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Aftelier Ancient Resins, Oud Luban, and Leonard Cohen

December 5, 2016

“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”

 

Leonard Cohen was following me around Bosnia. Or rather, his voice was. My Dad was a customs officer and had to drive to the most remote border crossing points, and me, being a penniless student with little to do on my holidays, would fly out to Bosnia to spend to join him on road trips up and down the war-ravaged country.

 

This was the third time we’d stopped, the third bleak, deserted café in the wasteland of Bosnia after the war. Three different towns, three different ethnicities, three different currencies….and the only unifying factor was bloody Leonard Cohen.

 

I say “bloody Leonard Cohen” in a fond-but-exasperated way. My father, known in our family as a “Cohen pusher”, would play his records over and over again to anyone who will listen. Holidays to France, with four kids captive in the back seat of our Renault 12, were pure torture.

 

In revenge, my brothers and I would try to taunt him by staging elaborate suicide scenes, such as lying in wait in the bathroom with a razor poised at the wrist, or play dead on the couch with pills (Smarties) strewn around our lifeless bodies, croaking “We’re doing a Leonard, Dad”.

 

Never got a rise out of him.

 

Anyway, the fact that Cohen’s music was playing in each of three cafes or restaurants we stopped at that day made my father very happy indeed. And in a way, it was fitting, because in this country, as broken and divided as it was, there was always more to unite them than divide them. The coffee was the same, even though they called it by different names. They all ate those sticky, syrupy cakes made so popular by the Turks during their, um, residence in the country. And they all seemed to really like Leonard Cohen. They might have played First We Take Manhattan at the Dayton peace talks and wrapped the whole thing up quicker.

 

Cohen himself was a pretty Zen guy. I like to think the universe paid him back by giving him plenty of women, acclaim, and mass turnouts at the comeback concerts he forced to do when his manager stole all his money.

 

Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops.

 

I’m not sure it makes much sense to analyze this beautiful oil too much – just let it wash over you in a peaceful wave, just like Cohen’s music – because it is, at heart, just a collection of resinous basenotes. And yet, the total effect is uplifting in a way that belies the simplicity of the blend.

 

Balm of Gilead is a note that jumps out at me, though, for its unusual biblical associations. Looking it up, it seems that the name refers (in religious history) to a balsam that was used as a spiritual balm to weary souls in Talmudic, Old Testament, and Muslim/Arabic history. Sources differ over what species of tree actually produced this balsam, although it seems to be either from mastic (green, herbal-smelling), pine, or terebinth /turpentine trees.

 

Although the opening notes of the oil are indeed very pine-like, I assume that this comes from the terpenes naturally present in the frankincense, because Mandy After clarifies that the Balm of Gilead note in Ancient Resins comes from poplar buds, from the Populus species of tree. These trees produce a nicely balmy scent on the white undersides of their leaves, and are used to produce the modern-day versions of the Balm of Gilead – basically, a wound- and spirit-healing balm.

 

And Ancient Resins is healing. It is healing and calming and restorative. I can see why Leonard Cohen reportedly wore this every day of his life. I was, coincidentally, wearing Ancient Resins in my hair when I heard that he had passed away. I had been using it almost every day since I received a generous sample of it, because the American elections had just taken place and I was feeling stressed out. Ancient Resins seems to have the power to right everywhere that is wrong in the world, just like Cohen’s music seemed to be doing in Bosnia that day. A knitting together of things that have been fractured.

 

I like to think that when he died, Leonard Cohen was laid naked in a white shroud, anointed from head to toe in Ancient Resins, and then burned on a pyre that floats off down the Ganges. But recently, I learned that Cohen loved more than one of Mandy Aftel’s creations. In fact, Mandy Aftel told me that Cohen wouldn’t go out without a drop of her Oud Luban on his person.

 

Learning that made me reassess my imagining of Leonard Cohen as a gloomy, depressive poet, anointed with the biblical-smelling Ancient Resins. Because Oud Luban is an oud fragrance that takes what Luca Turin mentioned as an “inherent brown study grimness” characteristic of the material and shoots it through with a light-strobing blood orange note that makes it feel like liquid late-afternoon sunshine.

