Tuesday, 2 August 2022

"The Liz Declension": meeting perfumer Eliza Douglas in an English country garden

Move over, Provence!

I have been having a lot of bother with my neighbours lately: by which I mean more bother than usual, which is already quite a lot. This week saw them nearly set their kitchen on fire by deliberately leaving butter in a hot oven as a prank, hard on the heels of a toaster fire last week, and a broken kitchen tap caused by a botched dousing attempt. A bottle was later thrown out of an upstairs window, which smashed to smithereens exactly where my paying guest's car had been parked, had I not presciently advised him to move it earlier that evening. There were also several angry shouting matches in the small hours that penetrated my most hermetic style of ear plugs, as well as slammed doors, running up and down corridors, and assorted things going bump in the night. 

By Saturday morning my nerves were shot, and it was with a great sense of relief that I set off for Oxfordshire to stay with my old friend and walking companion, Nicola and her husband, in their idyllic Cotswold cottage. Nicola had been cooking all morning, and within half an hour of my arrival we were seated at the garden table outside, sipping refreshing water melon and vodka cocktails, and about to tuck into the enormous banquet of vegan mezes she had painstakingly prepared. And not only had my friend gone to great lengths to distract me from my stressful preoccupations with food and drink, but she had also lined up a very special guest to join us for lunch, namely Eliza Douglas: perfumer, fragrance evaluator, teacher, IFRA staff member, scented event organiser, and general promoter of all things olfactory. Eliza lives near Nicola and is part of their well-knit local community.

A quick digression may be in order to explain what I mean by "The Liz Declension". Well, it struck me that there are several notable people on the UK perfume scene whose names are variants of Liz: Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery, Lizzie Ostrom (Odette Toilette), and Eliza Douglas. We just need the odd Beth or Betty, a full-blown Elizabeth perhaps - or God forbid, a Lilibet! - to complete the set.

Anyway, the first amusing thing that happened is that Eliza and I had both thought to bring a book to give to the other: I chose "The Secret of Scent" by Luca Turin, which was a bit too technical for me, while Eliza chose "The Perfume Collector" by Kathleen Tessaro...and of course we already had these books. ;)

Eliza, however, had had the forethought to bring a back up book for this very eventuality, namely "Olfaction: A Journey", which celebrates a decade of the IFRA Fragrance Forum. (One of Eliza's numerous hats being that of Membership Liaison Secretary for IFRA.) I quickly got past my usual objection to the use of the word "j*****y" in the title, which as regular readers know is a particular bugbear of mine. For the book is a truly fascinating compendium of articles on scent-related topics, under broad headings such as "Arts & Culture", "Technology & Innovation", "Health & Well-Being", "Psychology" etc. It is chock full of more interesting nuggets than you can shake a blotter at, some of which I sense may provide a springboard for future blog posts. And to top it all...the book is a teal colour! Eliza could not possibly have known that I have a teal book theme going on in my house - indeed one could be forgiven for thinking that only teal-spined books are allowed on display. So that was the second amusing thing.

Soon we were tucking into the vegan feast in earnest, and had moved on from the refreshing cocktails to summery rose wine. I could feel the stress melting away, partly because I always relax when talking about perfume. As I chatted to Eliza about her past and present fragrance projects, and swapped notes on the various people we knew in common, I lost myself in the moment and completely forgot about my neighbour woes - much like that time I talked to a surgeon while I was on the operating table about his wife's preference for scents composed by Sophia Grojsman, which helped me tune out to the fact that he was excising a mole at the time!

