Monthly Archives: February 2021


Sortilege —–‘incantation, magic spell, malediction, sorcery’ in French – is a classic floral aldehyde created in the late 1930’s by Paul Vacher (of Miss Dior, Diorling, Arpège, and a fleet of Le Galion perfumes fame). Of its time, of familiar mien if you know N⁰5, L’Aimant, Madame Rochas, the perfume extract that Duncan bought home for me the other night on his way back from Kamakura nevertheless has its own unique charm. While this format of fragrance almost always contains the following ingredients: rose, ylang ylang, muguet, iris and jasmine gemstoned and polished with aldehydes, usually pillowed with a more sexualised base of sandalwood, musk, vetiver and amber, Le Galion’s variant on the theme adds an extra abundance of of lilac, mimosa and narcissus, with a hint of warm labdanum and amber also in the base, which makes it perhaps sound very malleable, talced- feminine and soft in the usual Marilyn Monroe fashion (she, along with Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, and Grace Kelly were used in promotional placement pictures for the scent), but in fact, with its lilting skulduggery, ends up sweetly hypnotic.

Less pliant, and ‘giving’ than some of its predecessors and descendants such as Le N⁰9 by Cadolle, and Detchema by Revillon, Sortilège is cooler; more compact and aggressive, initially, prickled and immaculate, taking its time to bloom into a gorgeously rounded perfume not dissimilar to Givenchy’s L’interdit but more vivid, less morose. At this point, in the one hour intermission, you can certainly see where the perfume got its name: this is undeniable female seduction.

I will sorely miss Strawberry Field, the place we got this perfume, the source of many a cherished delight in Kamakura, and which unfortunately seems to be closing down as the lady who runs it is in poor health. Last time I was there, two people completely unfamiliar with perfume were presiding over her wares – everything half price now – meaning D can just pick something up on the way home like the Le Galion extrait pictured above – but it does look as if it won’t be there for much longer. Such is my affection for the place that it even features in the film I did for Moleskine Notebooks last January, one of the surrealer experiences in my life, in which a crew of Italians from flew in from Milan just as the coronavirus was starting to take hold, and I had a weekend of pretending it was August in January and being constantly looked at and ‘positioned’ and filmed wherever I went – the clothes I had selected ( I had actually gone shopping and looked good) deemed not seasonably suitable for the shoot: I had to literally borrow the shirt off the Japanese cameraman’s back. Standing around in Tokyo, ‘modelling’; beyond ice cold, having a group of eleven media people invade my house the following day for the interview during which they photographed practically every corner of our odd and overpacked abode, causing mayhem in the street outside as neighbours found that they couldn’t park their cars because of all the extra vehicles, wondering what the hell was going on, it was all completely new and exciting. I felt like a star, and it was very illuminating in that regard: I got a tiny taste of what being a ‘celebrity’ would be like. and much as I know I couldn’t stand that kind of attention on a regular basis, with a big pinch of salt, it was certainly enthralling for just a couple of days.

One of the stops on the itinerary – so hilarious, being bundled into the van like fleeing paparazzi and speeding at the limit to the next designated destination each time as though our lives depended on it- was Strawberry Field, which the main organizer of the project – there had been several bungles – had misunderstood as being a literal field of elysian strawberries somehow dotted with perfumes, like a Dorothy snoozing in her field of drowsing opioid poppies, vintage perfume bottles half dug into the soil……was I to walk, daydreaming, through the fragrant beds of fruit and pluck perfumes from my bosom or was it else some kind of huge market just bulging with swooning vintagery that we would wander about it and take woozy pictures with me up close and personal with bottles of Yves Saint Laurent and Ricci? There we were, racing desperately to get there at the appointed hour, the Italian media on their walkie talkies to each other getting agitated about whether we would make it to il campo di fragole into time; one of the Japanese managers calling up sycophantically and hyper politely to placate the owner and begging her to stay open until we got there (financial incentives were eventually offered), frantically scoffing down the convenience store sandwiches that the runner had gone out to by in bulk as there had been no time to get lunch (we were all absolutely famished) – and yet the final destination was, in fact, really just a tiny and cramped (but very charming, if you like statues and mirrors and beads and ceramics and porcelain and knick knacks ) old junk/antique shop. Fortunately, the cameramen had a similar camp sensibility to me and loved it, immediately, and the proprietress in her ragdollhat; she graciously extended her opening hours; we filmed our little segment there, and it was a wrap.

I will miss many things about that place. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t overly expensive either – plus she always gave me a discount. Gorgeous, boxed Guerlains and Patous, some Carons, many Chanels; I got my sumptuous Amouage Gold from there; several Mystère de Rochas, among many many other things I can no longer precisely remember; the beauty being that you didn’t only have to store up on the riches and troves that you wanted to accumulate for your cabinet, but could acquire new old novelties that you might never have encountered before, such as Fame de Corday; old miniatures, abandoned and unwanted eaux de parfum, and half used up extraits. It was a mine of pleasure and perfume education : and without it, I am sure I would never have been exposed to such a lovely creation as Le Galion Sortilège.


