rather the mellow, snug infusion of lapsang souchong tea leaf extract (a very acquired taste among teas, but one which is very atmospheric I always find; somehow nostalgic and touching; historical) fusing together with the vanilla in great ease, cradled with some ambergris, some coumarin and some synthesised vanillin, so that in the base, once the hazy, autumnal-wintery vibe of the opening (also tinged with mandarin and saffron) subsides, you are left with a sweet, and quite comforting scent that clings peacefully to the skin.
While this may not be an ‘event’ oriental in the style of the traditional grand parfum (it is hard to imagine anyone wearing this to a gala for example, or to the opera), every well made perfume has its place. Personally, I would like it stronger and more intense, so am interested in sampling the perfume version as opposed to the edp (and it is crying out for a really intense solid version, surely; it would be lovely to have a secret compact of Vanilla Smoke in my pocket to just open and dab on at the right moment in winter) but even in this concentration, the scent, rather than a paen to extroversion, is more for the indoors and for the introverted, or at the very least a scent to snuggle up to. Caught on the wool hairs of a sweater, for instance, or on a soft and favourite scarf, as you wrap yourself up and step out into a cold winter’s day, I imagine that this could be really rather lovely.