Monday 28 March 2016

My woman in Havana: a friend visits Habana 1791, a historic Cuban perfumery

Photo courtesy of Sheila Wilson
Shall I just stop here? I'll be honest, this entire blog post is but a flimsy vehicle for its winning title. But though it is tempting to quit while I am ahead, I will carry on, because there is a genuine perfume-themed story in here too. And then of course there's the fact that President Obama paid a state visit to Cuba this week, which finally galvanised me into blogging synchronicity.

Now I like to think of myself as having been good at geography from an early age. Even at 11, and living in Northern Ireland, I could have told you that Peterhead was noted for its fishing industry, Derby for lace and Redditch for needles. But Cuba? I fear I have always been shaky on Cuba. I associate it (rightly or wrongly) with cigars, sugar cane, and bananas. And waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay. And whirring ceiling fans and Mojitos. Not forgetting photo shoots featuring vintage Cadillacs in eye-popping shades of pink and powder blue, parked in front of crumbling mansions - the perfect backdrop for that models-draped-on-bonnets-style of ad campaign and calendar. And as it happens, I have been to Little Havana, but it is in Miami, so doesn't count.

Okay, so I know my perception is rather superficial and cliche'd, even if I am right about the bananas, which is moot. Obama announced that his historic meeting with Raúl Castro marked the end of the Cold War, but I gather from the news that his discussions with the Cuban President were at the far end of the full, frank and robust spectrum. For ideologically the two leaders are poles apart, and life in Cuba under a Communist regime is no picnic for its citizens. That said, an online article from WSVN News last August points to changes afoot...

Where are the pink ones? ~ Source:

"Since the Cuban government began to allow residents to open businesses, there has been an explosion of restaurants, vendors selling handbags, art and jewelry in the capital city."

The article goes on to mention a couple called Javier and Shona, who opened a Californian cafe recently, but have difficulty getting hold of food:

"We'll have days where there won't be any cheese...and there won't be any cheese anywhere in the neighbourhood."

Now there's a scary thought for a turophile.

Habana 1791 ~ Source:

So enter my former English teacher, Sheila, who, as you may recall, was the first to be featured in my perfume protege series. She went to Cuba on holiday the winter before last (I know, I know!), and wrote to me on her return:

"I did try to boost your blog readers - by one - in Cuba, but hit a wall when I realised that the young travel guide I was speaking to didn't seem to know what the Internet was and certainly had never heard of a blog. This is someone who spoke 4 languages and had a degree. That's Cuba. The reason I mentioned your blog was that I had managed at one stage to drag her into a perfumery away from the official government approved route she was determinedly following, from one statue or square named after a national hero to another. We had been headed for a museum of the guns used in the Revolution at the time."

Photo courtesy of Sheila Wilson

Sheila was pleasantly surprised to have chanced across the perfumery in question, given the dearth of shops generally in the city.  Habana 1791 describes itself in fact as a 'perfume shop-cum-laboratory', and is housed in a beautiful 18th century mansion, complete with a striking collection of vintage perfume making equipment. Habana1791 offers 12 'ready-made colognes', many of which have their roots in Cuba's colonial past: Rose, Jasmine, Violet, Orange Blossom, Lila, Ylang-Ylang, Patchouli, Vetiver, Sandalwood and Tobacco. Custom blends / mixtures of these scents are also available. Sheila mentioned a chocolate-forward scent as well - as with all the other ingredients, the chocolate was grown on the island, though local sourcing is reportedly not without its challenges. Oh, cocoa - a crop I forgot!


Much emphasis is placed by the owner, Angel Martinez, on the aromatherapy value of specific perfume notes - here are two examples:

"Rose oil is aromatic and intense. It is always linked to love and sensuality. It counteracts states of violence and aggressiveness.

Orange blossom causes a feeling of peace and relaxation. It is revitalizing and gives joy to the body and mind."

Oh, and they also offer massages with perfume oils!

In terms of prices, I read varying reports of the perfumes costing between $5-$20 US dollars each, which would still be out of reach to most Cubans, for whom the average wage is more like $15 a month.