Filed under Floral Aldehydes, Flowers


Last Saturday after work we met in Kannai, Yokohama. I couldn’t face another train journey home alone: that sad repetition : : go to work, come home from work, go to work, come home from work – half a person. It has been a dreadful term, a suppressed fear on autopilot, and I am beat. So last weekend we had a great evening wandering around Isezakicho, our second spiritual home – warm enough just about to sit outside in coats and scarves and have drinks, even if, later on, as the temperature dropped we found ourselves dinnerless with all the restaurants closed, as per the current law by 8pm; local neighbourhood associations zealously doing the rounds with clapboards and megaphones intoning to the ethnic minorities – Korean, Chinese, Russian, Thai – to abide by the regulations and close up shop; we ended up (happily) having last minute discount meal of spicy Szechuan dishes in plastic containers in the park, on a cold stone bench in an island of illuminated rocks.

It was unseasonably warm last week and I loved it. This week, the temperatures have dropped, there has been a continual gale level wind – unbearable, I have found myself shouting into it, at it – and we have both become sick. Not sick sick, I don’t think – no fevers, no obvious corona symptoms : but extreme ‘malaise’, certainly, tiredness; I have had a sore throat and a ‘compressed chest’ feeling in my left lung but then I do get that every year or so and can usually sort it out with a few days of antibiotics; D has had a bad headache which is now thankfully dissipating, but whatever the source of the lurgey we have definitely been out of sorts and achey and just wanting to nest in a properly heated room. Thursday morning I woke up and felt as though I was sinking into the mattress, anchored by my dreams into heaviness, and I knew – just a few seconds scanning the day ahead in my mind – that there was no way I would be able to do all the travelling, the sheer effort required for it all; the appalling contrast between the overly heated seats, and the necessary open windows whistling with ice cold winds, rendering me a human version of Baked Alaska, an uneasy combination of warmed roll and thawing vanilla ice cream. My most basic instincts told me no – no way. Nor could I face the school where I am assigned a room with a broken heater, nor the idea of my potentially bringing something into the school in Yokohama that has no windows. I do sometimes live my life like David and Goliath, I must admit, and David, on this occasion, elected to stay in bed.

I like the colours in this kimono material, particularly in tandem with the fur…

It was lovely to be in the neon of Isezakicho; the oddballs wandering, the sheer diversity of the unselfconscious demographic on the streets (this is a place without the ‘respectable propriety’ of other areas in the Yokohama region, and it feels so much freer; looser, more interesting); eccentricity flourishing left right and centre plus an entrenched sense of history. In fact, at Minato – one of the most quintessential Japanese ‘recycle’ shops I often mention – pictured here, – we ended up buying a framed antiquarian map of the nearby Sakuragicho bay as it used to be in the nineteenth century, lovely aquamarines and blues, as well as an old clock: I liked the typographic on the face.

When we got home later in the evening we realized that that this thing actually seems to have a palpable life of its own ; chiming and clanging at all hours (haunted?), so for now it has been covered in duvets and blankets until its wind up mechanism runs out – I leapt out of bed the other night when it started chiming at 4:30am and threw it again under its covers : it will either be mounted, fittingly, in our bloodbath disco toilet – or else just used as a prop in one of Duncan’s films. Or else discarded.

His latest, incidentally- for Kings Of Tokyo, ‘Lyon, France, 1968’, set to 60’s French chanteur Michel Polnareff’s heartbreaking song ‘Love Me, Please Love Me’, features a very lonely vintage bottle of Guerlain Vetiver, plus many changes of necktie, as he nervously gets ready to go out for a date but dolefully ends up in the cinema watching Pasolini smoking alone…………

I find it all wonderfully melancholic……..

Boxed Chanel extraits lie among the snakeskin and bric-a-brac:
I couldn’t resist an almost full 28ml of you know what.

Neither could I this. Nina Ricci’s Farouche (1974) is not a perfume I could ever wear myself, but I am helpless in front of such red velours. Plus, the scent is elegant and beautiful (it is my Tokyo dressmaker friend Rumi’s favourite perfume of all time; Helen also likes this, though, so it might have to be hers at some point when I go home – – – mum, it wouldn’t suit you; I have you got you Capricci instead to be brought back in the ‘whenever suitcase’: this, and the Shiseido Suzuro).

