Thursday, 10 April 2014

Anything but bland: Neil Chapman's in-person 'podcast' on vanilla scents for Perfume Lovers London (27.3.14)

Atelier Cologne Vanille Insensée on the right, looking barely tetchy from this angle
It's a long time since I last made it down to London for a Perfume Lovers London event, but this particular one held an irresistible lure - a presentation on fragrances showcasing my hands-down favourite perfumery note of vanilla.  The talk was given by the consummately articulate Neil Chapman, whom I keep wanting to call Neil Gaiman for some reason, even though manga comics might be the only possibly crossover. The correct Neil is a Japan-based perfumista who recently won a Jasmine award for his feature on 'Perfume Haters' in Odou magazine, while Neil's blog, The Black Narcissus, delights readers with his quiveringly beautiful perfume reviews and delicately drawn descriptions of local flora and mores.  (I never thought I'd ever have cause to put those two words in the same sentence.)  In person he is quirky and quick-witted, with a paradoxically languid yet rapid style of speaking.  He is also taller, with a more commanding presence than I expected from his avatar.

Thomas, who joined us for the meal part

Before the event, a group of us foregathered at a nearby restaurant, which I think was 'modern Indian', a concept almost unknown to me in The Midlands, with its vast swathes of flock-wallpapered Balti houses.  I confided in Birgit that I could have eaten 'a scabby donkey', a phrase for which it appears that Austrians mercifully have no equivalent.  I demolished some kind of chicken curry, and afterwards applied to Birgit for a palate-cleansing mint, confident from her recent handbag contents post that she would have ample supplies of Tic Tacs to pass around.  Not so! Birgit had run out of mints!  Which just goes to show that you shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Tara and Lady Jane Grey

On to the talk proper, at which point I would commend Tara's recent post over on Olfactoria's Travels to you as well, as she is noted for her comprehensive reporting.  I expect there will be a fair amount of crossover between my account and hers, but two people armed with small notebooks and sitting feet apart may still record slightly different details about the same event.  (NB A certain amount of orthographic liberty has been taken with sub-headings.)

Neil's formative fumie years

Neil kicked off his presentation by explaining how he was drawn into the world of fragrance at a young age. In case there are still charges outstanding, I shall draw a veil over an early rose-thieving incident and cut straight to the random selection of items in which the young Neil detected vanilla: Sure deodorant, Lypsyl lip salve and Tic Tacs.  Aha - clearly I was asking the wrong person for mints!  He went on to experience a vanilla pod-in-pudding epiphany in his early teens, and by 17 he was wearing Calvin Klein Obsession Men and was generally 'obsessed' with body products from that line.

Another turning point in Neil's perfume j***ney was his encounter with Shalimar (the potential androgyny of which was amply demonstrated by his friend Peter at university). He also developed a liking for Kenzo Jungle L'Eléphant, undeterred by its sickly sweet character and (to my nose) general weirdness. He even gave it a nickname of 'Nellie the Elephant', and readily admitted to a penchant for 'sick bag vanillas'. If this revelation made anyone in the audience a little apprehensive about the selection of scents to come, they hid it well.

Farmacia SS Annunziata dal 1561 ~ Vaniglia del Madagascar (Granula vanilla)

You really have to be a dedicated lover of perfume to pursue a scent that frankly involves such a lot of careful typing.  I initially transposed my 'z' and 'c' for one, and completely forgot the SS, which strangely  has nothing to do with steamships, but there you go.  I just found one of those acronym lists and am leaning towards the Italian for 'His Holiness' maybe ('Sua Santità) , as this perfume house has monastic roots. On balance, pobably not 'Steven Spielberg', 'safe sex' or the 'Scoville Scale' of hotness for chilli - though I am intrigued to learn there is one.


