Making Scents of Things

They say the nose knows. It knows what you did last summer (does anyone else my age have nasal nostalgia for the reek of Coppertone?). It knows what you ate for breakfast (even vegetarians describe cravings for bacon). It knows why a whiffy armpit inhaled on public transport alarms, while the smell of a lover’s skin after you’ve made them all hot and sweaty couldn’t be sweeter.

I am what’s known as a Fumehead. I adore perfume. I think I’ve always been a fume freak, but that passion lay dormant for years, only to be reignited by the publication of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s hilarious and informative book, Perfumes: The Guide. (I own multiple copies in various formats, all well-thumbed.) On its publication I interviewed them (see links below) and they brought samples and we sniffed and I swooned and since then a chunk of my disposable income has been diverted to smelly things.

We did a book festival event in Wigtown not long after that and with the aid of a giant fan, managed to get everyone in the tent sampling scents. The lady in row 1 got a bit wet, but the look of delight a few minutes later on the face of the lady in the back row remains a happy memory of mine.

I describe some scent memories in the articles cited below, so won’t bang on about stuff you might easily read elsewhere — or not at all, if this kind of thing isn’t your kind of thing.

One of the smells I have loved since I was a diaper-wearing termagant is witch hazel. That’s it in the wild, at the start of this post. We’re more familiar with its liquid form, for use as an astringent, but it’s yet another fabulous health provider originally thought up by Mother Nature. Like aspirin.

We always had some in our bathroom cabinet when I was growing up, and I could be found sniffing it with all the frequency and zeal of a junkie inhaling glue. I blame this product entirely for my subsequent enthusiasm for gin, which smells quite similar to me. (If I wasn’t so lazy I’d find out whether witch hazel was related to juniper, since that would explain everything.) Surely one of life’s great pleasures is the tang of gin hitting your nostrils just as your ears detect the crackle of ice cubes as they land in liquid and fissure. [Can fissure be deployed as a verb? Remind me not to care, bartender.]

One of the scents I disliked as a kid was the pong off a bouquet of carnations. They were my mother’s favourite flower, so we occasionally had them in the house. Not that often though. They used to be expensive. Or we used to be poorer than I knew.  Anyway just try and find a flower shop (garage forecourt, supermarket) carnation that carries any smell at all, nowadays. It’s one of life’s great loses.

Yes, I did say that, for as is often the case with foods we find intolerable in our youth, with the body’s own ripening comes an appreciation of sensual complexity. I promise that if your perfume contains the peppery notes of a carnation, then you have a fan in me. Carnation, as it happens, is a flower that cannot be extracted by perfumers, and has to be recreated in the laboratory one molecule at a time. Such is their artistry that this is completely achievable. (Oh look, here’s a fellow wordpress blogger’s take on Carnations, do have a read:

You don’t need a perfume cabinet the size of mine (more on that another time) to give your nose a workout and your senses a treat. Slice open a grapefruit (pink, preferably). Squeeze a lime. Train yourself to inhale deeply on that first day of spring, when the thawing planet releases the scent of emerging life. (Less wonderful is the smell of earthworms on wet pavement. Dance past them and try not to breathe.)

Don’t just smell the blooms in your garden, take a whiff of the leaves and stems as well, for they have much to offer. (Anyone who grows tomatoes knows how strong that smell is!)

And here’s one last thing you can try at home… I met a woman who became a dear friend, but one of her initiation rituals was that she had to smell you. Yes, just like dogs, but thankfully (for her) she didn’t need to smell my butt. In fact, she believes that everyone’s true scent lies hidden in a spot on their neck just behind the ear. She’d pull you in without warning, inhale deeply, then make an appreciative — and slightly dirty — noise of contentment. Try that sometime with your nearest and dearest, and let me know how it goes.

PS 1: How do I keep from going broke, especially now that I am not in full time employment? Thank goodness for, a US-based company that sells samples at very reasonable rates and ships to the UK without any fuss. Sampling is a great way to avoid costly mistakes while satisfying one’s curiosity for even the most esoteric brands. Because believe me, the stuff they sell in department stores isn’t the half of it. (Unless you’re shopping at Liberty’s in London. That’s definitely the half of it, and a delicious half.)

PS 2: Here, if the links still work (they should), are some of the stories I’ve published about perfume and the people who love it. The first link to Scents and Sensibility is my description of Denyse Beaulieu’s course. The next one, at the bottom, is my interview with Luca Turin/Tania Sanchez. I wasn’t in charge of headlines given to my stuff, though as they were published in different years, even I might not have caught the repetition.

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