Saturday night. Out as you should be. Wandering along, pleasantly spaced out and free, purchasing a curious book of Japanese cat pictures at an old book shop, as well as Mirko Buffinis’ compelling carnation violet Klito – which I reviewed the other day – plus a modern 93ml refill of Jicky, at Opal, and which smells exceptional on D; the definite pièce de resistance (so nice to just be out in a place you love, spending money on luxurious items you want to hold, and handle and stare at with pleasure rather than on just the basic alimentary essentials and your train pass) …… the original version of the classic Paco Rabanne Pour Homme – the now rare and sacred ‘yellow juice’ from 1973 so beloved on the men’s fragrance fora – made how it was meant to be – the perfume pristine and intact, wonderfully optimistic and aromatic; the sage note and the coniferousness beautifully balanced with the citrus and rosewood/lavender/tonka bean sweetish honey of the heart and inconspicuously erotic base; slightly more sweaty/animalic and rich – yet just as fresh – as the subsequent editions (though the Rabannes I wore in the eighties were also perfect; greener, the amiable soapiness, which is the main attraction for me, more at the fore). Recent airport editions I have smelled are fiendishly clever in keeping the basic persona of the original, immediately recognisable structure intact, but then your smell brain, sensitized, immediately senses an unwanted, irking component of metal chiding just beneath the surface. Hollowed. This version – the original – such a benign and lovely piece of work with its satisfying, herbal dependability; undemonstrative yet quietly outgoing – has no such cruelly subverted identity.


Filed under Fougère


Violets can be pale and bitter. Unsugared, as perfumes they are often pallid and aqueous – scents such as Caron’s Violette Precieuse (reissue) that were centered around violet leaf, rather than the Parma-tastic flowers; Ann Flipo’s Verte Violette for L’Artisan; all demure and self-effacing. Even Aftel’s recent Violet Ambrosia, a delicately rounded fragrance with fuller edges, unexpectedly took the shyer, woodland route.

Mirko Buffini’s Klito’, which I picked up the other day from a discounter, is a Florentine burst in the completely opposite direction : full-bodied, sweet, slightly salty, voluptuous – an almost dizzyingly heady blend of aldehydic violets, rose, and cloves over ylang ylang vanilla and cedarwood that I bought on the spot after smelling it. I had to. Simplistic, it nevertheless has an exuberantly press-powdered heft and energy : a perfectly rendered real dose of passion and energy for a Saturday night (this would leave quite the wayward scent trail). It is the carnation and clove element that does it for me: I adore the combination of violet and spice. A whoosh to the spirits. (Have you tried any of the other perfumes by Mirko Buffini, incidentally? I have seen this line in department stores before, and D was taken with Haiku, but have never fully explored. This situation shall now be rectified.)

On the always appealing topic of florid Italian violets, last year – or rather the year before – I found myself in Florence for the opening of the Lush Perfume Library (which I couldn’t write about at the time because I wasn’t really supposed to be there). Despite the freezing cold rain that accompanied virtually every sodden footstep; miserable; it was ultimately an exhilarating experience – staying in a hotel by the Uffizi Gallery, and being overwhelmed by its treasures ; having a lunch at a very chichi high end restaurant not only with the founder of Lush, Mark Constantine, and the perfumer behind the (at the time exclusive to Florence) range of perfumes including Confetti, Nero and Sappho – Emma Dick, but also none other than Persolaise as well as some of the the head honchos at Fragrantica, Cafleurbon, The Perfume Society, and Basenotes. Exciting. It felt like a G7 summit. A little intimidating at first, but the organiser had brilliantly intuited that this particular hand-picked group of perfumisti would get along marvellously – and we did. Shots at local bars after hours, a great deal to talk about, skipping across the medieval piazzas in the moonlight, we had a whale of a time, and once everyone had gone back to their respective countries I then very luckily stayed on a bit longer – my parents arriving later on in the week as they had never been to the city before (I studied there as a twenty year old). We wandered the streets, and marvelled at the sheer magnitude of the beauty on display on every corner.

Confetti – referring to the confectionery placed on the tables at traditional Italian nuptials – is a profumo isterico ; a bizarre violet and bitter sugar almond concoction with a heart note of coffee and sandalwood that could make you retch and fall in love simultaneously : both stomach-churning and addicting. Using the same violently green and chalky violet used in the company’s cult classic V from 1995 – a perfume that is alluring in some ways yet unendurable; I remember Duncan and Michael inhaling it for the first time when we all met up of an evening in Isezakicho in a karaoke restaurant and them both grimacing with repulsion – “my god” ; some textural offness; a sharpness, like being stabbed in the stomach, that unavoidably induces brividi – the shudders; Confetti employs precisely the same violet accord – stored, presumably somewhere in the Lush vaults – but tempers it effectively with a rich, romantic rose, pear; acidic like pear drops; a strange note of coffee absolute and sandalwood and a general effect of poisonous almonds, all resulting in a peculiarly lush, velveteen, green and purple potion that I remember starkly experiencing at night as we were taken on a tour of the Palazzo Vecchio by a young English historian by the name of Rose who had collaborated with the Perfume Library on researching the relevant historical background to the perfumes..Entranced by the frescoes – interesting though the explanations were, in understanding what I was seeing- I was only half absorbing the historical details – always terrible at that subject at school – my mind wandered off, no matter the period in question – some sequestered homesick Austrian princess or other pining for the Tyrols hence the symbolism in all the beautiful wall paintings……. …..I just know that the perfume – a singular, strange scent that for some reason I now always keep next to my desk – was seared into my memory at that particular moment, forever.


Filed under Flowers

Vetiver sniffing: an exploration

(guest post by Leko Lin, creator of

Comparing vetiver essential oil from 5 different countries (and vetiveryl acetate as a bonus). All are beautiful yet distinct.

