I spent much of last year travelling and researching the way spices and other aromatics are grown. The word “spice” contains the same root as the word “special”, and I wanted to discover how these unique fragrant plants are transformed into essences and used in perfumery. From the clove gardens in Indonesia to the cumin fields in India and the cassia cinnamon groves in Vietnam, my journey was full of revelations.
I learnt, for instance, that clove essence comes not from the buds of the tree, as is the case with mulled wine and gingerbread, but rather the leaves and stems. The essential oil from each part of the tree has a different scent profile; while the leaves release a sweet-smelling essence, the one derived from the stems has a smoky, woody accent. The latter is apparent in one of my favourite clove scents: Frédéric Malle Noir Epices (£97 for 30ml EDP). The composition is based on a warm, citrus accord, but clove, along with cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper, gives it a rich character. Perfumer Michel Roudnitska resisted the temptation to sweeten the blend, allowing the dry, woody nuances of the spices to stand unvarnished. The result is luminous and multifaceted.
In the Indian subcontinent, cumin is widely grown for both culinary and cosmetic uses. Raw cumin smells animalic and musky, but as anyone who has toasted cumin seeds knows, the spice’s scent changes dramatically when it is warmed over heat. It becomes caramelised and nutty, and this essence has recently become part of the perfumer’s palette. In Hermès Epice Marine (£185 for 100ml EDT), toasted cumin adds a savoury twist to the earthy vetiver and citrus cologne. The lemony cardamom (another favourite Indian spice) adds a shimmering top note, while the mellow cedarwood serves as a polished backdrop. All the while, the dark note of cumin glows seductively.
Travelling along the spice route, I kept coming across cassia cinnamon – a sweeter and less complex botanical than “true” Ceylon cinnamon, yet it plays an important role in perfumery. Cassia cinnamon adds a vivid explosion of fiery sweetness to any blend, even when used in small amounts. I particularly like the way it inflects Dior Spice Blend (£200 for 125ml EDP), a fragrance inspired by Bay Rum aftershave lotion. Several spices are woven through this elegant composition, such as ginger, black pepper and vanilla, but it’s the kiss of cinnamon that gives it a delicious, familiar touch. Take a deep inhale, and Spice Blend conjures up all things warm and comforting.
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. @boisdejasmin.