Spices and Perfumes

Nothing about my masala dabba, an Indian-style spice box, looks exotic. It’s a round tin, with a double lid and several compartments, that after being moved across continents has enough dents and scratches to form a geography of its own. 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 honor. It’s a curious spice, because unlike darker, heavier favorites 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 flavor a cup of coffee, a batch of gingerbread or a Persian style lamb stew. Another way I enjoy cardamom is via Jo Malone Mimosa & Cardamom, a fragrance blending soft mimosa with the citrusy spice.

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 Serge Lutens Rousse and Kenzo Jungle L’Éléphant 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 anise lightens up the powdery, creamy base of vanilla and amber. It similarly makes the richness of Réminiscence’s Tonka, a confection of honey, jasmine, bitter almonds and caramel, more palatable. But the best example of anise and its related licorice notes is Lolita Lempicka, 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 or Chanel’s Pour Monsieur: 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 and a 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 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.

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20 Comments

  • Abhi: What an evocative post–if only the masala dabbas could tell stories of the meals cooked and joys shared in those kitchens. My masala dabba is an old wooden, lacquered bento box with small detachable compartments. 🙂 My favorite spice fragrance is Penhaligon’s Paithani. The first whiff is like burying one’s head is a sandalwood box filled with cardamoms–it is a pretty nostalgic fragrance for me…brings childhood memories of festivals and celebrations. Thanks for the lovely post–wish you a wonderful new year to come. December 27, 2021 at 10:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Your masala dabba sounds lovely. I like these kind of old objects that contain their own history.
      Somehow I missed Paithani, but now I must try it. December 28, 2021 at 4:19am Reply

  • Cathy Beshore: THIS!!! Just what I needed to read today on a snowy day in Pennsylvania. I love the idea of your little spice box! I may not know what many of these lovely-sounding fragrances smell like, but I do know the smell of the spices you used to describe them. This definitely warmed my heart, as many of my favorite memories involve the smell of spices. I brewed a batch of yogi tea the other day, and the smell of cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, and fresh ginger filled my house with such a comforting fragrance! I describe it as a feeling of being home!!

    Thank you for your lovely posts! This was certainly something that I needed to hear today!! December 27, 2021 at 10:40am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Cathy. I’m so glad to hear that the article hit the spot. The scent of spices is so evocative, and I can smell them again and again. December 28, 2021 at 4:20am Reply

  • Fazal: Parfum Sacre is awesome. I wanted to like Lutens Rousse but even if I was not impressed, Rousse is the most realistic cinnamon fragrance I have ever smelled. I was even under the impression that cinnamon is not a note I enjoy in perfumes until I realized it plays a prominent role in Shiseido Feminite du Bois, too. December 27, 2021 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t know if it’s my favorite among Serge Lutens’s perfumes, but it captures cinnamon well. And yes, cinnamon is used a lot in the whole collection. December 28, 2021 at 4:21am Reply

  • Alityke: I own two dabbas, one for traditional “Indian” spices & one for more traditional western food.
    The aroma from each is very different. Fennel seeds, star anise, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, paprika, both sweet & smoked, black peppercorns & juniper berries from the more western one.
    Cardamom, green & black, mustard seeds, Kalonji, cumin, coriander & my garam masala mix. My dried chillies have their own jars recycled from commercial products. I even have two different types of rose petals. So many delicious flavours & fragrances!

    Spices in fragrances span so many genres from big hitters such as Opium with its cinnamon & cloves, colognes with a bite of pepper or touch of clove, orange blossoms like SL Fleur d’Oranger which has a touch of sweaty cumin.
    Vanilla is the basis of many ambers & sweet gourmands. Spices seem to add depth & dimension in almost homeopathic doses to fragrances but can equally be their entirety.
    My favourite? Vintage Opium with vintage Guerlain Terracotta Voile d’Ete running a very close second
    Wishing everyone a happy & healthy 2022 December 27, 2021 at 2:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Two dabbas sound like a great idea. I do change what I keep in mine, but it’s typically whole cumin, whole fennel, chili powder, turmeric, chili flakes, mustard seeds, and coriander-cumin powder. December 28, 2021 at 4:23am Reply

  • Amalia: I knew it! That I smelled anise at L’heure bleue! that always “pinch” my nose and no one could understand what I meant! Thank you, My turtleneck still has its wonderful traces! December 27, 2021 at 5:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’ve picked it out perfectly then. It’s an important note in that perfume. December 28, 2021 at 4:23am Reply