First of all, I am thrilled and honoured to write my first ever guest post here on The Black Narcissus! Thank you so much, Neil, for giving me this opportunity to share an exploration of a material that we both love: vetiver.

When I dove headlong into the world of perfumery 2 years ago, one of the first things I did was seek out a perfume-making class. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long or travel far to attend my first “art of natural perfumery” workshop, run by an aromatherapy specialist named Cher. It was a well organised, comfortable, eye- (and nose!)- opening experience and I got to take home a lovely blend of essential oils based on what I liked by scent.

I mention this anecdote not only because it’s an integral part of my so-called perfume original story, but also because that was the first time I had heard of vetiver, let alone smelled it. The word itself was pleasant, and rolled off the tongue – rather the lower lip – quite smoothly. Cher likened it to “a leather couch” and while I’m prone to influence by other’s setting of expectations, I also made a note to self that I smelled solvent and something metallic as well.

Sadly (or, that’s just the way it is), vetiver did not end up in my first “custom perfume” – a citrus-heavy rose composition to help me “focus”, as we were each asked what we wanted our perfume to help us feel. However, in my early days of experimenting with my own blends, I pegged vetiver as a leathery note, and was somewhat surprised when that wasn’t reflected in most of what I read about perfume. Rather, vetiver was often described as earthy, woody, or grassy. Sometimes, inky – which became my new association.

Eventually, I learned that vetiver oil is distilled from the roots of vetiver grass, and things started to make more sense. Perfumes that featured this ingredient, such as Le Labo Vetiver 46 and Comme Des Garḉons 2 MAN, initially reminded me of ginseng, another root. (Both of these ended up smelling “dirty” to me after the top notes had evaporated). Later, I would discover perfumes I liked in which I didn’t recognise the vetiver, although it was listed as one of the main notes – for instance, Atelier Cologne Clementine California and Rouge Bunny Rouge Incantation (discontinued).

It goes without saying that materials, especially botanical ones, vary in quality and characteristics depending on the source. The first vetiver that I bought was from Haiti, the world’s largest producer of vetiver. In fact, this grass is known to exist in at least 70 nations, although most do not produce it commercially. (1)

Like the classic computer game Minesweeper, in which clicking on one square reveals more clues in neighbouring squares, getting to know one kind of vetiver led me to others – and I say “kinds ” from an amateur, end-user perspective, but I really mean sources. They are all the same kind : the species Chrysopogon zizanioides, formerly known was Vetiver zizanioides. DNA fingerprinting has shown that almost all the vetiver cultivated outside of South Asia have been driven from a single genotype. (2) One clone to rule them all – yet vetiver plants grown side by side can be “strikingly different in colour, righty, flowering, and other features”.

Without further ado, how do vetiver essential oils from different countries smell?

(Disclaimer: I bought my samples in small quantities from reputable resellers in the United States and have not compared multiple oils sourced from the same country but sold by different companies. The list is arranged alphabetically. My impressions are limited to my own olfactory associations, so I encourage you to smell for yourself whenever you have the chance!)

One pipette drop of each material at full strength onto a glass slide. The Indonesia specimen is not a larger drop, but rather less viscous and more spread out. The India specimen is indeed a smaller drop. This also serves to illustrate how unreliable drops are when trying to proportion perfumery ingredients, and why weight should be used instead of volume. The colors are more sharply contrasted in this photo than they appear in person, despite adjusting the white balance.

Bourbon type

Bourbon vetiver refers to the type produced in the volcanic Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, which is generally considered to be of the highest quality, but difficult to source. My sample is actually a blend from France and Madagascar, “blended to maintain Bourbon specifications”.

This is so far my personal favourite. It’s steely smoky, round, richly nutty if I pay attention, and brings to my mind warm colours. It’s much less rooty, grassy and earthy than the other types. I’m inclined to use it in blends with rich, complex florals such as osmanthus, rose or ylang ylang.


This is probably the type most easily found in perfumery, and derivatives including vetiverol and vetiveryl acetate are often obtained from Haitian vetiver. It’s more rooty and slightly inky, with more “cooling” connotations in the scent that are now remind me of liquorice root in a tea blend from Aveda that I loved many years ago. It also smells more woody and is the one I would think of to complement citrus notes, green notes, and “brighter” flowers such as jasmine.


As the origin of known vetivers around the world, India also produces oils from a wild type of vetiver grown in the northern parts of the country. Wild vetiver, or “ruh thus”, yields oil with an aroma very distinct from those of its sterile, “fragrant-root” type counterparts. What struck me most was the shocking green colour when I first pipetted out the liquid from its amber vial. The scent is an earthy, dull green – very vegetal, reminiscent to of the inedible parts of vegetables that have rigid stalks. It does not seem to be used in perfumery, despite the eponymous fragrance Wild Vetiver by Bentley (which cites vetiver essence “extracted from the roots of a bush that grows wild in Indonesia” on the brand website and which I have not smelled as of this writing).