But I digress...Neil said this scent reminded him of Japanese hot springs on account of its mineral quality and fresh atmosphere.  The vanilla didn't make an instant impact, but crept up in a 'stealthy' way as the scent unfolded on skin.  Neil asserted that he could wear Vaniglia del Madagascar 'surreptitiously' even at its parfum strength, and spoke wistfully of the halo of scent it leaves even the next morning. More on the need to wear perfume 'surreptitiously' as a general M.O. in Japan later...  An audience member piped up and likened this one to 'sugared almonds'.  I said it had a 'granular' quality, adding 'granular gravitas' - pretentious, moi? ;)


Agonist ~ Vanilla Marble ('Pina colada' vanilla)

Neil dubbed this a 'Play-doh cathedral', and while I can't immediately see the link, I have also jotted down 'evocative of miserable Scandinavian themes' (Ibsen, The Bridge, plus every other dark Scandiwegian drama on the telly at the moment featuring good jumpers).  Vanilla Marble includes notes of vetiver, patchouli, fig and coconut, with a slight cool, clay-like facet, as well as being reminiscent of 'Bacardi hairspray'.  Neil envisioned a stylish woman striding forth in a billowing white dress wearing this one, bats wheeling about her head.  It was generally agreed that Vanilla Marble lacked gravitas - and arguably also marbles.

How does vanilla make babies?

There then followed a fascinating section of Neil's talk where he explained how he and long term partner Duncan had been planning to visit a vanilla plantation in Madagascar (home to the most pukka pod processing practices), but were rather biblically driven back by locusts and ended up in Java (home to more 'fly by night', corner-cutting plantations, but they picked a good 'un).  In Java, Neil and Duncan immersed themselves in the production of vanilla, which proved to be a deeply affecting experience for the pair. They literally lived, breathed, slept and sniffed vanilla beans 24/7.


Interesting nuggets that Neil shared with us about the life cycle of the vanilla plant are the fact that its flower hangs on the vine for 9 months (like humans! - well, I use the term 'vine' loosely).  Then the flowers are only open for one day(!), and can only be fertilised by a man wielding a bamboo stick, owing to the demise of a particular Mexican bee that used to do the honours.  Oh, and the pods take 5-6 months to be cured.  Neil passed round some different varieties of vanilla pod for us to examine and smell: from Madagascar, Uganda etc.  My main thoughts were how exceedingly long they were, and how odd their scent was - like some kind of boozy dried fruit. Perhaps Serge Lutens is in fact a closet pod sniffer to have come up with Arabie and the like.

'You're telling me vanilla comes from this?' Source: Lila Das Gupta

CB I hate perfume ~ 7 Billion Hearts (IKEA vanilla)

This scent contains both Ugandan and Tahitian absolutes, but still managed to smell synthetic like gluey plastic, flat pack furniture, floor polish and cough syrup.  Neil dubbed it 'the pod and the plank'. Notwithstanding the alliteration and plosive energy of this pithy phrase, it didn't endear 7 Billion Hearts to me further.  Lila felt this one was 'unfinished', which ties in neatly with the flat pack furniture angle, which in my house would remain unfinished and in its many baffling component bits till further notice.  Liam of Personal Odour / Odou was reminded of the living museum in our native country of Northern Ireland - the Ulster American Folk Park.  I have been gone so long that I know it as the Ulster Folk Museum, but it is the same place and I do remember it. Another audience remember likened 7 Billion Hearts to the aromas given off by the wood in the indoor space of the Globe theatre.  Despite a passing interest in culture, this heart is not one of the 7 billion to have been seduced by this scent.

Annick Goutal ~ Songes (Interlopa vanilla)

Next up was Annick Goutal's dreamy feminine fragrance, Songes, which features some heavy-hitting heady florals, namely frangipani, ylang-ylang, tuberose and jasmine.  Neil assured us that it had vanilla absolute in the base, which comes out more as the scent wore on, but it did feel like an unusual choice in a vanilla-forward line up.  That said, I was glad to be reacquainted with Songes, which I had dismissed early in my own perfume j***ney as headache-inducing, and it was a toss up between this and Vaniglia del Madagascar (of which I did end up getting a sample at the end of the night) as my favourites of the evening.

