5 perfumes for: Foodies

Ice cream cones, Jordi Roca

Recently, I re-watched El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, Gereon Wetzel's very scrupulous, very German 2011 documentary about one of the final years at the restaurant many food followers believe to have been the most influential of the last two decades: elBulli, brainchild of rumpled Catalan genius Ferran Adrià. Besides falling in love again with both the mad scientist menu and Adrià's right-hand man, dashing chef de cuisine Oriol Castro, the thing I really noticed on this viewing was how familiar the scenes might seem to our readers. Adrià and sommelier David Seijas discuss what families scents fall into and how to emphasize notes from individual ingredients with other ingredients. Adrià, Castro and Eduard Xatruch go to the market, and are frustrated by the variable qualities and availability of the raw materials they need. In the lab and kitchen, there are endless "mods", sampling and editing sessions and passionate discussions about the time-lapsed impressions a product gives. Everyone sniffs, and then stares thoughtfully off into space.

Of course, if you've been following perfume in the news, none of this will be a surprise. Chefs and perfumers have long recognized their mutual interests. Cooks have used essentials oils in recipes since the thirteenth century, and medieval cuisine included dishes like ambergris pudding, rose and almond milk pottage, candied calamus root and marigold (calendula, or "pot marigold") stew. Perfumers, meanwhile, have always sought to make their creations mouth-watering, and a few contemporary ones, like Christophe Laudamiel, started on the flavorings side of the trade. It certainly seems, though, that both fragrance and food industry spokespeople have recently become more vocal about publicizing collaborations, particularly on the luxury ends of the markets.

In early 2011, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker interviewed Jordi Roca — who apprenticed at elBulli and is currently at the triple Michelin-starred El Cellar de Can Roca — about the many desserts the pastry chef had created based on popular perfumes, like Calvin Klein Eternity, Gucci Envy and Terre d'Hermès. Roca has since started selling his own gourmand perfume, Núvol di Llimona / Lemon Cloud, originally created to be sprayed in the air to accompany one of his dishes. Two years ago, Alyssa did a fascinating post on the culinary influence of natural perfumer Mandy Aftel and the trends of using scent in food at restaurants like The French Laundry, where Aftel has lectured. This year, we have seen several cuisine-inspired releases: Jean-Claude Ellena's new Hermessence, Epice Marine, stemmed from a visit and correspondence with revered Breton chef Olivier Roellinger; Hilde Soliani deviated from her sweeter gourmands to create Mmm,1 a tribute to a "deconstructed ravioli" of basil, tarragon, butter and incense she had at Le Calandre2 in Padova, Italy; and Dominique Dubrana writes he was toasting both the famous coffee houses and the newer Arab and Somali restaurants of Milan with La Via del Profumo Milano Caffè. Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc recently reported on the "gustative" compositions at Delicatesscent, a client and press presentation by fragrance company Mane, and if you can read her list of scents sampled without finding a bit of hope for the future of perfume fluttering in your breast, you're made of tougher stuff than me.

All this to say, it's a great time to be both a gourmet and a perfume lover. Below are some of my choices to feed your inner foodie; please comment with your own.

Slumberhouse Pear + Olive

Portland, Oregon indie brand Slumberhouse has been creating quite a stir among perfumistas lately, and now that I've finally procured a sample set, I understand why. These are striking perfumes. While I thoroughly enjoyed Ore and Norne, Pear + Olive is the one that caught my heart. This is what I wanted Eau d'Italie Sienne l'Hiver to be: in the extrait,3 the pressed olive tincture is the star of the show, beautifully briny and silky rich. Preserved in olive and boozy white cognac oil, the pear note reads as waxy skin and translucent golden flesh, and mercifully not shampoo. Delicious.

CB I Hate Perfume Beast

This used to be limited to the Williamsburg store, and may no longer be available. That would be a pity, because this is a wonderfully surreal scent. When I was in NYC last year, Christopher Brosius and his staff explained how this fragrance came to be. It seems Mr. B went on one of his quixotic quests to exactly re-create the smell of Sunday roast beef dinner. Eventually, he nailed it, pan drippings, carrots, parsley and all... but then he had a big vat of it, having ordered the materials in wholesale quantities. So he added a fat dollop of civet-like animalic notes and the rich smell of oiled fur coats, and voilà! Like a deconstructivist chef, he had created art out of origins: focus in and it's all domestic comfort, but step back and you get living, panting animal.