10% captions of each type of vetiver essential oil. From left to right: Bourbon type, Haiti, India (“ruh kus: or wild vetiver), Indonesia, Paraguay and vetiveryl acetate ex vetiver Haiti.


This one smells harsh to me and reminds me of burned buildings (accidental electrical fires seemed more commonplace when I was a child) and burned coffee. After the initial blast of stale smoke has passed, I can detect a cooler, woodier scent that also hints at peanuts. Possibly even candied peanuts. I’m not sure if my sample is representative of Indonesian vetivers, which are produced mainly in Java.


My Google search for “Paraguayan vetiver: in quotes yielded zero results. It remains elusive, as vetiver seems to be least known in South America. This may be the nuttiest of them all. When I first smelled it, I was reminded of something foody that I couldn’t quite place, and it took me several minutes to remember that the memory was of a canned peanut soup that can be found in Asian supermarkets, usually next to the congees. It’s very mild flavoured and can be eaten heated or chilled (in my childhood, I preferred the latter, as a refreshing snack in hot summers).

On skin, this vetiver oil dilution is earthy in a clay-like way, almost chalky. Not smoky at all.

The only other raw material I have ever thought of as “chalky” so far is mastic (also known as lentisque), and that is purely from smelling it within perfumes. I have yet to smell it on its own, but think it’s fair to hypothesise that these two ingredients might work well together. A couple of commenters on Basenotes have said that Tom Ford Grey Vetiver and L’Occitan Vetiver feature these notes in combination.

On the dry down, I’m having trouble distinguishing the dilutions of oils from Paraguay, Haiti, and Bourbon type. They have all converged into a stark woodiness with the grapefruit facet elevated.

Vetiveryl acetate

Credited with the success of many perfumes, and spotlighted in Escentric Molecules Molecule 03, vetiveryl acetate is considered a synthetic substance derived from the vetiver plant. It is fractionated from the steam-distilled vetiver oil and then acetylated, removing some harsher aspects of the essential iol. My sample was processed from Haitian vetiver.

Having high expectations, I was disappointed when I first smelled it. To my nose, it was barely a shadow or whisper of the essential oils. Very flat in comparison. Like a cardboard cutout, or at best a wax figure, in place of a live person. However, it does achieve the purpose of smelling more “refined”, conforming to the standard of woody vetiver. Being lighter, perhaps by way of relatively lacking depth, it also brings out some of the citrusy aspects of vetiver.

Those are my impressions so far, and vetiver remains one of my favorite perfumery raw materials. Ironically, I have not yet smelled very many vetiver perfumes or fallen for one, but the search continues! I would be curious about your perception either of the raw ingredients or any fragrances featuring this complex, wonderful material.

1. National research Council 1993. Vetiver Grass: A Thin Green Line Against Erosion. Washington, DC: the National Academies Press. https:/

2. Adams RP, et al. DNA fingerprinting reveals clonal nature of Vetiver zizanoides (L.) Nash, Gramineae and sources of potential new germplasm. Mol Ecol. 1998; 7:813-818,


Filed under Flowers

divergent descriptors ….. L’HOMME A LA ROSE by MAISON KURKDIJIAN (2020)

Feeling that I am turning a corner at the moment, I am in the mood for fresh and green.

A clean, verdant masculine rose blend wrapped in herbal grapefruit and sage, I imagined something chypric – hint of labdanum – a leafier Lumiere Noire: spine-tingling, maybe, like the original Envy by Gucci; or crisp and alert like Roseberry de Rosine ; icicle- bright, like the rest of Francis Kurkidjian’s ’s incomparably pragmatic crystallinity.

FK’s original A La Rose – a masterful archetype of its kind – is a very consummate, if prissily synthetic, taut summation of a prettily pink modern rose. It makes a mark. A ‘male version’ of this is hauntingly tantalizing; maintain the optimism of rosiness of the perfume but with a new vein of ligneous clarity and chlorophyll.

If the publicity photography shown above, disappoints, so does the scent. As with all perfume talk, though, this is very subjective. Reviewers on Fragrantica talk of pure roses doused in the dawn of dewy gardens , of a revitalization of the conceit of roses for men. Baffling. For me, the contributors who made comments along the lines of ‘but isn’t this identical to RalphLauren Polo Blue’? are far closer to the mark ((this release was apparently intended —-you might call it hack work —- for a less pricey ‘designer brand’ , then recommandeered and reworked under the niche house’s prestigious umbrella)). And it shows.

Despite a bracing, roseyish opening touch, L’Homme A La Rose is ultimately just a re-embraced sports fragrance, brash and overcomplicated, with no obvious beauty. I would genuinely love to smell this properly on another person – I don’t doubt for a second that other nuances might become apparent on a skin colder and more youthful than mine – but this is certainly not the ‘ideal introduction’ for the bi-curious man that all the hype would suggest. The fate of this scent strip – so utterly disappointing and entirely different from what I was expecting ( I have to ask you : what was your own biggest unbridgeable chasm in terms of what was stirred in the olfactory imagination by the incentivizing words that led you on – my own words included – and the grim reality that met your individual scent brain when you smelled it ?) – being tossed within one minute into a nearby rubbish bin – I couldn’t even be bothered to get to the middle stage – – — shows you everything I needed to know.


