Every spring I make a Persian rhubarb sherbet by cooking sliced stems and sugar in water. Once the flavour and pink colour infuse into the syrup, I filter the liquid and add rose essence. Enjoyed in tall crystal glasses, the sherbet has a voluptuous taste that calls to mind the warm light streaming through the stained-glass windows of the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, a pink-tinted jewel of Shiraz.
Since perfumery has much in common with cuisine, rendering my sherbet into a fragrance accord with a similar ornate impression is not difficult. Rhubarb has a natural affinity with rose, violet and berries, because they are complementary notes (and raspberry, in a nesting-doll twist, contains elements of both rose and violet, which makes it an especially felicitous partner). Jo Malone White Lilac & Rhubarb (£89 for 100ml EDC, exclusive to the Regent Street store) explores this combination by augmenting the floral layer of rhubarb with a cocktail of rose and lilac. It’s a bright and happy perfume, with a nod to retro glamour.
Rhubarb may seem like a modern note in the perfumer’s palette, but in fact it has a classical pedigree. A subtle effect, of green crunch and mouthwatering tartness, is found in Miss Dior (£82 for 100ml EDT) and Carven Ma Griffe (£58 for 50ml EDP). Today, perfumers have more ingredients with rhubarb inflections at their disposal, using tartness to temper the sugary notes currently in vogue. For a rhubarb dessert, I might select Yves Saint Laurent Baby Doll (£39 for 30ml EDT), a compote of rhubarb, grapefruit and musk, or Burberry Brit Red (now discontinued, but available from some online retailers), a crème brûlée topped with candied jasmine petals and gingerbread.
Just as it gives an interesting twist to a gourmand, rhubarb also makes green and resinous notes shimmer. To achieve such an illusion, Olfactive Studio’s Flash Back (£110 for 100ml EDP) dilutes it with vetiver and just enough apple for a hint of delicate sweetness. Aedes de Venustas Signature Eau de Parfum (£185 for 100ml EDP) is an even more striking composition – it tosses rhubarb slices with basil leaves and incense. The effect is neither liturgical nor gourmand, but as fresh and exhilarating as being caught in a spring rainstorm.
My recent discovery is Hermès’s Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate (£75 for 100ml EDC), the debut by the new in-house perfumer Christine Nagel. Nagel is well known for her sultry compositions that wear like cashmere wraps, and with this scent she demonstrates that it’s possible to make a cologne seductive. She pairs rhubarb with citrus and red berries, but then adds a dollop of musk to make the drydown suave and tender. The result is similar to my sherbet — opulent, rich and just as delicious.