 

Superior, Hojari-grade frankincense from the Dhofar desert in Oman adds a bright, terpenic freshness that sidles up to the citrus and supports it – think crushed pine needles, with their juicy, lemony, green scent on your fingers after you touch them. And all this against a very smoky, leathery oud oil that is darkness personified. A superb, natural-smelling, joyful balancing of dark and light, Oud Luban displays a sort of switching-on-of-the-Christmas-lights effect. I don’t think I have ever smelled a perfume that works oud quite like this. The smoky, growly undertones of real oud are there alright – no mistaking this for a synthetic variant – but its usual tendency to spread its gravel-voiced gloominess over everything has been reined in by the bright, citrusy resin elements. I think of it as humorous and hopeful.

 

And maybe this humorous, fey thing is a truer portrait of Leonard Cohen than my historic, mental imagining of his character. My dad recently told me a story he had read somewhere, of Leonard Cohen at a party. He just sat down on his own, picked up a guitar and started to strum, quietly humming the words to one of his famous songs. Bit by bit, women, young and old, began to kneel down at either side of him, listening intently. One of his friends whispered to him, Leonard, did you notice that you’re surrounded by women. Without looking up from his guitar and strumming away, he whispered back, “Works every time”.

Green Floral Hay Herbal Honey Scent Memory Tobacco Tonka Vanilla

Slumberhouse Sova

October 7, 2015

For those of you who don’t know what Slumberhouse Sova smells like, it smells like this: boozy hops, pipe tobacco, sweet green resins, piles of damp hay laid out to dry in the sun, broom, honey smeared over everything, licorice,  vanilla, amber, dirt, cocoa butter, beeswax, and the pure, warm animal growl of castoreum. It smells like a rural fantasy of a childhood spent rolling around in a hayfield, lazy bees humming in the background, backlit against a haze of smoke and sugar.

What I like about Sova is that Josh Lobb seems to have set out to capture the entirety of a farm during baling season, complete with the not-so-picturesque parts. As anyone who has grown up doing farm work will know, there are a host of smells involved, and not all of them pleasant. I have baled hay – back-breaking work, by the way, with or without a machine. I have mucked out horse stables. I have even stuck my hands deep within the nether regions of sheep to pull a lamb out. Nowhere are you more intensely aware of the circle of life than on a farm.

The opening, which I have come to understand as typical for a Slumberhouse, is deeply tarry, black, and sticky. But upfront, I get a load of hay absolute mixed in with the tar, so there is an immediate sense of sunshine piercing through the upper notes. It smells simultaneously of freshly-poured asphalt, hay, trampled grass, rubber tires, something green and resiny, waxy and honeyed.

Someone I know mentioned he saw a similarity with Dior’s Eau Noire, and I have to say that I agree, to a certain extent.  Both have an almost shockingly tarry, dense, aromatic note, like the burning smell you get when you spill coffee or sugar on a boiling hot stove. It is almost too roasted, too intense, too “black” a smell. But Sova is more immediately sweet, a deep, honeyed stickiness coming from, I think, tonka beans or the vanilla.

The hot asphalt smell reminds me of nothing so much as those pools of poured tar on holes in the road that would always soften and almost liquefy somewhat in the heat of summer. In Ireland, growing up, there was maybe one day in the year that was ever hot enough to make the road tar all gooey like that, but that would be the smell that defined the whole summer for me, somehow – kind of like a child only ever remembers summers being sunny when he or she was a child. It also recalls the smell of heated tires and running tractors, farm implements lying around on a hot day – quasi-industrial smells mingling with the sweet smell of hay that has been cut and is now drying out in the fields. Also, I get a raft of sweet, grassy notes that are fresher than the hay note, which I presume are the clover and broom notes.

Reversing what I’ve experienced with Slumberhouse perfumes, Sova does not grow drier and more sparse, but indeed, darker, more syrupy, and somehow more “stewed” in texture. It is a very wet hay type of smell, which to my nose, is incredibly pleasing and sensual. The smell is almost like the gingerbread, dry, fruity, wet-dry smell of tobacco leaves laid out to dry in the sunshine. It also picks up a dried fruits feel, not a million miles away from the intense fruitcake feel of a Serge Lutens, specifically something like Arabie.

As the scent progresses, the tar notes, the heated asphalt and running farm vehicles smell –all shift to the back and let the stewed hay and dried fruits accord take center stage. Towards the last stages of Sova, I sense the tar notes get drier, until they manifest more as a smoke note, adding to the fierce pleasure I get from smelling this. On repeated wearings, I pick up even more smoke in the background, almost ash-like, and a sweet type of burning incense smell. The castoreum and vanilla in the base gives it this wonderfully warm and dirty feel, somewhat reminiscent of the deep warmth of Chypre Palatin – except in Sova, it is the warm dirtiness of a haybarn, not the inside of a musty castle.