Comme des Garçons Black

Recently, charring is a buzz technique in the culinary world. Burning is not just for meat any more, as chefs char fruits and vegetables to create a smoky, creamy pulp inside. Enter Comme des Garçons Black, a rare instance of accurate naming in scent noir: a big peppery blast of BBQ, with accents of tar, Dutch licorice, maple syrup and lambskin leather. Good fun, and the most interesting scent from the brand in ages.

Parfum d'Empire Ambre Russe

In Perfumes: The Guide, Luca Turin called Ambre Russe "the biggest, the most over-the-top, most nutritious amber in existence", a theoretical "cross between pipe tobacco and pain d'épices". (Theory no longer, perhaps: a number of avant garde restaurants are experimenting with edible smoke, part of a category called, sadly, "breathable foods".) I remember being disappointed by the lack of sumptuousness in Thierry Mugler Womanity, supposedly a fig-and-caviar perfume, from a brand known for bold gourmands. With its opening haze of vodka, and heart of sweet vanilla cream and salty coriander, Ambre Russe shows Womanity a thing or two in the luxe canapé department. Other tasty ambers include Kerosene Copper Skies (with honeycomb, clove and basil), Armani Privé Ambre Soie (with anisic rootbeer float) and Hermès L'Ambre des Merveilles (with citrus and salt).

Serge Lutens Arabie

There is an embarrassment of riches in the foody Lutens category, including the recent pastry fantasy Jeux de Peau, but I decided I must not neglect one of my favorites from the export line. With candied mandarin peel, dried figs, date, bay leaf, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, clove, tobacco, myrrh and various woods and resins, Arabie has a lot going on, rather like one of those historically re-created feasts by Heston Blumenthal. Some Lutens fans find it a bit much — my husband remarked you could probably embalm a mummy in it — but I appreciate the ancient strangeness of it. It reminds me of an early era Diptyque, like Eau Lente. If you aren't up to Mr. Blumenthal's level of culinary commitment, and Arabie makes you hungry, try this scrumptious-sounding recipe from Victoria at Bois de Jasmin. 

1. When Robin posted that Mmm included "burrata accord", some commenters expressed concern that this might smell like cheese. Let me tell you: it does. I do not find the incense very noticeable. Basically, you are wearing some tarragon pesto. It's intense and not particularly wearable, but the 3-D food effect is so compellingly weird that I end up much preferring Mmm to Fraaagola Saalaaata (salted strawberries) and CiocoSpesizissimo (basil chocolate liqueur), two previous Soliani perfumes frequently reviewed by foodies.

2. Le Calandre has earned three Michelin stars, just like elBulli, Roca's restaurant, The French Laundry and Roellinger's Maisons de Bricourt. I think I mentioned we were talking about the luxury end of the market?

3. I believe this is the only currently available concentration.

Note: top image shows ice creams from Rocambolesc, the gelateria of Jordi Roca.

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  1. Bejoux says:

    Great collection – they all sound amazing – must seek out Beast! The one I know best is Arabie – it’s like Christmas pudding and a glass of cognac on the side and never fails to make me feel warm and luxurious, Ambre Russe also glorious in winter.

    • Erin says:

      So true about Arabie – I think I listed it once before, in a winter post, and compared it to the best Christmas cake ever. Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, as the famed carol sings.

      I’m quite delighted that you’re interested in Beast! I hope CB hasn’t discontinued it or run out — it’s too cool.

  2. ringthing says:

    Thanks, Erin, for an enjoyable read! I have worked as a cook in many different settings all my life and have felt that a love of good food goes hand in hand with a love of good perfume. A generous perfumeista sent me some Slumberhouse Pear + Olive and a bottle immediately went on my wishlist. I didn’t expect to like it, either, but CaFleurbon gave it rave reviews so I was intrigued. It’s one of those things that you crave when you’re not wearing it, at least for me. And yes, wasn’t Womanity a disappointment! The salty caviar note is so interesting in the split second before it’s buried under an avalanche of sugar.

    • Erin says:

      Thank you for the kind comment. I am very glad to hear you’re also coveting the Pear + Olive. I completely agree with your craving remark. Perhaps it is because it’s such a unique scent, it fills a very certain physiological and psychological niche? Like wanting a pickle after you’ve fainted. (Or maybe that’s just me! I have low blood pressure.) As a cook, can you think of any other fragrances you really find evoke good food?