Filed under Flowers


I feel like cooking one of those whole-day-to-make affairs where you get through a few albums on the stereo and do everything from scratch with all the chopping and peeling and frying and simmering so that you just get embroiled in it all and the house smells of nothing else. I am thinking a nice tangy borscht with beets, cabbage, carrots and pork, or else a bouillabaisse; white wine, dill; garlic, herbs, olive oil, butter; sour cream, and a generous teaspoon of saffron.

Since the beginning of 2021 we have sworn to each other not to eat in a single eatery until the virus is under control, and have been making food at home, leaving things to eat for each other during the working week. The excellent Kamakura vegetable market is right next to Duncan’s school, and he often returns with intriguing vegetables I have never seen before; black hairy carrots, dark purple radishes, bitter greens with crenellated surfaces. They often throw in some free radicchio or rucola as well; wasabi or mustard leaves; mountain potatoes.

Although I often need simple, even bland food – mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables served with some grilled protein – very traditional English – like most people I also love the whole gamut of herbs and spices. So much more than mere flavour enhancers and condiments, needless to say, spices are also vital botanicals with proven health benefits and rich histories that boost energy, the psyche, and the immune system at this stressful and depleting time we are living in (see also this piece I wrote on the power of essential oils). They are necessary. The new recently opened takeout Turkish kebab place, Zaza’s, in Ofuna, is drawing long lines of local people who have probably never eaten this food before and can’t get enough of the cinnamon, sumac, cumin and thyme-infused meat wafting through the air of the big market there; so filling and galvanising in the cold weather : you feel it heating you up from the inside, suffusing an aromatic warmth through your blood vessels. Delicious natural complements. Indispensable in winter. The sea faring trading ancients thought of spices not just as perfumes and culinary and economic necessities but also as medicines; the basis for the treatments given by Phoenician or Ayurvedic physicians: observably tried and tested remedies; as anti-oxidants to free radicals, as body vitalizers. Both paprika and cayenne pepper are well-known anti-inflammatories for inflamed joints; treating the swollen tissue from within – so I use them regularly in my food. Those with heart problems are sometimes advised to carry the latter with them at all times, as the chemical capsaicin in cayenne pepper is reputed to be able to sometimes nip an incipient cardiac arrest in the bud. Spices flood our circulation and stimulate our brains; there is a much lower incidence of Alzheimer’s in India precisely because of the great prevalence of turmeric in the cuisine – a hyper-health food I am not very keen on the taste of unless blended into a curry or a cardamomed masala chai, but which I do always keep a bag of as a cold antidote – I find it helps keep illness at bay.

Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and star anise (a powerful virus destroyer) I use copiously in my rooibos teas. D is the pfeffermeister, a pepper lover, sprinkling cracked pink, white and black pepper onto salads; I am the one more naturally geared towards the perfumed voluptuousness of saffron, saved usually only for particular occasions like today (Valentine’s). I have a real pull towards saffron, particularly with seafood : intrinsically aphrodisiac and sense-altering and without parallel in the spice rack; sublimating all the food around it with its stark yellow scent that smells like liquorice in concentration but like the warm breath of suppressed carnality in the desired concentrations. I have to restrain myself when cooking with it, as I know from experience that it can easily overwhelm.

The most expensive spice (along with vanilla), saffron is gathered from the deep orange threads that grow in the centre of the crocus sativus, painstakingly removed from the flowers and dried, then traditionally used in dyeing, perfume; food and teas for their perceived positively therapeutic effect on ‘melancholy’. Saffron undeniably has this effect: there is an instinctive immediacy to the smell and the taste that pulls you back through the looking glass into happier terrain. I am always fascinated by this; the fact that you can intuit a particular plant’s therapeutical magic before even reading up on it; you can sense and physically feel the intrinsic positivity of saffron, though just one inhalation. Known as ‘red gold’ in Iran, where 90% of the world’s saffron is currently produced, this precious spice has been used for tens of thousands of years across the vast majority of the world cultures via the spice trails, used medicinally for depression, insomnia, and reproductive issues; research is currently being done also into its potential usage as a drug to treat Parkinson’s – the crocetin that forms part of its natural essence a potential prophylactic for dementia. In the palaces of Knossos in Crete, where we went as a family in 1987 for our first ever holiday abroad – I vividly remember the exciting, blazing sun, and hiding in the cooler shadows behind great white stone – there are frescoes in the museum I may or not have seen, that depict crocus flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys for their uses by the deities; on the island of Santorini there is another walled painting of a Minoan goddess supervising the ‘gleaning of stigmas’ for the use in some ancient drug. Or possibly the other way round. Fear of the seductive powers of saffron made traders of the past wary of being fed saffron-laced Persian cuisine ; unwitting arousal caused by the ingestion of these tiny aromatic threads leading to lord knows what consequences: saffron clearly is arousing: not a psychological imagining, but a physiological response in the body. The Greek mythical origins of the substance confirm this : in the Crocus and Smilax myth, in which the standard priapically amorous youth unwearyingly pursues a beautiful nymph who eventually tires of the chase, the enchantress uses her bewitching powers to transform him immediately into a living saffron crocus, a flower whose radiant orange stigmas were held up vividly as a ‘relict glow of an undying and unrequited passion’.