Something about hay and grass notes bring me straight back to summer days, to my youth, to the simple pleasures of hard physical work, and the rewards of sensory delights of rolling around in cut hay. It seems that Josh Lobb intended for this fragrance to be experienced as a sort of nostalgic, rural childhood fantasy scent, because the re-launch of Sova on the Slumberhouse website is accompanied by this delightful little quote from Montague, which accurately sums up its nostalgic effect: “All the glorious trials of youth dear boy. When I was a lad I’d rocket off on my tandem with Wrigglesworth and ride and ride. Find some old barn and fall asleep with the sweet perfume of hay on our lips.”

Sova is a pure parfum and made from hellishly expensive ingredients, some of which apparently cost over $1,000 per ounce, such as fossilized amber, pure broom, sweet clover, and Tahitian Vanilla. I’m told that the reason Sova was discontinued originally was due to the expense and difficulty of getting hold of all of the expensive materials needed to make it. The further I get in this hobby of mine, the more I want to pare back to just a few bottles that are worth owning, no matter how expensive, rather than a whole cupboard full of lesser scents. Sova is one of those scents worth ten of what I already have.

Review Scent Memory Tobacco

Sonoma Scent Studio Tabac Aurea

October 7, 2015

What I love about Sonoma Scent Studio Tabac Aurea is that the perfumer – Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio – has had the confidence to showcase all the wonderful complexities of the material itself without clogging it up with other notes. And tobacco is one lily that doesn’t need to be gilded. The textures of the tobacco leaf range from leathery to wet mulch, and the notes can comprise dried fruits, leather, wood, clove, cinnamon, apples, plums, paper, and gingerbread. Tabac Aurea showcases all of these different textures and notes, and the total effect is as if the perfumer held a dried tobacco leaf up against the sunlight, slowly turned it around in her hands, and captured each of its changing colors and smells in one small bottle.

Tobacco is a deeply evocative smell for me. I lived for 16 years in the Balkans, where there is a century’s long tradition of smallholders growing tobacco and curing it in the sun before selling it to the local tobacco company, NDKP. The collapse of Yugoslavia in the nineties, coupled with NATO sanctions and the rise of cigarette smuggling meant that local farmers switched to other crops. But now, farmers are once again growing tobacco in Montenegro. They grow a kind called Oriental Tobacco, a small-leaved, hardy type of tobacco that is cured in the hot Balkan sun for up to a month. Intensely aromatic, the smell of the leaves curing in the sun spills out from the fields and into the air around you. There is one such field near a shopping center, and when I walked by there, I loved watching people get hit with the aroma – inevitably they stop, inhale deeply, and stagger away as if high.

Tabac Aurea captures this smell exactly. The smell of tobacco leaves curing in the sunshine is extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted. At first, it smells like a big, thick handful of shredded, wet tobacco leaves that have been steeped in booze of some sort. The effect is rich, but also tannic enough to suck the moisture out of your mouth. The confident spicing, along with a slight dried fruits and candied peel tone, creates an effect that is close to the taste of those medieval types of sweets and cakes, such as panforte, parkin, or gingerbread. These medieval treats would have had a touch of dry honey to them, otherwise, no sugar would have been used.

Throughout the day – and this is a serious, all-day fragrance – you begin to notice the tobacco smell dries out considerably, taking on a leathery and slightly grungy tone that I attribute to the labdanum resin that Laurie has used to round the fragrance out. However, the overall richness of the fragrance never abates – this is one thick, rich smell that stays dense and heavy all the way to the end. This makes it a fragrance one must commit to 100% before putting it on for the day, but if you love the smell of tobacco, then this one is a must. I put it on and it keeps me warm as I go off out into the autumnal sunshine to kick some leaves around.

Incense Scent Memory Smoke Spice

Comme des Garcons Black

September 18, 2015

I left Ireland for Bosnia when I was 22, without so much as a backwards glance. Over the following 16 years when people asked me if I missed home, I would always be startled and say yes – automatically – but it wasn’t quite true. I just never thought of home as being anywhere other than wherever I was right then.

I never realized that the gene for “home” was carried deep within my DNA until one dark night when I stepped out of a snow-stalled car into the deserted crossroads of a tiny village in Bosnia and was hit in the solar plexus by a waft of smoke from a coal fire.