For anyone not familiar with Eliza, she studied at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and lived in New York for six years, where she worked for Frederic Malle (accents on request), before going on to collaborate with the innovative and maverick perfumer Christophe Laudamiel - he of the avant-garde arm scrunchies - who describes himself (comprehensively!, hyphenatedly!) as Master Perfumer-Creator and Chemist-Inventor. His DreamAir company provides "highly customised fine fragrances, as well as applications and technologies to play and display scents, on skin, in the air, or in many other surprising places". Typical examples of these Scent Sculptures or "ambient atmospheres" may be found in hotels, museums, music festivals, operas - or operas in museums indeed. Wikipedia has a tantalising and exhaustive list of them under the heading "Scent Sculptures, Art Installations and Performances", and a few particularly caught my eye: "Hamburg Harbour" (of which I have many happy memories), "Elephant in Rut", "Guilty and Orgasm aromas", and the teasing oxymoron of "True Fake Cocaine". I can't comment on which ones Eliza may have worked on, but I bet she had fun. Staying with the theme of Hamburg Harbour, I would suggest another ambient scent Laudamiel might consider creating, namely "Third Biggest Banana Dock in the World", which I have seen, but admittedly not got close enough to sniff. I note that there is already a banana-themed scent on the list - "The Banana and the Monkey" - so it should be straightforward enough to knock up a nautical flanker. Anyway, suffice to say that I really like the cut of Laudamiel's whimsical jib - I had heard of him, but had quite forgotten how fabulously bonkers he is. With such a vivid imagination, he must have been exciting as all get-out (as the Americans say!) to work with. The idea of Scent Sculptures very much reminded me of the "olfactive animation" projects of Zsolt Zólyomi, Hungary's only perfumer - or he was at the time! - upon whom I chanced during a work trip to Budapest. In that post I mention my own abortive attempt to sniff the inside of a museum he had scented just before closing time...

Source: Instagram

Eliza and Laudamiel are also champions of the Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics in the US, of which Eliza is Treasurer. Founded in 2002 by Laudamiel, it houses the American branch of the Osmotheque and has as its mission: "to introduce olfaction, scent history, scent design and culture into school and university curriculums as well as to the general public".  In 2014, they launched an educational venture called "A Sense for Scents"; the centrepiece of the kit supplied to schools was a set of 20 "whispi" mini-pumps that use fresh air to deliver scent in a fragrant puff. Eliza has given me one and I am blowed if I know what the smell is, even though I am long out of school, hehe. Here is a mini-blog post about the kits by Luca Turin, who is a fan, and used them with pupils in Greece!

Ye whispi

Along with Eliza, Nicola Pozzani also co-developed this project; his name rang an instant bell, and I realised that he was the chap who ran the synaesthesia workshop for Le Labo in 2011 which I blogged about for Cafleurebon. Small world indeed...

What else has Eliza done? She has evaluated fragrances for Gallivant, and runs independent perfumery workshops and classes with groups and individuals. UK-based readers may remember the Perfume Lab "drop in"-style project at Somerset House, where a series of perfumers took up residencies "to showcase the art and science of crafting a fragrance". Eliza took part in 2017 - I don't know if the project is still going, mind, or whether it got kiboshed by Covid.

Oh, and she is also writing a book...I can't say too much, but perfume materials and botany feature, together with food, and - intriguingly! - meditation. The food angle is not surprising, for I also learnt that Eliza is related to Prue Leith, no less (first cousin once removed if my memory serves me).

So, as very often happens with perfume meet ups, the afternoon simply flew by, and there wasn't nearly enough time to talk about everything. So you may imagine my delight when Nicola announced that Eliza was popping back on Sunday morning with some samples for me, to wit a goodly clutch of Frederic Malles, including Lys Mediterrranee, of which I had recently drained my own sample. I had not tried Noir Epices, so I put it on today, notwithstanding its wintery style, and was instantly transported. I rushed to see what Boisdejasmin thought of it, as we have strikingly similar taste. I correctly predicted that she would have given it four stars (guessing Victoria's star attribution without peeking really could be a party trick of mine). This is not the time or place to describe Noir Epices in detail, even if I could do justice to its gauzy allure, but I commend V's review to you.

Samples complete with attractive bag!

One inevitable question that came up in conversation was our favourite perfumes: I had brought along House of Cherry Bomb Immortal Beloved and Guerlain Plus Que Jamais, which are in my top "two to three-ish", and Eliza was very taken with PQJ, which is a great shame as it is discontinued. See my eulogy at the time of its demise. Eliza said her favourite perfume was possibly one she greatly admired, yet wouldn't actually wear on account of its hugeness, namely FM Une Rose. Curious to understand this accolade, Nicola sprayed a trace amount and promptly saw exactly what she meant. ;) Then in terms of a favourite wearable scent, Eliza plumped for Roger & Gallet's rose perfume, which I assume is this one. I shall look out for it when I am in France next!