Mona di Orio ~ Vanille (Long John Silva vanilla)

Neil memorably described this as 'vanilla for pirates', adding (most amusingly) that it gets off to a 'nervous start'.  Vanille has a smoky quality, and includes notes of pepper, incense, ylang-ylang, sandalwood and rum. Neil considered it 'too macho' for himself, but admired it nonetheless.  Birgit chimed in to say that she had worn this to calm her nerves during a wrist operation.

Birgit and Tara

At this juncture in the evening, we got to debating the character of vanilla generally, and what feelings and sensations it evokes.  The word 'vanilla' has latterly been debased to mean 'bland or boring' (as referenced in the title of this post), but the consensus of the group was that vanilla perfumes are at once calming and comforting as well as erotic - 'increasing tumescence in certain regions', as Neil added coyly.  Vanilla is mildly addictive and stimulates the production of adrenaline. On the downside, the Japanese hate the smell apparently, which is a bit of a blow considering that Japan is Neil's adopted home.  'The Japanese believe you should be self-effacing at all times and respect other people - be aware of their personal space and not stink up the environment.'  Neil is not supposed to wear perfume in the school where he teaches, so gleefully overdoses on the stuff at weekends instead, terrorising people on trains.

Neil's doubtless very proud mother

Van Cleef & Arpels Collection Extraordinaire ~ Orchidée Vanille (Willy Wonka tonka vanilla)

Neil drew our attention to the fruit sherbet in the top of Orchidée Vanille, and went on to liken it to 'Saturday night 90s orientals', presumably on account of its slightly bombastic quality.  It features rose and violet, almond and chocolate, and Neil assured us that the vanilla in this one gets better and better as time goes on.  I did like it a lot, I must say, and Orchidée Vanille was the sample Tara chose to take home.

Lila Das Gupta, organiser of Perfume Lovers London

Atelier Cologne ~ Vanille Insensée (Obscura vanilla)

Atelier's take on vanilla has tangerine and lime in the top notes, and Neil described it further as oaky, 'quite masculine', 'shadowy and enigmatic' with a 'dark woozy edge' to it.  He is personally not a fan of woody notes, so wouldn't wear this one either.  Neil agreed with the audience that Vanille Insensée wasn't noticeably angry, dubbing it 'passive aggressive vanilla', my favourite quote of the night.  That phrase reminded me of a recent conversation with my financial advisor, in which she chided me for having a bunch of high risk investments whose performance I had failed to monitor for years.  'Does that make me a passive aggressive investor?' I inquired. Apparently so.

Guerlain ~ Spiritueuse Double Vanille (Popula vanilla)

One of the most popular scents passed around on the night, Guerlain's Spiritueuse Double Vanille, includes notes of brandy, cherry, ylang-ylang and pipe tobacco.  'It smells like humming birds', remarked Neil in a sudden access of synesthesia.  It was a bit too boozy for me, and a bit too expensive for Neil, costing the equivalent of a Very Material £280 in Japan.

Holy Grail vanilla?

Indult ~ Tihota (Linea vanilla)

I had recently had occasion to sniff this one, thanks to Val the Cookie Queen of APJ. I was curious to try it following a glowing review by Sandra on Olfactoria's Travels, but though it read on my skin as 'high quality foody vanilla' it was ultimately unsatisfying and rather one-dimensional.  I sense I may have been anosmic to the musk which Sandra enjoys in this one.  And what this fascinating evening confirmed is that I like my vanillas to have a twist of some sort, like my beloved Diptyque Eau Duelle, for example.