  3. pyramus says:

    The El Bulli movie is really fantastic, isn’t it? I wish I had been able to eat there, just to experience the sheer imaginativeness of it. Nothing to do with the sense of smell but if you are interested in the technicalities of food, you also ought to watch “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, instead of Adria’s wide-ranging imagination, the chef of the title has a laser focus and has spent literally his entire life perfecting a single narrow band of the food spectrum. It’s just amazing.

    A large proportion of Serge Lutens’ output could reasonably be called foody: Mandarin Mandarine (marmalade), Bois et Fruits (smoked fruit, of all things), Borneo 1834 (cocoa nibs), Douce Amere (anise), and Miel de Bois (honey), just for starters.

    • Robin says:

      Jiro Dreams of Sushi might be my favorite food movie ever.

      • Lavanya says:

        I absolutely LOVED Jiro dreams of Sushi too! I only saw half of the El Bulli movie but loved the details and the way it was shot. Unfortunately I didn’t end up finishing it because of a looming thesis defense. But this post was a great reminder to finish it. Thanks Erin!

        I really want to try Pear + Olive..It sounds ‘mouth wateringly’ good.

    • Erin says:

      Well, it sounds like I must see Jiro! It’s funny: I saw Cooking in Progress at a film festival and enjoyed the methodical, exacting detail, but several people walked out, muttering about the pace and “lack of plot”. Robin was telling me she started it at home, and her guys gave up early, too. It reminds me of a movie review clip I saw on tv with A.O. Scott, where he said it was hard to film people in deep thought. I’m always interested in watching creative process and/or mental discipline, but there’s probably a limited market for movies about, say, a lifetime perfecting suimono.

      • Lavanya says:

        I read this just after I commented above. Really, people walked out? I thought it was amazing the way they captured the process without resorting to any ‘spotlighty’ ‘plotty’ cliches..One might think it could be boring but it ends up being riveting..

        • Erin says:

          Well, I thought so, too. I guess I expected a documentary film festival audience to have different pacing needs than the general public, as well, but maybe you have to be interested in the specific topic. I hope the thesis defense went well! Thanks for also recommending “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – clearly it’s a must-see.

  4. FragrantWitch says:

    I keep hearing about Slumberhouse so I think I really need to order some samples! Pear can smell wonderful in its non-shampoo iteration so my curiosity is definitely piqued.

    I love Kerosene’s ‘Copper Skies’ as well, it is really wonderful and evocative. ‘Whips and Roses’ from the same line is beautiful and not at all , on me at least, the aggressive scent the name suggests.

    Your mention of Ambre Russe reminds me its time to order another decant for the cold weather- thanks!

    • Erin says:

      You know, I was trying to think of another pear perfume I liked and could only come up with JAR Bolt of Lightning, which is 600 euro or something – makes Pear + Olive samples seem like a real bargain! What are your pear favorites?

      Whips & Roses is really lovely, if not exactly me, and I love R’oud Elements, although it gets soft rather quickly. Copper Skies is probably still my favorite from the Kerosene brand, but the new Pretty Machine is beautiful, too. Have you tried it?

  5. Merlin says:

    Food type scents were my perfume entry-point; though like many others I liked sweet gourmands and perhaps fruity florals, with the emphasis on fruity!

    I think (at least the simpler) foodie fragrances are more accessible as one is used to taking such scents into ones body. I remember feeling a resistance to non-food scents, like it was somehow synthetic or poisonous to be taking such fumes into me.

    • Erin says:

      I do think many people start with gourmets now, rather than “poisonous” aldehydes or big white florals, and probably for the reasons you cite. Interesting in this context that Jordi Roca was never able to make a successful dessert out of Chanel No. 5!

    • kindcrow says:

      Very perceptive, Merlin!

  6. sweetgrass says:

    I have a small decant of Pear + Olive that I need to revisit. When I tried it out, my skin seemed to amp up the sweetness, and I didn’t really pick up the olive as much as I would’ve liked. But at least the pear isn’t shampoo-ish like it so often is.

