Scents of Place
I’m reading a book about terroir at the moment.*
As you may know, terroir is mostly a wine term (although it can refer to coffee, tea, chocolate and tomatoes as well). In a narrow sense terroir refers to how the taste of a wine will be influenced by the climate, soil, rainfall, and aspect of the region or vineyard in which the grapes are grown. Sometimes, apparently, terroir can differ even within a single vineyard, meaning that the grapes grown in one part of it may produce a wine superior to that produced in another.
Some people see a broader meaning as well in the concept of terroir. They define it the soul of a place, an expression of its history, culture and communal memory. It something to be preserved and cherished. The idea appeals to people nervous about globalisation, who search for uniqueness and authenticity in the products they consume.
But what about terroir in perfume? Does it exist? Should it?
There many perfumes suggestive of exotic or remote locales, often conjured out of the romantic imagination of a perfumer who has never been near the exotic east (or wherever.) Shalimar, Opium, Coco, Dune … You know what I mean. And damnit, how many fragrances are there based on the idea of the Mediterranean? Too many to count.
But there are independent perfumers, or perfumers working for niche brands, who do travel to places to explore new scents and materials and then transform them into perfume. Bertrand Duchafour is an obvious example (Traversee au Bosphore, Dzongkha, Fleure de Liane, all for L’Artisan; and no doubt there are many others). Jean Claude Ellena famously travelled to Egypt searching for inspiration for his Un Jardin sur le Nil for Hermes. Sandrine Videault spent time on the south Pacific island of Wallis before she created Manoumalia for LesNez. However, these are travel scents and the perfumer is essentially bringing us a ‘report’ on his or her sensory impressions.
What I’d like is a perfumer to tell me the story of their own place, somewhere they know well and which holds meaning and memories for them. Closer to this idea is the collaboration between Duchafour and Neela Vermiere, especially the contemporary evocation, Bombay Bling. Marc-Antoine Corticchiato describes in perfume a memory of his parents’ orange orchard in Morroco in his Azemour les Orangers for Parfum d’Empire. Ellen Covey (Olympic Orchids) has a ‘Scents of Place’ line based on places she has lived in or visited (although it is not clear which is which). Interestingly, some of these are based on American places – the Pacific Northwest, Arizona, and the American South – which is unusual. Often we are taken to remote deserts and jungles … the Mediterranean … north African souks … Italian holiday destinations … the Mediterranean …
But speaking of America, there is of course Bond No 9 and its huge run of perfumes ‘making scents of New York’. Interestingly, Bond does not tell us who the perfumers are. Who is the nose behind Gramercy Park, for instance? Have they lived in that neighbourhood? What is the relationship between the perfume, perfumer, place, and materials? Very little, I’d say.
The ultimate ‘scent of place’, a perfume actually based on a terroir, would use locally sourced raw materials. Then I could smell the earth, the plants, the air and the sun of the place. I would love it if the citrus oils in Azemour les Orangers were sourced from somewhere close to the actual orange grove that the perfumer is recalling for us, but I don’t suppose they are. (Although the orange flower is said to be ‘African’ orange flower, so maybe … ?) In reality many niche perfumers, especially natural perfumers, seek the best quality materials possible and that means searching all over the world. They also often need to make adjustments when a certain material becomes unobtainable.
So maybe my idea of perfume terroir in not feasible. What say you? Any thoughts?
*Jonathan Nossiter, Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters (New York, 2009)