In wrapping up, we discussed Neil's proclivity for sweet vanillas and somebody - it may even have been me, but I don't recall! - asked if there were any vanilla scents he would consider too sweet.  He mentioned one by Laura Mercier called Vanille Gourmande, which I have not come across but am curious to try now to gauge how much is too much. Neil also doesn't care for the category he dubbed 'oyster vanillas', such as Vanille Galante by Hermès, which is too salty for his liking.  After this point, my notes start to deteriorate, and I am not going to begin to speculate what the connection between  Gorilla Perfumes' Furze scent and 'flatulence' might have been.

Neil appearing to take the hand of Lady Jane Grey

So yes, a great night in which we learnt about - and sniffed - a lot of vanilla perfumes, a number of which were new to me.  Many thanks as ever to Lila Das Gupta of Perfume Lovers London and Grant Osborne of Basenotes for organising the night, and to Neil for coming all this way to wow us with his vanilla lore and alien pods.  On a personal level, it was fantastic to meet old fumie friends again like Birgit, Tara and Thomas, and meet new ones such as Neil and Duncan, Lady Jane Grey, Sabine of Iridescents and Olivia.

After the talk, a hardcore group went down the pub, while I left with Lila, who had kindly offered to put me up, as I hadn't been able to find a hotel that night.  The next morning, we had a bit of a sniff-in - or a session of 'Continuing Professional Development', as my teacher friend Nicola amusingly spun it, when I explained that Lila had much the more experienced nose of the two of us.

Lila's inquisitive cat

Lila has a perfume cupboard of Narnian proportions and properties, and amongst the many scents she invited me to try - and that I also fell for - was Coromandel, my patchouli and spice nemesis from some years back. I have clearly flittered full circle on that one, and pigs evidently do fly.

Lila had business in town later that morning, so we hopped on the tube and she peeled off at Hammersmith, while I headed on to Belgravia.  After a quick scope of Les Senteurs, Tara, Birgit and I repaired for a hearty brunch of Eggs Benedict - in the absence of Croque-Madame, that is - our preferred choice, which was mysteriously off the menu.  They must have had a run on Madames or something.

I was still able to make room for my macaron initiation which followed swiftly afterwards at Ladurée round the back of Harrods.  Lila joined us at this point and kindly presided over the ceremony, ensuring that a representative selection of patisseries was ordered, and all flavour bases covered, except for coffee and licorice, which I don't like.

Well, well...there's me thinking that macarons (to which I have a strong urge to add an extra 'o') are just meringues.  Reader, they are so not just meringues.  The rose petal one in particular was sensational ...creamy and chewy and fragrant rose jelly-ish all at the same time.  If you too have yet to lose your macaron cherry, do head to the nearest branch of Ladurée at your earliest convenience, or take advantage of their admittedly very expensive mail order service.  You will thank me!

After tea, while the others went into Harrods to recce the Hermès scarves (at whose instigation I couldn't possibly imagine!) - as well as generally checking out the latest offerings in the perfume hall - I sadly had to cut and run.  This was partly because I was encumbered with luggage, but also because I had one final mission to fulfill - picking up some artefacts from The Old Vic theatre which my friend Clare Chick had won in an auction: to wit a lantern and decanter used in a production of Richard II and lovingly fingered by Kevin Spacey (or such was her fond hope), and a rather smelly and battered lamp used in a production of Aladdin, and handled by Sir Ian McKellen.  Clare was hoping there would be enough DNS traces of Spacey (thanks, Tara, for that one!) to grow a complete new Kevin, but I've lugged all the stuff back now and she has yet to introduce me to him.


Anonymous said...

I have never had a macaron, and had never planned to. I will however be in London sometime in the summer and I will clearly have to remedy this. Brilliant write up, I have just read it twice. As I mentioned to Tara recently, I never have less than about 15 liters of vanilla on hand, as one does. I have not found a vanilla fragrance for myself. My aura however is a fine vanilla mist I reckon. Fab Vanessa, keep ´em coming, <3 xxxx

Vanessa said...

Hey Val,

Yep, macarons are most highly recommended. I am touched you felt moved to read this twice - it is rather long for even a single pass! I envy you the vanilla handling part of your job and I look forward to checking out your mist the next time we

Lady Jane Grey said...

