This is my last post as an official writer for Now Smell This.1 It's been a huge opportunity and a real thrill to write for the blog that first woke me up to perfume, and I will miss my regular gig very much. But I'll see you in the comments section, and I’ll be easy to find, so instead of getting weepy or nostalgic, I simply want to say thank you and offer you a bouquet of osmanthus blossoms.
I admit that, as bouquets go, it isn't much to look at. The flowers, white or yellow, depending on the variety, are simple and very tiny — you could easily hold a hundred in the palm of your hands. The greenery of the variety that grows in the Southern U.S., where osmanthus is widely known as the Tea Olive, is unremarkable. But none of that really matters. This bouquet is not for display, it's a nosegay, and as soon as you bend your head to sniff, your eyes will be closed in bliss.
I think of osmanthus as the scent of happiness. It smells of warm, ripe apricots, good black tea (maybe a Ceylon, with its floral notes and natural sweetness) and soft leather. It's a luscious, velvety scent, rich and delicious, but the sunny, citrus-kissed fruit and the tannic tea notes keep things from getting too serious. Osmanthus isn't a heady narcotic, like jasmine, or a drama queen, like tuberose. Billie Holiday, famous for the gardenias in her hair, would never have worn osmanthus blossoms.
Osmanthus envelops, but it doesn't overwhelm. I bought a scrubby little stick of an osmanthus shrub at the Farmer's Market this February, and it lived in my study for a week before it warmed up enough to put it outside. Every night I closed my study door to keep out our tabbies, and every morning when I opened it again a cloud of scent rolled over me. I may have paused to breathe deeply through my nose for a moment or two before sitting down at my desk, but when I opened my eyes I was fully awake and I settled down to my work with a feeling of expansive contentment.
Like rose petals, osmanthus flowers retain their scent when dried, and they are a popular flavoring in China where osmanthus is known as gui hua. You may already be familiar with osmanthus flavored tea. (And if you aren't, and drink loose tea, may I suggest buying some immediately. You can order a sample here.) But osmanthus can also be used to infuse sugar and custards, the same way that many Western cooks use a vanilla bean, or to lend a delicate note to savory dishes in much the way that we use saffron — another flavoring associated with joy.
Some time ago, inspired by my adventures with osmanthus sorbet, I bought some dried osmanthus blossoms meaning to try some of the recipes above and the ones offered here and here. As I type this I'm wondering that an osmanthus infusion might do to the glaze meant for a roasted duck. I am thinking of crisp, golden osmanthus butter cookies, flecked with bits of dried flowers, meant to be served alongside a cup of the same kind of tea. And I am imagining, in vivid detail, a lemon polenta cake soaked in an osmanthus honey glaze.
But so far, I've been content to simply sniff the flowers in their little tin, while I think of how each osmanthus-centered perfume I know teases out a different facet of the bloom: Ormonde Jayne's bright, flirty soliflore is all fruit and spring dresses. The Different Company pulls back the sweetness, amps up the citrus and makes the leather chic. Serge Lutens' Daim Blond stews the apricot (no surprise there) and adds a pair of suede gloves. Ineke Ruhland's Evening Edged in Gold pairs the apricot with dark plums, surrounds it with heady white flowers on a summer night and adds a dash of saffron. Parfum d'Empire's super-saturated Osmanthus Interdite stuffs a soft leather purse to brimming with the live blooms. And in Jean Patou's 1000 — I'm wearing a precious dab of the vintage parfum right as I write this — the osmanthus shines out from the heart of the formal composition, welcoming me in to a perfume I might otherwise consider out of my reach.
I love them all. But if my little shrub is any indication, I'm not sure any of them can compare with something I haven't smelled yet: a whole city avenue of mature blooming plants on a warm spring night, the breeze carrying the scent through every open window. It's a nice piece of happiness to dream on — meet me there?
1. Ed. note: Alyssa failed to mention that she's leaving us because she wrote a book.