Then the bottles - which the customer can choose - are very distinctive. Some are made by local ceramicists, others are imported, and they have a cork sealed in wax. Not unlike the raspberry gin my friend David gave me for Christmas...!

Have you been to Cuba? Would you like to go? Can you confirm or deny if they grow bananas?

Sunday 20 March 2016

Perfumistas reunited - by a cat collar that wasn't - and remembering Gucci by Gucci edp

When I started Bonkers, the blogging landscape looked quite different.The 'grande dames' like Robin, Victoria and Denise, Marina, Pattie and March, Elena and Olfacta and Marie-Helene were around, and well established, but I ran with a different crowd  of my own (more or less) contemporaries, including Ines of All I am - a Redhead, Shelley of Notes from the Ledge, Josephine of Notes from Josephine, Martha of Chicken Freak's Obsessions, Rita of The Left Coast Nose - and The Scentimentalist. (Who is the only one to whose blog I have added a link, as it would be a veritable sea of blue highlighting otherwise!) I had met The Scentimentalist over on Basenotes in the very early days of my hobby, where she went by the name of Soirdelune. She was into retro and vintage scents by the likes of Patou and Sisley and Balmain, and was down to earth and witty and warm.

I first met The Scentimentalist in real life the following year, on the occasion of her 40th birthday, for which she had organised a canal boat trip. I was flattered to be invited and didn't hesitate to accept, though I realised I wouldn't know any of the others there, including (technically) the birthday girl herself. But not knowing the guests - or even the host - at a party famously didn't stop me attending one at a fellow music fan's house in Ohio in 2005. I was in town on business and felt I knew the chap in question well enough from exchanges on a forum. And when I did pluck up the courage to go along, I received a warm welcome from him and his wife and their houseful of lively friends and band mates. These two experiences have made me bolder ever since about jumping at the chance to meet people you feel you know from Internet dealings based on a shared interest, whatever that might be. You will rarely be disappointed.

For her birthday, I had bought The Scentimentalist a purse spray of The Party in Manhattan, an aldehydic animalic chypre (or something along these lines). There's an amusing three way take on the fragrance in this post on Perfume Posse. Anyway, I felt it suited The Scentimentalist because it struck me as elegant, festive, effervescent, and not a little luxurious.


Fast forward to the end of 2015...The Scentimentalist and I had kept in touch very sporadically, but I hadn't heard in a long while - my fault as much as anything - and wasn't even sure that she was living in the same town.Then, thanks to the wonders of WhatsApp, a platform I had not long acquired -specifically for the exchange of kitten pics with Truffle's owner! - I received a message from The Scentimentalist out of the blue one day and our friendship was 'reactivated', to give it its proper technical term.

She explained that she had been following Truffle's progress / antics / occasional bouts of inexcusable naughtiness on the blog, and had spied a potential gift for her, namely a designer collar for kittens, by Gucci, no less! It had been reduced in T K Maxx from a whopping £100 to £3, and as such had to be bought we felt, so a purchase was duly made. The presentation mount was a bit stained, but The Scentimentalist kindly had a go at buffing it up. I said it didn't much matter if the collar itself was fine, which it was.

Of particular note is the astonished face!

Anyway, the collar duly arrived, and when I looked at it it didn't seem quite as I expected. Stripy, with holes in it and a buckle, but somehow not as quntessentially collar-y as I was expecting. I left the present out on the dining room table for some days, looking quizzically at it from time to time. I didn't try it on Truffle at any point, as she was still small and I didn't want to scare her with an item I wasn't 100% sure how to competently fasten.

Then one day a male friend was over - the one who lives on a canal boat, aptly enough, if you recall. He is the fellow who is noted for his crumble-making skills, and who dutifully keeps his bottle of BEX Londoner SE1 in the fridge. Anyway, it turns out that he is also bonkers about watches, and thus it was that he took one look at the cat collar and pronounced it to be a 'field watch strap'. Absolutely unequivocably. A quick google of 'Gucci men's watch strap' fetched up pictures of the very item, or others bearing a pretty close resemblance. So...I had a bargain designer watch strap, but no watch. And Truffle had no collar, but it doesn't matter a jot really. I hope The Scentimentalist would agree that £3 is a small price to pay for the rekindling of a friendship, and now that Truffle is chipped, arguably she doesn't need one anyway.