In perfume, I find that proper saffron tints tend to be found mainly in Arab or Arab-inspired creations. Some of the sweeter, more balsamic attars infused with a dose of saffron can drive me doolally; a kind of cellular discombobulation where I melt into myself for a few seconds and come out differently. Although not one of my ‘regular ingredients’, I do seem to get a fierce craving for a saffron scent every once in a while – usually in early summer, when you can wear looser and less clothing and a saffron-laced perfume goes perfectly with sun-kissed skin. I remember I went to look for my Montale Velvet Flowers in May or June last year when this urge came predictably over me (the peculiar peach-blossom and saffron combination in that scent is very mood heightening when you are in the right frame of mind for it), but it had leaked; just an intense gunge of dehydrated perfume ingredients that I dripped, burning, onto my evaporated wrists nevertheless.

L’Artisan’s Safran Troublant, one of the most popular niche saffron creations, is a tad duskymusky floatily distant for my own use; Grossmith’s Saffron Rose, on the other hand, a truly gorgeous, rich and sense-drowsing opening accord of Damascene roses and saffron, cinnamon, myrrh, labdanum and oud that eventually tilts into more familiar agar territory but whose opening makes it a very desirable fragrance to own if you are a true saffron lover (it is a prohibitively costly perfume, but definitely one of the best saffrons I have ever smelled – do tell me any others that you would recommend). Byredo’s popular Black Saffron is also undeniably impressive – from about a mile away – but too acrid and hyperbolic up close. A dot here or there though, with a suede or leather jacket, and this scent can work alchemical wonders on the right wearer.

New Bavarian perfume house GCB’s Coeur Du Safran, by Günter Schramm – a firm, full-bodied saffron creation, in some ways has a similar feel to the swaggering, Swedish saffronbomb, but is less tarry, more gourmand in the manner of Mugler – and thus more approachable. Though more dense and sugar-spun than I am used to wearing, it is a nicely balanced upright saffron perfume blended with sandalwood, tolu balsam, benzoin and a touch of orange blossom/musk that, once we start going out of a summer evening again, I think I might wear with a black flannel open-necked shirt and just stride into the light. Like the aforementioned borscht or bouillabaisse, the saffroned tinctures of ancient India; that sensual, tantric aroma; if the perfume is concentrated on saffron, I have no doubt that I will find it fortifying.


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coming back to myself


February 13, 2021 · 6:51 pm


My friend Emma sent me this old perfume ad ripped from an 80’s fashion magazine :

‘Je Reviens. It talks when you can’t’.

Interesting. It is true that this classic by the House Of Worth has mystique in its savory, aromatic melancholy; a plea that pulls on you from another realm that might mask a lack of enigma.

But here, these awkward his n her showroom dummies (batteries not shown), do not even seem to me to have the ability to speak in the first place.

True, they have grown skin; hair; slacks. Makeup. Learned some human gestures.

But the beauty of the perfume, in an indescribable sphere all its own, will surely be lost on each one of these static, anosmic, innardless models, in a strange and lifeless promotion created more than fifty years after the fragrance’s original release (will there still be adverts for La Vie Est Belle in 2060 ?)

Perhaps what is suggested here is that the perfume literally does SPEAK.

As in : “It’s Je Reviens on the phone”.

A blue, silent mouthpiece on the end of the line : a hissing emission of aldehydized iris, frankincense, oakmoss, narcissus…


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FUJI : : : FIDJI by GUY LAROCHE (1966)

Fidji is Fidji: immediately recognisable. An airy, green aldehydic ultra-feminine floral musk created in 1966 by perfumer Josephine Catapano (Cinnabar, Youth Dew, Norell, the original Shiseido Zen), its familiar, gossamer-insistent base note of sandalwood-touched, ambrous-touched musk, is unmistakeable – a perfume of its time, no doubt – yet still available and worn by many devotees today. With its atmospheric similarities to Nina Ricci’s L’Air Du Temps, a ‘veil’ of classic perfume that encircles a person’s aura like an angelic breeze, the scent of Fidji takes me back to my childhood, when our babysitter, my cousin Sue, who wore this perfume for years, would come round on a Saturday night with her friend Linda, fluff up our pillows, and tell us hilarious stories before making us go to bed much later than we should have. Her mum – my auntie Valerie – also still wears L’Air Du Temps to this day.

D picked me up a boxed, sealed vintage parfum of this classic for three dollars recently, at his regular bric a brac hideout in Zushi, and I really wanted to present it to Sue in person unopened- we sometimes have family get-togethers when I go back home, as all the cousins live nearby – but who knows when that will be? I don’t see it happening for another year, realistically. I can’t send perfume out any more, either- the post office has become so stringent about sending anything from this country, infuriatingly draconian – so it will just have to be a gift to her at some point, because none of us know when we are going to be going anywhere again anytime soon. In the meantime, I couldn’t resist de-tying the ribbons on the bottle.