Source: FragranceX

In closing, I would like to give a big shout out to Nicola for having the idea to arrange this meeting with Eliza, on the assumption that we would have a fair bit in common and to chew the cud about (we did!).

And here is a photo of Nicola's pet lion, Tio, who has to be the most statuesque domestic cat I have ever encountered.


Nicola Watson said...

Wonderful writing Vanessa. Wonderful photography too…you have managed to make my garden look like an English country garden. Tio will be happy to be described as statuesque. He’s usually described as “the biggest cat I’ve ever seen” by callers who are intimidated by his size, coupled with his curmudgeonly character.
It was a fascinating weekend 💚

Vanessa said...

Hi Nicola!

Thank you for your kind comments - your garden is the quintessential English country garden I would say, complete with a friendly herd of cows at the end of the lawn. ;)

I think I captured Tio from his best angle, or one of them. His publicity shots at the rescue centre were even more streamlining.

Many thanks again for acting as go between in this perfume meet up, and for putting on such a fantastic spread. x

Anonymous said...

Such a perfect weekend, in every way. Wonderful company, food, location and immersion in one of your favourite subjects. Not to mention a rather distinguished cat. Thank you for sharing!

Tara said...

What a lovely place to run away to and with perfect company. I never thought about how relaxing it is to talk about perfume but you're quite right. Interesting that Eliza's forthcoming book features meditation. It got me thinking that sniffing perfume is a kind of mindfulness activity.
Roger & Gallet is in M&S now so you may not need to travel as far as France!
Tara x

Vanessa said...

Hi Jillie,

It was all those things - I also slept really well both nights, which counts for a lot these days!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

I think you are right about sniffing perfume being a mindful activity - you do forget everything else in that moment of inhaling...

Thanks for the tip off about Roger & Gallet being in Marks - I will look out for it the next time I am there on a "yellow sticker hunt". ;) x

Hamamelis said...

Second best to being relaxed by talking about perfume, and sniffing it in company, must be reading posts about it. Thank you for the vicarious relaxing experience. And, as a non native speaker/writer the use of the word curmudgeonly is a big treat, especially when accompanied by such an impressive feline. Dutch words for curmdugeon: zuurpruim (= sour plum), kniesoor (someone who is lamenting all the time) and vrek (= miser).

Vanessa said...

Hi Hamamelis,

Nice to see you and thank you so much for those Dutch words, which are superbly expressive. I can say "beware the cucumber" in Dutch, though I don't have much occasion to do so.

"Curmudgeon" is a great word to describe Tio - he starts off by nuzzling your hand, but progresses to biting and hissing with an alarming lack of preamble.

Hamamelis said...

Hehe, those cucumbers (komkommers). I just thought of the Dutch word for curmudgeonly, sikkeneurig. Apparently it is a corruption of the French word chicaneur...And by the by, didn't the Lionesses do great, even if you don't like football...? Ofcourse we bask a little in their glory because Sarina Wiegman.

Vanessa said...

"Sikkeneurig" is excellent. A mixture of a brand of Dutch paint we also have here (Sikkens) and the German for curious (neugierig).

The Lionesses did do great, and I particularly appreciate the fact that they are still allowed to use the female inflection "-ess" in this topsy turvy gender fluid world.

Undina said...

I’m sorry about your neighbors troubles. It’s always hard to live next to idiots. But I’m glad that you were able to distract yourself and had a good time.
May I ask you how the neighbors have been since then?
The cat looks very serious. I wonder if he allows anyone to hold him :)

I haven’t had a chance to meet with anyone to chat about perfumes in a long while. To be able to do that, I would have probably agreed to eat vegan food ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Two of the tenants were told to leave last weekend, following this series of incidents, so it is a bit quieter now with the remaining four, I am happy to report.

The cat is very serious and doesn't allow strangers to hold him, certainly. He tends to hiss if you so much as look at him. ;) Well, that is not quite true, but a bite and a hiss are often involved in even the most "light touch" kind of interaction. I think he had a troubled start in life and is wary of humans. As his owner, and the hand that feeds him, Nicola is able to nuzzle her head against him, so she is much further on.

I am sure vegan food is not a prerequisite of any perfume meet up, hehe. But the food at N's is absolutely delicious!