Oh, Granular Gravitas... - I love you, V. May I have the Copyright for that one ?
Please let me know if the breeding of Kevin Spaceys from DNA was successful and the new K.S. appeared !
Love the cat, of course...

Lila Das Gupta said...

How lovely to read your report and experience the night all over again. I really enjoyed your take on it. And I had such fun during our smelling session and am so glad that you and Coromandel are on speaking terms. I'm sure there's a great friendship to come. Come back to London soon. x

Anonymous said...

Hey Bonks! Super blog, as always.

Concerning the tailing off of notes coinciding with Gorilla perfumes "Furze" and flatulence, I understood that "furze" was the German slang word for - how shall I phrase this? - passing wind involuntarily or voluntarily from a rear nether orifice. (I'm pretty sure that German Lush/perfume fans were guffawing at the name when it was, ahem, released.) Well, the plant Furze is Gorse or even Whin too in English usage, and - fortunately - smells of coconut: I can't recall whether the Lush scent smells of coconut but it certainly didn't smell of Germanic furze!

I've only recently tried macarons and they are very surprising in terms of texture, I agree. I won't be selling a kidney to get more (and a recent Guardian piece on how to make them clarifies the cost) but it was a novelty to find something new to me in the sweet treats department.

Good luck appeasing your financial adviser:-)

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Olfactoria's Travels said...

I am crushed that you would put my mint-lessness on the spot like that. It was an accident at the airport bathroom that obviously was even more traumatic and consequential than I had previously thought.
SS stands for Sancta Sanctissima (holy of holiest).
As for the connection of Lush Furze and flatulence: it is the meaning of the word in German. I guess it is not a great seller in German speaking countries. ;)
A fabulous account of a great two days, thanks Vanessa!
So glad you found the pleasure of macarons, unfortunately for me the Viennese selection is decidedly subpar to the Ladurée ones. sigh.

Vanessa said...

Hi Lady Jane Grey,

Love you too! Copyright is yours. My friend Clare has been off seeing Elbow somewhere this week, and neglecting her petri dish collection with the Kevin cultures. I will remind her that they need tending. Not sure she is on top of the whole temperature regulation thing, even. This is an A-list actor she is attempting to grow - we are not talking packet seeds of some hardy annual.

Vanessa said...

Hi Lila,

Thanks to you for making these hugely enjoyable events happen in the first place! As soon as I have finished retesting the other samples you kindly made me at our sniffing session, you can be sure that Coromandel will have a few more outings on skin. I think this could be the start of something big. Thanks for all your hospitality and I hope to get down in July again if not before.x

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks for the clarification of the 'furze' meaning, which is coming back to me now...goodness, that was a bold move on Gorilla's part - they must have gone with their gut feel when naming that one...:)

And thanks for reminding me of the alternative name for gorse of 'whin'. My mother used to use it and it had entirely slipped my mind.

Making your own macarons, now there's a thought. Whenever I see a recipe involving the separation of egg yolk from white I tend to glaze over, but if you ever decide to have a 'crack' at them I'd be interested to know how you get on!

Vanessa said...

Hi B,

Only teasing on the mintlessness - just don't let us down like that again... ;) I got into strawberry and cream Tic Tacs whilst in Germany, but haven't managed to see them since. I am also partial to Parma Violets, but they seem to be a bit scarce too.

Thanks very much for giving us the true meaning of 'SS' and confirming Anna's explanation of Furze. Still chuckling over that one.

In a way I am not sorry that Vienna cannot match the quality of the Laduree macarons, as it means you are that bit more likely to make a return trip here for your rose petal-creamy-chewy-jelly fix!

Tara said...

This was an absolute joy to read, V. I am still smiling. My reports are dry beyond belief in comparison! So many fun observations and things I missed such as the "passive aggressive vanilla" quote of the night.