Collarless Truffle - specially for Asali

So The Scentimentalist and I are able to zap messages to each other on WhatsApp now, whenever the fancy takes us, which is great. Meanwhile, I have been thinking some more about Gucci, specifically which perfumes I know or like of that brand. I can't say I am familiar with the whole range, though Gucci Guilty smells fab on a friend of a friend, while Bamboo is pretty, but insipid. I didn't care for Flora, but can't put my finger on why - I think a slightly odd note of some kind spoilt it for me. The only other Gucci scent I know - and own a decant of - is Gucci by Gucci edp, which is not to be confused with Gucci Eau de Parfum, or any other slight reframing of the brand name, with or without 'Intense' suffixes!


I came across Gucci by Gucci edp round about the time The Scentimentalist and I first 'met' on Basenotes. It was possibly the first scent I had tried that smelt 'a bit sexy'- I was mostly into designer stuff at the time. Gucci by Gucci is a sweet, honeyed, patchouli and musk number, conjuring up images of black leather sofas in the foyers of smart London hotels, of late night cocktails in low lit bars and making out in taxis, of slippery fabrics and vertiginous heels. It is accessorised with gold jewellery that is a little too chunky and veering to trashy. Some of which impression has been garnered from advertising, some the design of the bottle itself(!). Now Gucci by Gucci doesn't smell trashy as such, that would be unfair, but the combination of tiare (think Loulou!)and honey makes it a little too cloying to be elegant either. But it sets a sweetly sultry tone nonetheless, and I haven't smelt anything similar since, which is also good. Plus I like how it reminds me of my early days of exploration - when my lemmings were more likely to be Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely and DKNY Cashmere Mist than the latest Mandy Aftel or Vero Profumo. Gucci by Gucci certainly bottles that newbie phase of my perfume 'jour**y', and for that reason I will always have a soft spot for it.

Is there any scent you feel you have in some way 'grown out of', but which you remember fondly? 


Sunday 13 March 2016

Collection Moisturising Lip Butter (No 3) Vintage Rose - an accidental dupe for Burberry Feather Pink Lip Mist - and balm for my 'kitten bitten' lips

Collection Vintage Rose and Burberry Feather Pink
My lips have been on my mind a bit lately, 'bit' being the operative word. I tell a lie, the operative word is 'scratched', but try rhyming that with any variant of the word 'kitten'. Yes, I have the dubious honour of bearing facial scars from three different cats, all of whom have had a pop at some point at my lips or 'nasolabial' area, shall we say. In Truffle's case it was a playful pat with an outstretched paw, from which she had forgotten to retract the single claw that did the damage - one scratch by a nostril, one just above my top lip, plus some pointilliste red dots along the lip line that look more like a botched tattoo or the work of the dreaded 'six needles' BCG jab. Now I have long aspired in vain to the 'bee stung' look of Angelina Jolie, and have to report that 'kitten bitten' - or even 'kitten scratched' - doesn't quite cut it. Or not in the desired way, certainly. The good thing is that the little hairline scars these cat attacks tend to leave behind blend seamlessly into my vertical lip lines - one or two more is neither hair nor there.

So this lipstick post was prompted in part by the current stinging sensation I feel in that general area, and also the fact that since a succession of lipstick culls, going back to the time of this post in 2012, I have noticed my lipstick count gradually creeping up again. It appears to have been swelled in the intervening years by not one but THREE Burberrys in the end (Nude Rose Lip Cover, and Copper and Feather Pink Lip Mist), a couple of 'rude not to' £1 bargains in Poundland that are both on the pinky-brown spectrum, a whole clatter of red lipsticks and glosses - several of which I have no recollection whatsoever of buying - two cast off GWPs from my elderly friend, a few more drugstore scores, notably Rimmel Colour Rush Lip Balm in Not an Illusion (which I featured in my New Year round up post), and now my latest coup, Collection Moisturising Lip Butter in No 3, Vintage Rose.

