Nothing about my masala dabba, an Indian-style spice box, looks remotely exotic. It’s a round tin with a double lid and several compartments, and after being moved across continents, it has enough dents and scratches to have formed a peculiar surface pattern. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and the moment the slightly battered lid is pushed ajar it becomes obvious why the roots of the words “spice” and “special” are intertwined – the perfume of coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, fennel and pepper that rushes forth is so rich and heady that it alone is enough to dispel gloom on a cold winter day.
Among the aromatics inside my spice box, cardamom has a place of honour. It’s a curious spice, because unlike darker, heavier favourites like black pepper, cumin or allspice, cardamom combines the freshness of lemon peel with a peppery and metallic bite. I often crush a few green pods to flavour a cup of coffee, a batch of gingerbread or a Persian-style lamb stew. Another way I enjoy cardamom is via Kilian’s Intoxicated (£195 for 50ml EDP), a fragrance evoking a Turkish coffee house hidden in the maze of a spice bazaar.
When I crave sweetness with an assertive edge, I turn to cinnamon. It’s an overused scent around the holidays, but there is no denying the appeal of this red-hot note. In combination with other spices, cinnamon reveals its full depth, and fragrances like Dior’s Dolce Vita (£43.50 for 30ml EDT), Parfums de Nicolaï’s Maharanih Intense (£40 for 30ml EDP) and Kenzo’s Jungle L'Eléphant (£31 for 50ml EDP) are memorable examples. They’re ideal choices for someone who owns a tiara and actually wears it; in other words, expect lots of drama and glitter.
Anise and fennel are in the category of more subtle spices. Perfumers rely on them for similar reasons as chefs – to lend brightness and radiance. For instance, in a classic like Guerlain L’Heure Bleue (£74.25 for 75ml EDP), anise lightens up the powdery, creamy base of vanilla and amber. It similarly makes the richness of Réminiscence’s Tonka (£30 for 100ml EDT), a confection of honey, jasmine, bitter almonds and caramel, more palatable. But the best example of anise and its related liquorice notes is Lolita Lempicka (£25.40 for 100ml EDP), an orchestration of iris, black cherry, salty vetiver, musk and praline that hints at pleasures both gourmand and carnal.
Although cold months are generally seen as the perfect time to wear opulent spicy perfumes, I like to mix things up by adding an effervescent cologne to my repertoire. Consider Frédéric Malle’s Cologne Bigarade (£125 for 100ml EDT) or Chanel’s Pour Monsieur (£48 for 50ml EDT): the former is a zesty infusion of orange rind, cardamom and cumin, while the latter blends orange blossom with bergamot, pepper, and moss. Both fragrances provide a dose of freshness, but with additional warmth from spicy accents. Ladies, disregard the “monsieur” in the name of Chanel’s legendary perfume; it’s too good to let it languish at the men’s fragrance counter.
The rejuvenating effect of spices is the reason why I often keep a small bottle of Caron Parfum Sacré (£109 for 100ml EDP) in my purse; its aroma of smoky pepper and dry rose petals gives me an instant boost. It’s not quite like prying the lid off my masala dabba for a dose of aromatherapy, but since carrying a tin of spices around is not always feasible, Parfum Sacré is the next best thing.