Not just one – dozens of coal fires. All sending plumes of sweet-smelling smoke into the black, starless sky. In my mind’s eye, I could see walls covered with centuries of soot, men huddling round the heart smoking cigarettes, and the fingers of women putting more coal on the fire.

My mother’s fingers, black with soot. In that moment, every cell in my body ached to be back home, watching the familiar sight of her white fingers gingerly placing another coal on the flames, egged on by her always-cold children. Was she sitting beside her fire now, thinking of her first child, wondering if she was cold?

Comme des Garcons Black is the smell of home to me. It smells of coal dust, sweet woodsmoke, frankincense, dry cedar logs, licorice, and finally, in its dying moments, a salt-encrusted leather belt. Not of these things directly but of these things burned on a fire and sent out into the crisp, cold air of a Northern night sky as a single curl of smoke. Every time I spray it on, I experience a joy like that of launching into a sudden run.

If I were being picky, I’d say that the projection and longevity and projection of Black leave much to be desired. But I’m content with this in a quasi eau de cologne format. I’d be afraid that any attempt to make Black stronger would compress all the air out of its airy weightlessness. I like that Black takes the form of coal dust mites, shifting as you move; acting as your own personal force field.

I’ve long been looking for a smoky, woodsy birch tar fragrance that hits this exact spot – the coal-fire-in-Bosnia spot. I love Le Labo Patchouli 24 for coming close, but the vanilla syrup makes me pause, and Bois d’Ascese is far too dense and acrid. Memoir Man does smoky, charred woods and Frankincense beautifully, but it has a somber, sulky feel that might prove difficult. Black, to me, is what you might get if you were to put all these perfumes through a Photoshop filter and apply a filter to reduce the density by 70%. Black does indeed smell truly “black” but it’s more a sheer wash of color rather than a thick daub of oil.

I love it. It’s the first Comme des Garcons perfume for which I’ve been able to locate a heartbeat. I admire their modernist approach but something in their stripped-down aesthetic usually leaves me cold. Here there’s both an emotional core and a minimalism that’s entirely in keeping with the house signature. Maybe the heart bit is all me, but I do feel there’s something warm and human about Black.

Gourmand Iris Musk Review Scent Memory Woods

L’Artisan Parfumeur Bois Farine

June 30, 2015

I thought I had the measure of this the minute I put it on. Aha, I said to myself, ok, Bois Farine, I understand you completely. You are less a perfume than the collected smells of a health food store: crushed peanut shells, sawdust, wood shavings, bags of whole-wheat flour, quinoa, big jars of tahini, and chunks of halva lined up in the cooler section. Dust, oil, flour. It’s all there.An olfactory joke, sure, but a wry, knowing one.

Clever.

But wait. The journey isn’t over yet. We may have started in the health food store, but the scenery is whizzing past us now, to primary school and the delicious smells of the art supply closet. I can smell the cheap almond glue smell of heliotropin, and it reminds me both of salty playdough, warm vanilla, and the standard-issue, non-toxic glue they let kids use.

There is finally a dry, warm vanilla – dusty, like the smell of realms of paper in the closet. I smell the blue-white milk, tepid and fatty, already put out in cups lined up behind the teacher’s desk, ready for our snack time, collecting dust as the school room clock’s long hand inches inexorably slowly towards 11am and freedom.

I see now why so many people find this a comforting scent. It starts out as an olfactory joke and ends up as a fucking time machine.

It’s like watching Cinema Paradiso and holding out until the last scene where they play all the cut reels and then ending up howling on the floor. Bois Farine, you are such an asshole.

Resins Review Scent Memory Spicy Floral Summer Woods

Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain

June 29, 2015

Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain is one of the reasons I am glad I don’t have access to many new perfumes where I live. It was greeted with such dismissal in the blogosphere – a collective sneer or a collective yawn depending on which blog you read – that it might well have colored my judgment had I been able to test it there and then. Instead, as always, I came to this perfume several years after it was released and with absolutely no expectations one way or another.

I first smelled it in a department store in Dublin in August 2013, heavily pregnant and making a mad dash around the shops to collect “essentials” before my two-year-old son awoke from his nap. We had left him in the car with his grandmother, whom I absolutely insist volunteered for the job (no matter what she says). It was my first real crack at a well-stocked perfume department in years, because, as I think I’ve mentioned, I live in Montenegro, which is about ten thousand kilometers away from the nearest niche perfumery.