It was the Rimmel lip balm that really introduced me to the principle of the moisturising chubby stick, and I have been sold on its convenience and 'dirigibility', if that is a word, ever since. Buying a lipstick - especially from a drugstore like Boots - is such an affordable 'fillip' in these times of austerity. Well, they are pretty austere in my particular corner of the economy, anyway. And then there is that other well known phenomenon of being ineluctably drawn to keep buying lipsticks in the exact same shades as the ones you already own - which is how I came to cull my collection in the first place (and why I clearly need to have another putsch soon). In my case this purchase recidivism has focused mainly on pinky-nude YLBB sort of tones that I like to think suit every occasion and most outfits, though latterly I was also engaged on a quest for a holy grail red lipstick, and have settled in the end on Revlon lip gloss in Firecracker, one of a selection of wearable reds recommended by Katie Puckrik.

But this unstoppable urge to repeat buy shades you have already can occasionally lead to a serendipitous spin off - buying a drugstore lipstick that is a perfect dupe of something much more expensive. This is the first time it has happened to me, when, having impulsively bought the Collection lip butter in Vintage Rose (No 3) - purely for that Saturday shopping 'hit' or 'rush' I spoke of, and also because it was about £3 and looked broadly like my kind of pink - I got it home and realised it was uncannily like Burberry Feather Pink, which I had asked a friend to buy me for Christmas.

So for a laugh, the following weekend I put Feather Pink on one lip and Vintage Rose on the other and went out to meet my friends Gillie and David, challenging them to spot the difference. I can't tell you which is which in this photo from the day, but trust me when I say it really doesn't matter!

A mad expression, but bet you can't tell the difference, lipwise

Then here is a photo I took last weekend of me wearing just Vintage Rose.

And lastly one of me today in just Feather Pink.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the look and feel of the Burberry lipstick line - specifically its uniquely ruggedised diamond texture - but when my Feather Pink runs out, I doubt I will splash £22 on a replacement, when there is a £3 chubby stick that is as close as you could wish for. Certainly speaking as someone with facial scars and imperfect eyesight.

Truffle not looking nearly guilty enough about her GBH

Monday 7 March 2016

'No-Name' perfumes - aka Fifty Ways to Lose Your Label

Truffle the kitten inspired this post - not by batting around a Christmas rosette and a milk jigger** purloined from a hotel, as the photo at the end might suggest, but unfortunately the item she was batting around which did inspire this post appears to have gone awol, presumed hidden under a wardrobe or chest of drawers. Yes, the item I would have photographed if I could have found it is a Dymo label bent in two, which Truffle managed to fetch off the spine of an old report the other day - or maybe it fell off without too much coaxing as the report dates from 1989. So now I cannot easily identify it at a glance, though at least with something like that I only have to look inside to remind myself what it is.

The same cannot be said of a perfume vial or decant without a name, and I seem to have been accumulating more and more of these lately. So I had the idea to make a list of all the ways in which labels can be absent and tease your nose into futile games of guesswork...(Um, I may have been exaggerating when I said 'fifty', but will plead the blogger's prerogative of poetic licence.)

Wandering Les Senteurs samples

Every perfumista worth their salt - or the ones in the UK certainly - will have a clutch of these distinctive petrol blue carded samples stashed away somewhere. I don't know if Les Senteurs still do a paid sampling service, but when I was starting out in the hobby it was a very handy way of getting access to lots of high end perfumes. Also, if you ever made a purchase, the store was generous on the 'samples with purchase' front. But the vials themselves were not labelled, the name being handwritten on the card to which they were attached.

And after years jostling cheek by jowl in tightly stuffed bags and boxes, you can be sure that some of your Les Senteurs vials will eventually detach themselves from their cards and go awol. And while I know that all you need to do to identify which is which, is to lay out all the cards and all the vials that have become separated, sniff them systematically one by one, and match each vial to its original card - assuming there weren't too many to choose from in the first place. However, I am nowhere near that organised, and my vial-less Les Senteurs cards are dispersed far and wide, and would take some marrying up, lost sock-style. And at least with a sock, you know it is a sock - there are far fewer variables involved in correctly reuniting them with their siblings.

