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 dustilyin their bowls long after their scent had faded could hardly hold a candle tothe more flamboyant room fragrances that usurped them.
Once the carefullypreserved 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+Sniffevents, such as fragranced tours of Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites exhibitionand cake-fuelled vintage scent afternoons, have delighted Londoners over thepast two years) is staging a potpourri revival, with a debut blend based on arecipe favoured by the Bloomsbury set.
Traditional potpourri is the fragrant epitome of stately homes– synonymous with beeswaxed panels, faded tapestries, dynastic dark oak chestsand invitingly distressed leather armchairs. Odette Toilette’s Blend #1 (£45 for 650g) isa nod to that used at Knole, the Kent home of the Sackville family. In thenovel Orlando, written byVirginia 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 ofthe gallery, the other side of which was rough timber; touched the silk, thesatin; 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 theConqueror 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, afamily friend. In the biographical Knoleand the Sackvilles, Vita herself describes sinking her fingers into bowlsof this potpourri: “If you stir them up you get the quintessence of thesmell, a sort of dusty fragrance, sweeter in the under layers where it has heldthe damp of the spices.” She seems to mean “dusty” in a reassuringly constantsort of way.
Blend #1 has that same inherent whiff of tradition, but with arefreshing, contemporary twist. Working with horticulturalist and historianStephen Nelson, the man behind Darasina Perfumes, Ostrom has stirred her pot by underscoringpoignantly rich, almost jammy rose petals with Russian coriander, hand-shavedcedar, tonka bean and benzoin. Purists will be pleased to hear that aromatics such ascardamom, 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 thrownby a Yorshire family pottery – holds the equivalent of two litres of rosepetals, painstakingly cured in salt.
“Smelling a heady, moist potpourri as it used to be is arevelation,” muses Ostrom, who plans yet more velvety blends for sinking fingersinto, once this limited edition of 250 has flown. Stirring stuff.