My grandmother’s Easter bread is a lacy confection of butter and sugar. Glazed with chocolate and decorated with flowers, it looks like a Byzantine mosaic. Redolent of bitter cacao and violets, it doesn’t just smell good. I realize with a thrill that it smells like a complete perfume–the top note of violet, the heart of hazelnuts and wheat, and the lingering backdrop of musky chocolate. Take this idea, refine it into an accord–a combination of several perfume notes that becomes more than the sum of its parts–and voila, you can use it to create a new gourmand genre. Sounds fanciful, but this is how perfume is made.
On the face of it, it seems as if the gourmand genre has captured every dessert, from crème brûlée (Aquolina Pink Sugar) to cupcakes (Vera Wang Princess), from rice pudding (Tommy Hilfiger True Star) to raspberry macarons (Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire). You can have your chocolate with cinnamon (Pacifica Mexican Cocoa), with caramel (Thierry Mugler Angel), or with honey (Tom Ford Noir de Noir).
The selection seems endless, until you notice that the majority of gourmand accords are riffs on popular French and American patisserie. Not to mention that the bulk of today’s gourmands owes its existence to the patchouli-cotton candy accord made familiar by Mugler’s Angel. Since the majority of perfumers and creative directors are American or European (usually French), their background influences their inspiration and palette. Since the biggest perfume markets are the North American and European, the tastes of these consumers get the most attention.
As the perfume business becomes increasingly more corporate and far-reaching (find me the land where Coty has feared to tread), the olfactory idea of “mouthwatering” is narrowed down to cotton candy and vanilla custards. Browse the lists of regional top sellers, and the same Lancôme La Vie est Belle, Thierry Mugler Angel and Chanel Coco Mademoiselle show up time and again. Big beauty groups are perfectly placed to popularize their products through clever marketing, but to draw inspiration from new sources requires a completely different approach, and here they fail. One product doesn’t fit all, despite their best efforts.
I love the gourmand fragrance family, and I reach for Angel and Pink Sugar whenever I want utter indulgence and fun. What frustrates me about today’s gourmand offerings is the narrow focus. Crème caramel is swell, but I want to experience perfumes inspired by Asian, Iranian or Latin American flavors. It’s not the exoticism I’m after, but diversity. The incredible richness of the world’s cuisines is exciting, and when you have all of the ingredients and information at your fingertips, there is no excuse to stick to the same collection of accords.
For instance, Indian burfi, cardamom and chickpea flour fudge, would be an ideal candidate for a gourmand with its toasty, caramelized, spicy profile. I imagine a Bengali rice crepe stuffed with brown sugar and coconut, all accented with jasmine, as a new tropical gourmand. Or a Persian pilaf flavored with apricots and saffron for a novel twist in a woody oriental. Or closer to home, a smoky dried fruit used in Ukrainian uzvar. I long to smell these smoky, incense-like plums in a fragrance: as a nuance in a patchouli rose, mossy chypre or violet cedarwood.
Perfume marketeers love to remark that people just “want to smell good”and that such notes are “too unusual for an average American buyer.” Enough with this nonsense already is all I can say. People certainly want to smell good, but they also crave an emotional charge, excitement and fantasy. Now that we have been bombarded by the endless Angel clones for 20 years, it may be hard to imagine that this lush gourmand was anything but the norm at the time of its debut. So, go ahead, thrill me!
If you search long enough, you can find gourmands with a difference. They mostly exist on the fringes of the mainstream. Arquiste Anima Dulcis concocts an ancient bitter chocolate recipe, lacing it with animalic notes and dark spices. Hermessence Vétiver Tonka has a hint of walnut brioche, with a touch of caramelized fruit. The salty notes of vetiver make the whole thing addictive. Tom Ford Noir Extreme is inspired by kulfi, an Indian caramelized milk and rosewater ice cream. Kilian’s Intoxicated reinterprets a cup of Arabic coffee spiced with green cardamom. Guess Seductive Homme–disregard the anodyne name; it’s more fresh than sultry–has a terrific milky cardamom fillip in the top notes.
Or take a different approach and try Guerlain’s Shalimar, Mitsouko and L’Heure Bleue and pay attention to the edible accents that hide in their classical, so familiar, forms–smoky vanilla, stewed peaches and candied anise seeds. Mouthwatering and still distinctive.
So, imagine that you’re a perfumer with a brief to design a new gourmand fragrance. What would you create? (Also, if you have your favorite “unusual” gourmands, please share. We always love learning more about this underrated category.)
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, paski, Ukrainian Easter breads and uzvar, dried fruit compote.