    I also need to revisit Arabie. I sprayed on a little in a shop, and I ended up feeling uncomfortable in it because every time I got a whiff I felt like I had spilled Indian food on myself. Maybe another attempt will be different.

    I need to try Ambre Russe. It sounds like something I would like for winter. And the CBIHP sounds really interesting too. There is one of his scents that I found utterly fascinating when I smelled it. It was called November, and it smelled like wet earth and spices, as if you were standing outside on a cold, wet day, and someone’s making pumpkin pie in the house.

    • Erin says:

      Did you try the EdP of Pear + Olive? I understand that the lighter concentration was much sweeter, fruitier, riper than the extrait — for better or worse. Several reviewers seemed to prefer the EdP, but I never got to try it, and in any case, I really like the olive note. so I’m likely better off with the parfum anyway.

      I’ve tried CB IHP November and do like it a lot. A lot of people really loved Etat Libre d’Orange Like This for the pumpkin note, and I need to give it another try, but on initial sampling I found it a bit flat. Different kind of scent, but I liked November better.

      • sweetgrass says:

        You know what.. that’s a good question. I’m not sure what concentration of the Pear + Olive I have. The little decant I have was given to me, and the person I got it from didn’t say. I’m going to guess I have the EDP, from your description. I should give the extrait a try.

  7. Rappleyea says:

    This was fun! I keep hearing such great things about Pear & Olive – I think you’ve tipped me over the edge! (Not so much the Beast and Mmm.)

    My foodie choice (other than the obvious Spiritueuse Double Vanille, which makes me want to chew my arm off) would be the two chocolates that I discovered last winter: Cartier’s L’Heure Defendue and SSS’s Cocoa/Sandalwood from her naturals line.

    • Erin says:

      Definitely try the Pear + Olive if you get a chance. Norne and Ore are really worth the sample price, too, and I think you might particularly like the Ore as a fan of Defendue. I need to give Sova and Jeke another shot – they were both interesting, and I thought from the notes that Sova would be my favorite, but I got distracted by the other three.

      I think CB recognized that Beast had limited commercial potential, which is why we kept in as a in-store special. I thought it stood on its own as a scent, but the story of how it came to be is definitely a good one! Must try the SSS…

  8. Omega says:

    P&O dried down to like Burberry Brit on me..made my stomach turn. The opening was nice, however. Freshly sliced, winter pear with coconut-y notes. Then it just went all Burberry. Sad. Haven’t tried any of the other ones mentioned.

    Does Hypnotic Poison Elixir qualify for foodie? Cause I looooove it. Oh and I like Chocolovers:D.

  9. Erin says:

    My word, Brit!! That really surprises me, although I guess it’s pear, too, right? Did you try the Slumberhouse in EdP? I might try the extrait, if so – I found it very linear, and it’s apparently less heavy on the pear. I hated Brit, although Brit Red (the unrelated black currant-and-gingerbread flanker) is a guilty pleasure of mine.

    And Hypnotic Poison in any concentration (as long as it’s “vintage”, hear they messed with it recently) is definitely foodie material. And I liked Chocolovers, too!

    • Omega says:

      I am not sure what concentration it was..I bought a sample off their site when P&O just came out. Ya, I think it was the pear or something. Idk. Maybe pear scents just don’t dry down on me well. Idk. That Burberry Brit nausea I also experience with Dior Addict. Same deal. Stomach turns. The worst Brit was that limited edition..New Year..it was like bad potpourri on me, also made my stomach turn.

      I was so excited when I first smelled P&O..so good…until the yucky dry down, oh well! Did they mess with HP recently?? *gasp*!!!! Too bad..don’t change something that’s good, darn it!!!!

  10. hajusuuri says:

    Nice list!

    The foodiest in recent memory for me are the colognes from Jo Malone’s Sugar and Spice Collection.

    I enjoy watching Food Network shows, specially the cooking competitions. El Bulli and Juro Dreams of Sushi sound fabulous — need to check these out when I can!

    • Erin says:

      Like Robin, I was tickled by the Malone Bitter Orange & Chocolate. While I rather liked Blackberry & Bay, the little orange LE travel spray of Bitter Orange & Chocolate was the only JM I’ve been tempted to buy in many, many years. But I told a bunch of perfume friends with similar tastes to try it and they all came back, shaking their heads, thinking I’d basically gone crazy. Those foody scents by Christine Nagel always suck me in…

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