Reading up on the perfume (an ultra detailed article by Viktoria Wlasova on Fragrantica which beautifully charts her obsession with this scent from adolescence to now, including all the reformulated iterations) in order to experience the top notes which I couldn’t resist trying at least once for my own perfume geek brain – I am always drawn to any galbanum, violet, and hyacinth accord, and love green perfumes generally – in this particular vintage extrait the opening prelude of floral foliage is delectable, mind-clearing and fresh, even if for me, the ever present (but brilliantly rendered) diaphanous musk at the soul of the scent – to me representing a woman on a beach after swimming, at sunset, draped in white shawl – would never smell right on my own skin. Still, when I smell the perfume from inside the box and inhale, on a grey cold winter’s day, reaching out from under my bedclothes, it is incredible how Josephine Catapano managed the technical feat of capturing such a dreamy, tropical exotic air lensed through a classical French prism of traditional perfumery. It is immediate mind travel.

On Sunday we decided to go down to Zushi to check out Kurukuru again for any other vestiges of perfumes that may have been washed in (I was watching an Italian video review of my book the other day; those on the thread fantasising about one day maybe going to Japan, where they imagine that there are vintage Guerlains and Carons and Diors staring out from every other shelf, and I realized that a game of Japanese whispers has occurred, through the fault of the collective accumulation of posts on The Black Narcissus, and the introduction to Perfume, where I give the impression of incessant bounty, when the reality is that there is noticeably less and less vintage perfume available here now; I was horrified to see recently, for example, that my two mainstays seem to be shutting up shop; there are no flea markets, now; probably if you walk around long enough around some town or other you might find some recycle shop or antiques place with a dusty old box in it somewhere, but it is no way near the cornucopia people seem to be imagining). Still, on Sunday, I did I find a degraded no 19 parfum for 300 yen which I have used to bolster another blend, and we bought a lamp, a bottle opener, and a strange old box with a copper coloured clasp like a Russian Orthodox flower I can put samples in – and in any case the main reason I wanted to go really was just to sit and watch the sunset.

Mount Fuji is very elusive with a smartphone camera. It’s strange: while you are looking at the sacred mountain rise majestically above the waves in its perfect symmetry, it looms large and mystically beautiful (we could see along the coast from here in Kotsubo; tiny dots: hundreds of people sat apart from each other on the sand in their coats and scarves with their phones, capturing the last rays), but it always looks far smaller in any picture I have taken; diminished. As if it doesn’t want to be photographed.

This is always a lovely place to go and park yourself for a couple of hours, though, as the light slowly fades. To unwind, and take in the view. But in case you are imagining that I am just peachily, obliviously, floating happily about to Japanese sunsets, in truth, on Sunday it was more a case of desperation. A need to vent my spleen (poor Duncan – who has encased himself in his own dreamworld more and more recently, and doesn’t want to hear my constant blistering anger related to the abysmally stressful last few weeks I have had that have caused serious anxiety attacks; his work situation is better and he can walk to his school from where we live.) In fact, as we were walking back – my bike naturally had to get a puncture – all I could think about as we walked along the coast and the night set in was the piece I am slowly collating – a kind of diary of rage – which I may or may not put up on here ; I haven’t decided yet – I actually thought I was going to do it yesterday hence the ‘stench of narcissus’ piece on Sunday night – you would be getting more of me than you bargained for, but I am still debating the wisdom of putting it up publicly. To be clear, I don’t, for a moment, think that I am in a hard position compared to millions and millions of other people – I know this. People are dying, people are very weary from it all. This is, in many ways, simply a time of suffering. For a huge number of people around the world. I have a friend in America who is working flat out right now at a crematorium and is beyond depletion and exhaustion, crying on the job as she stacks up dead bodies, worrying herself sick about her crew. The situation for health workers must be absolutely intolerable. But I also don’t think we have to totally relativize ourselves out of existence either. The suicide rate here is rocketing from all the stress that people are going through, pretending everything is normal in their masks as they go to and from their workplaces in the metropolis but are actually consistently stressed by the threat around them. Suppressed. And I am also sick with fright at the thought of getting the virus, hearing all the stories or intubators and the long haul, sometimes impossible recovery. Suffocated and stressed out of my mind every day having to take crowded trains and buses and be in schools where people have had it, but where the lack of ventilation and physical proximity to everyone is sickening my soul. Where others are taking our lives so cavalierly. Coming out in full body hives. Palpitating. Night sweats and nightmares. All I want is to be at home. And if this were financially viable for me I would do it. In a heartbeat. We both would. But it is currently not an option; so like everyone else I have to keep ploughing through the invisible corona seas, hoping for the best each day. And then when I am free, smell perfumes; escape: sit by the ocean. Breathe.


Filed under Flowers

the stench of narcissus

comin at ya tomorrow


Filed under Flowers