Houdini wannabe PLL samples

One of my favourite disparaging sayings to denote a person's incompetence is to say that they 'couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag'. This put-down could never be levelled at the small atomiser samples you are offered at Perfume Lovers London events, which have elevated bag escapology into a competitive sport. For anyone not familiar with the drill, at the end of the night, you make your selection of a perfume you'd like to try, and organiser Lila das Gupta makes your sample on the spot and pops it in a brown paper bag, on which she writes the name of the scent. Now I don't have nearly as many escapee PLL samples as I do Les Senteurs ones - and this despite the fact that the Les Senteurs vials are notionally attached to the card where the plastic clip on the stopper slots into a hole - yet I am still blowed if I can tell which PLL sample is Coromandel from this small selection!

The 1ml vial and baggie conundrum

As it happens, I have been to the museum of extreme miniature things in Mijas, Spain (that's not its official name), where someone has written the whole of the Book of Deuteronomy on a grain of rice - you know the kind of thing. However, for most of us it is already a not inconsiderable challenge to be able to fit a wraparound label on a 1ml vial - hence the common practice amongst swappers of affixing a label on the little plastic bag instead. Only woe betide the owner who forgets to put the vial back in its correct bag...

An even sloppier variant of this (which may be unique to yours truly) is where you cannot even be bothered to write a proper label, stuffing a torn off bit of Post-It note inside the bag instead. In the photo below, I am astonished that this 'label' has stayed in the bag ever since 2012...assuming that sample really is Coco Noir, that is.

Age-related label loss

A classic fail is where over time the adhesive paper label simply works its way loose. I have even known the stick-on polythene ones on old Perfumed Court vials to peel off eventually, or at least develop a prominent side flange (photo on request).

Leak-related label smudging

How often have you received a swap, and after profusely thanking the sender for the package, politely pointed out that you are not quite sure what x and y vials are owing to the small matter of the ink having completely unforeseeably run on the labels, which are now but an elusive smear of their former selves.

Cryptic or overly abbreviated labelling

I am majorly guilty of this, a habit usually prompted by space saving reasons and/or mere laziness. 'Dahlia N' is a poor example of the genre, but you get my drift.

Hubris-related: 'Oh, I will remember what that one is'

One step beyond this in the complacency stakes is the conscious decision not to name a vial - or more often a decant - because you will be sure to remember what it is! Perhaps because you think the juice is a distinctive colour or the bottle a memorable design. Or because the scent itself is so unmistakable. Well, you might remember on that day perhaps, but three months - or even weeks - down the line may be a different matter...

4160 Tuesdays The Lion Cupboard - saved by the diamond facets and brown colour!

Swappers only sending you one thing

I am pretty sure I have sent people larger decants without a label, on the basis that I am only sending them one thing, a thing that they are expecting, no less. As in the example above, my omission to add a label is again fuelled by laziness coupled with a belief in the ability of the other party to recognise the scent. In this case, however, there may be additional aesthetic reasons at work. Given that I have yet to go high tech with my labelling, I feel my handwritten ones detract from the look of a larger decant, especially if it is a gift. But I am of course simply storing up identification problems for the recipient - and putting the onus on them to sort out a label themselves on receipt!

Taking part in blind sniffing challenges

Now I have done this a few times - in an exercise for Undina (exactly four years ago!) and also for Ronny of Scent and Sensibility. In such cases the vial must of necessity remain nameless, but me being me I never remember to stick one on after the big reveal...;)

It's the blue one! (I can always look it up...)

So tell me, have I thought of all the ways in which vials become unidentifiable? 

To which of them can you most relate, or have you got all your samples well and truly taped?

Two of Truffle's trophies

**Trust me, this is a technical term, or was in 1984 when I briefly managed catering products at St Ivel.