I never met my great-grandmother Olena, who passed away shortly after I was born, but nevertheless I felt her as a constant presence in my life. Partly, it was due to the numerous recipe books that she left behind. The hand-bound sheets covered with Olena’s lacy handwriting detailed her techniques for stuffing a roast, making multilayer cakes or selecting fruit for jams and marmalades. The most intriguing of her recipes was the one she called “a dry perfume for gingerbread.”
Most European countries have their own gingerbread recipe and a combination of spices that gives each regional variation its distinctive flavour. Olena’s Ukrainian version was scented with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, star anise and a hint of saffron. When I blended it myself following her proportions, I realised that it was similar to the “gingerbread perfume” accord I learnt how to make as a perfumery student, although my liquid version didn’t have the voluptuous richness of saffron.
Turning to my perfume library, I found that gingerbread accords can take just as many guises as the confectionery. Some perfumers interpret it as light and delicately spiced, while others explore robust and fiery combinations. Guerlain Tonka Impériale (£169 for 75ml EDP), for instance, is a soft and sweet composition. The honey note hides a core of vanilla and tonka beans. The tonka beans here smell like roasted almonds and spiced cherries, and cinnamon and clove accentuate the scent’s plush warmth. Rosemary, on the other hand, keeps things from turning cloying.
A darker take on gingerbread is Serge Lutens’ Five O’Clock Au Gingembre (€180 for 100ml EDP). It’s as if the perfumer Christopher Sheldrake decided to capture the classical English gingerbread – fudgy and rich with ginger, brown sugar and black treacle. The mouthwatering gingerbread accord is set against smoky amber for a gourmand delight. Sheldrake is responsible for another gingerbread-inflected fragrance in the Lutens line, Bornéo 1834 (€130 for 100ml EDP). Dark chocolate and earthy patchouli are shot through with cardamom, ginger and liquorice. Its closest match at the patisserie would be kue lapis, a spiced Indonesian layer cake.
The most surprising gingerbread fragrance in my collection is Parfum d’Empire Fougère Bengal (€130 for 100ml EDP). Instead of blending gingerbread with sugary and creamy notes, perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato pairs it with lavender and immortelle. On skin, the fragrance first edges towards sweetness but then oscillates, as it develops, between a savoury amuse-bouche and a dessert. Although it’s meant to evoke India, Fougère Bengal takes me back to my great-grandmother’s house and the wreaths of immortelle that decorated her small altar where the candles would be lit on Christmas Eve. Long after she passed away, these traditions have been kept up by my mother. Olena’s dry perfume for gingerbread inspired me to search for a perfect spicy perfume, and yet what I found was another memory of her. And, of course, a beautiful fragrance.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.