It may have graced sideboards and window ledges for hundreds of years, but there was a reason that even the English fell out of love with potpourri. The desiccated petals and other, unidentifiable fragments lurking dustily in their bowls long after their scent had faded could hardly hold a candle to the more flamboyant room fragrances that usurped them.
Once the carefully preserved and authentically scented garden flowers had morphed into garish, synthetic mixtures, it seemed there was no going back. However, Odette Toilette (aka the olfactory adventuress Lizzie Ostrom, whose experiential Scratch+Sniff events, such as fragranced tours of Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites exhibition and cake-fuelled vintage scent afternoons, have delighted Londoners over the past two years) is staging a potpourri revival, with a debut blend based on a recipe favoured by the Bloomsbury set.
Traditional potpourri is the fragrant epitome of stately homes – synonymous with beeswaxed panels, faded tapestries, dynastic dark oak chests and invitingly distressed leather armchairs. Odette Toilette’s Blend #1 (£45 for 650g) is a nod to that used at Knole, the Kent home of the Sackville family. In the novel Orlando, written by Virginia Woolf for her lover (the author, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West), the sensuality of Knole is evoked as the protagonist “slid along the polished planks of the gallery, the other side of which was rough timber; touched the silk, the satin; fancied the carved dolphins swam; brushed her hair with the King James’ silver brush; buried her face in the pot-pourri, which was made as the Conqueror had taught them many hundred years ago and from the same roses.”
The Knole recipe was, in fact, concocted in the 18th century by Lady Betty Germaine, a family friend. In the biographical Knole and the Sackvilles, Vita herself describes sinking her fingers into bowls of this potpourri: “If you stir them up you get the quintessence of the smell, a sort of dusty fragrance, sweeter in the under layers where it has held the damp of the spices.” She seems to mean “dusty” in a reassuringly constant sort of way.
Blend #1 has that same inherent whiff of tradition, but with a refreshing, contemporary twist. Working with horticulturalist and historian Stephen Nelson, the man behind Darasina Perfumes, Ostrom has stirred her pot by underscoring poignantly rich, almost jammy rose petals with Russian coriander, hand-shaved cedar, tonka bean and benzoin. Purists will be pleased to hear that aromatics such as cardamom, lemon verbena and sweet marjoram are the top notes of this vibrant, moreish blend. It’s also worth noting that each stone-glazed pot – hand thrown by a Yorshire family pottery – holds the equivalent of two litres of rose petals, painstakingly cured in salt.
“Smelling a heady, moist potpourri as it used to be is a revelation,” muses Ostrom, who plans yet more velvety blends for sinking fingers into, once this limited edition of 250 has flown. Stirring stuff.