Anyway, on that occasion, I walked out with Tam Dao, purely because that’s what I’d walked in to get and I’m a stubborn cow. I had never smelled Tam Dao before, but all the reviews mentioned a calming wood scent, and I was in desperate need of some calm. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with it, but I bought it anyway. But I also sprayed some 34 Boulevard St. Germain on a silky cardigan I was wearing. I thought it was sharp and woody, almost like a men’s aromatic fougere, and I filed it away under the mental category “for men only”.

Hours later, I caught a whiff of the most gorgeous and entrancing aroma of rose, grapefruit, blackcurrants, green leaves, woods, and cinnamon wafting up from my cardigan. As a total smell, it beat the relatively plain and linear Tam Dao right out of the water with a big ole stick. I wore the cardigan for the next few days, to keep enjoying the scent. It was our last night in Ireland before returning to Montenegro, so I knew I had missed my chance to get it.

Over a year later, when I had discovered that the Internet could be used for far more than reading The Guardian (and the Daily Mail, for, you know, balance), I ordered a small decant of 34 Boulevard St. Germain. I had not been able to wipe it from my mind, even though I knew I might feel differently about it, after all that time. No need to worry – I still loved it. I soaked myself with my small decant, again and again, day in and day out, until it was all gone and I knew that I needed a full bottle of it.

I’m glad it happened this way, because I think sometimes the rush to analyze something new and place it in the wider context of a house’s releases or the forward momentum of perfumery in general can obscure a very basic question: does the perfume smell good? Does it please us? Does a perfume always have to be moving the genre forward?

For me, a perfume doesn’t have to necessarily say something new or revolutionary. It’s enough if it’s beautiful. And 34 Boulevard Saint Germain sure is beautiful.

The complaint at the time, among critics, was that, with 34 Boulevard, Diptyque were basically doing a rehash of all their early perfumes rather than something new, and that as a house, it was somehow failing to live up to the artistic boldness of their earlier releases. Well, I have either owned or tried most of their early releases, and I personally find 34 Boulevard St. Germain is actually far more complex and accomplished than most of them.

Maybe it’s because this perfume is abstract, rather than an essay on just one or two notes together, like many of Diptyque’s most famous perfumes. To my taste, early favorites were either too linear (Tam Dao), watery/pungent (Do Son), or screechy (L’Ombre Dans L’Eau). Far from the feeling of breaking through to a star-lit sky as promised by Luca Turin in The Guide, Eau Lente choked me with cinnamon sticks. I got the impression that most of them would work better as room sprays than as personal perfumes. They were bold and natural-smelling, true – but personally, I found them too crafty, unsubtle, and not sophisticated enough.

34 Boulevard smells better to me, because it feels like a more fully-fleshed out perfume than its predecessors, and at the same time does not lose sight of the house signature, which is a sort of a very natural, almost botanical approach to perfume. Like an old apothecary selling all manner of dried herbs, flowers, and spices to cure what ails you. But this is apothecary style a la Parisian chic.

The idea behind the perfume was simple but genius: create a perfume that recreated the odors seeping out of the wood panels in the Diptyque boutique on 34 Boulevard St. Germain in Paris – a sort of mélange of the scents from the various perfumes and candles in the store.

By all rights, it should have been a hot mess. But despite being made up of bits of other Diptyque perfumes, it turns out to have a lively, definite personality all of its own. The top notes are a clever re-working of the best bits of L’Ombre Dans L’Eau – the tart berries and vivid, snapped-stem greens of the opening (without the lurid raspberry rose jam), and the milky green fig leaf of the luscious Philosykos. Quickly joined by a faintly urinous grapefruit and soft pink rose, the fig leaf, blackcurrants, and green notes seem to glow like rubies against a backdrop of woods and resins. The top notes and early heart have this energizing sourness to them that really quenches my thirst for something zesty and alive-feeling on a warm spring day.

The heart is rose and grapefruit, insistently spiced with either clove or cinnamon (hello Eau Lente!). Thankfully, unlike Eau Lente, it doesn’t make you think of Red Hots. There is even a faint, watery tuberose note in the heart that may be a reference to Do Son. The base is woods and resins – the wonderfully natural Diptyque cedar, and an almost creamy, lavender-inflected oppoponax.

And oh, that cedar. Only Diptyque and Serge Lutens do cedar this well. I mean that it smells like fresh, sappy wood, and is utterly free of the insistent radiance of Iso E Super or Norlimbanol. Because the woods don’t have their life not extended by synthetic boosters, the longevity on 34 is average at best. Never mind – we can’t have it all, can we?