Now I'm really looking forward to visiting Lila's Narnia cupboard at the end of the month. I wonder if I will flitter full circle too :)

Oh and chuffed that "traces of Stacey" made the grade!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Your reports are not dry at all! Mine are merely prone to tangents of varying degrees of flagrance. Amazingly, that does appear to be the noun form of 'flagrant' ;) So close to *'fragrance'*, well well...

You will have a total blast delving into Lila's cupboard and I look forward to hearing about your own scented highlights.

'Traces of Stacey' was a cracker - I'll be poaching you from OT next!

Tara said...

Ha ha! It's all your positive influence, V.

"Flagrance" is great.

Vanessa said...

And I have you to thank for the discovery of that one!

Poodle said...

Great post. There's a few on here I need to try. I do have a generous sample of the Guerlain one and I love the booziness of it. Booze and pipe tobacco. Hmmm...I need to did that out and wear it maybe tomorrow. Actually maybe tonight.
You're so lucky to have events like this to go to. I'm so glad I can experience them vicariously through you. I'm also shocked that Birgit had no mints.

Suzanne said...

Vanessa, your report was highly entertaining and charming, as is your personal way. Glad you got to enjoy such a lovely extended outing with 'fumie friends. I really loved the pictures, and glad to hear that you are now under Coromandel's beautiful spell!

Vanessa said...

Hi Poodle,

The mint malfunction was a shocker, wasn't it? ;). I bet B has rectified the situation by now. And yes, we are lucky to have these events, and also that they are within reach for people who are technically far and wide.

I think I might need to persevere a bit with SDV, and work on my resistance to booze in perfume. For me though, spring is probably not the best time.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks for your lovely comment and I am glad you liked the pictures. I snapped away haphazardly (wearing contacts means I have no idea what I am taking shots of), in the hope that a few would come out okay. ;)

Yes, Coromandel...what a turn up for the books! Really looking forward to wearing it again, even though you might say this isn't really the season.

Undina said...

Ok, I thought it was Val's comment - but how did you know? ;-)

Undina said...

Not only I enjoyed your take on the event, but also I learned some new words and phrases (I've never heard the donkey one before). Oh, and I didn't realize that "mores" was a word in English as well (I thought of it as in Latin - "o tempora o mores"). Thank you for the lesson :-)

I'm surprised that so many people haven't tried macarons before: in the last several years they become extremely popular in the U.S. and I thought that they were common in Europe and just got here recently. Now I see that I was hastily supercilious towards the local culinary trends. Also I want to mention that I like macaroons as well.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

The donkey expression is one from Mr Bonkers, I think, and may not be in wide circulation - outside The Potteries, I mean. But try it out anyway! ;) We have quite a lot of Latin in English I suppose - am quite partial to 'ne plus ultra' otherwise.

Macarons may be popular in Europe for all I know - I do live in a rather gastronomically sheltered part of it, you see. Glad to meet another convert - I hope they also have the rose petal ones where you are. They were out of this world.

Vanessa said...

That's easy...Val is coming over this summer, she has been first in with a comment lately, she deploys the <3 symbol, and most clinchingly of all, mentions industrial quantities of the foodstuff vanilla being on hand...

Natalie said...

"Scabby donkey" and perfumes with names that require excessive typing (and spell checking). Laughing out loud and agreeing wholeheartedly, respectively. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Haha - I find the Italian perfume houses particularly prone to long names, or ones that resemble other brands (all the 'Profum-' sort, for example).

AustralianPerfumeJunkies said...

What a wonderful post. Every bit looks and sounds too fun.
Sorry i am late to reading but here now and enjoyed it immensely.
Thanks Vanessa.
Portia xx

Vanessa said...

Hi Portia,

Thanks for reading and you are never too late - I cock a snook at chronology on Bonkers! I am after all the person who last June celebrated a *3.6* year blogging anniversary. ;)

It was a lot of fun - shame you couldn't have been there, though Java is at least relatively down the road for you, should you fancy a pod fix. ;)