I should mention that 34 Boulevard St. Germain doesn’t move me, particularly. But I find it so pleasing to wear that I can’t begrudge it a spot in my wardrobe. Unlike other perfumes that cause a lump in my throat when I wear them (Une Fleur de Cassie, Lyric Woman) or distract me with their bombastic sexiness (Red Aoud) or make me lose hours me wondering how it is made (Jubilation XXV), I get the feeling that I will wear the hell out of 34 Boulevard St. Germain instead of letting it sit, gathering dust in my perfume cabinet. It’s a great little everyday performer that I don’t have to think too much about. I know that I’ll smell great wearing it, and that’s all that matters.

Scent Memory The Discard Pile White Floral

Acqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile

June 29, 2015

Acqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile follows the same pattern set down for Iris Nobile, which is to say: citrus + white flowers + light musk/woods base. Instead of iris, we have magnolia, which in real life smells like bright lemon notes, mixed with sweet whipping cream. In the Balkans, where I live, every yard has one single magnolia tree, planted there as a sign of welcome. Or at least to say “We will pause before taking out the shotgun.”

Magnolia Nobile dials up the citrus notes of the flower, and so the opening positively fizzes with snappy lemon and sweet orange peel. I like the opening a lot – the cream of the magnolia petals needs to be cut somehow, and this does the job. In fact, I wish the uplifting freshness could hang around a little longer. I’m not so keen on the creamy aspect of the flower that forms the heart.

To me, magnolia always smells a little too sweet and soapy. Unfortunately, in this particular example, it reminds me of an Impulse body spray I used when I was 19. Or a hand-soap, or a shampoo – I wish I could recall exactly. Either way, the smell association is there. Magnolia Nobile ends up smelling – to me – like a banal soap or shower gel or body spray that I used to buy in Marks and Spencers on Fridays with the money from my student grant that I hadn’t spent on booze and cigarettes. Boring and juvenile, therefore, to a nose that is at least two decades past that awkward stage.

Leather Review Scent Memory

Chanel Cuir de Russie

June 25, 2015

I grew up riding horses. Chanel Cuir de Russie is the archetypal Proustian Madeleine that hurtles me back through the corridors of time to the simple pleasure of resting my face against the neck of a sweaty horse. It is THE classic floral leather. We grew up in a family with lots of kids and very little money, so I begged, borrowed, or stole horses to ride on whenever I could. I did hard labor on a farm in exchange for rides on a fat, bad-tempered pony, and when I outgrew him, my dad drove me to the nearest racing stables and volunteered my services.

Now, looking back, it might not have been the safest or wisest of things to glibly offer your thirteen-year-old daughter to a working racehorse stables in Ireland. Those places are rough and the horses are dangerous. I would sit precariously perched, knees up near my ears, on over a thousand pounds of fast moving horseflesh as they galloped 35 miles per hour around a muddy track or down the beach…..looking back, it makes me shudder. But then again, my dad taught all four of us kids to swim by picking us up and throwing us into the Irish Sea and yelling “Now SWIM, you little feckers!” so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Anyway, there was this wonderful, quiet moment every morning that I would cherish – after racing the horses on the beach, we would take their saddles off, throw the reins over their heads and lead them into the sea to cool their legs down. There, I would lean in and rest my face against the flank of the horse, dark and wet with sweat. Often, the sweat would lie in creamy rings looping around the flesh where the English saddle had been, so your nose would be taking in the smell of leather and sweat at once. I loved that moment, and now I wish I could get that simple sort of peace again – the sort of exhausted peace that exists between two animals who have taken exercise together. At home, I would often have no time to get ready for school, so I would just wash my arms, neck and face with Imperial Leather soap, and head off to school.

Cuir de Russie smells like me and this moment in time – horsey, vaguely dirty/sweaty in a clean sort of way, creamy soap, warm horse flank, and the underside of English leather saddles freshly lifted off a horse who has run five kilometres up and down a beach in County Wexford, Ireland. No more, no less. I can’t identify or dissect any of the notes in this beyond the soapy aldehydes and the soft, vaguely floral leather, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how you go about reconstructing a horse in such 3D glory using the simple list of notes I see for it. In fact, I would rather remain in ignorance for fear of breaking the power it has to conjure up that memory, just like I imagine Proust didn’t bother asking his housemaid what type of butter and what type of flour went into making his Madeleine. I am simply glad that this exists in the world.

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