  • irem: Ah, spices! Spices are my first love when it comes to the world of smell. I was in 6th grade when I did a project on spices, and have loved them ever since. I have a drawer full of them, but they keep multiplying and claiming more and more space in the pantry too.
    I so enjoy a good book on spices as well – and not only cookbooks, books on their history are almost more fascinating. Today, we can find most spices in the nearest supermarket for almost nothing, but the quest for spices has shaped part of the story of civilization.
    My favorite spice is probably cardamom. I so agree with you about its curiosity: warm yet cool, sweet yet dry. I most love it in Lebkuchen – the German holiday cookies full of spice, nuts, and (candied) zest. But then, that would be unfair to kheer – the Indian rice pudding with cardamom et. al.
    I guess I need to find more spice in perfume. Today, I was wearing Mitsouko – and it definitely provided some spice.
    Happy new year everyone – and all the best in 2022! December 27, 2021 at 7:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Mitsouko has a lovely spice accent, specifically cinnamon, but also clove.
      What are your favorite books about spices? December 28, 2021 at 4:25am Reply

      • Marianne: Hello Victoria, I don’t have a book about spices to offer but your question suddenly reminded me of a fascinating and entertaining book about colour, a surprising and sometimes shocking insight into the paints used by artists over the centuries: ‘Colour’ by Victoria Finlay. There’s a copy on my bookshelves, I’ve also given it as a gift having found it so interesting and readable. December 29, 2021 at 9:14am Reply

      • irem: I actually have you to thank for Mitsouko. Your recent post “Scent Diary : Mitsouko and Japanese fairy tales” made me do it, and I am glad I did. I have purchased the latest formulation directly from Guerlain – there is only the EdP. I was not exactly sure what to expect, I know there were new IFRA restrictions lately. And all I can say is that I enjoy wearing it: there is definitely a good structure, peach and spice, and a foundation – even if some (or most) of the inkiness is missing. I cannot tell exactly how much Mitsouko it is, as I have no other version to compare to side by side. The last time I wore Mitsouko was 15 years ago, and memory fades, tastes change. But I enjoy wearing it, have even received some compliments doing so – which is maybe not very reassuring for Mitsouko.
        As for the books, I am afraid I will disappoint you. Most of the books I have read were checked out from the public library, and I did not even take notes of the names. But I have one book on spices on my wishlist “Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination” by Paul Freedman. It looks very promising.
        I also want to reread “Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean” by Ana Sortun mostly because her journey starts in Turkey and I might have some Heimweh. December 29, 2021 at 11:46am Reply

  • keepitsunny: I was gifted Dior Dolce Vita as part of a perfume set, many years ago…the cinnamon and cedar were wonderful, and the bottle shape, so magic to look at!
    I recently bought a small decant from a trusted supplier, and sad to say I’m completely anosmic to it now. My skin just swallows it. Whatever reformulation it’s undergone, it’s not what it once was.
    My go-to is S.M. Novella Melograno, I still can’t get over the initial blast of soap but I have never smelled a better dry-down: vanilla and a range of spices (their site just lists the note as ‘Fresh Spices,’ not helpful at all), not gourmand at all and complex with the oakmoss, patchouli and musk, which remains at a low level on my skin for many hours. December 29, 2021 at 12:58pm Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you very much for going through the spice box with us. I enjoy Reminiscence Tonka, love l’Heure Bleue and my favorite cinnamon perfume is Molto Missoni. December 29, 2021 at 1:31pm Reply

  • Tara C: My favorite spice scent is Parfums MDCI Fêtes Persanes. So lovely. December 29, 2021 at 7:27pm Reply

  • Dina C.: Another Cologne meant for men that I love to wear is Cartier Declaration. It has a great cardamom note in it. I like to add ground cardamom to my homemade chicken noodle soup. It adds a special richness and oomph to it that everyone appreciates. December 30, 2021 at 12:20pm Reply

    • Eudora: Hello Dina, I am enjoying Cartier Declaration d’une Soir. I bought it for my husband but I love it for myself. It’s so elegant and smooth…l used the original Declaration also. I adore it. December 30, 2021 at 5:18pm Reply

  • Sheryl: I adore fragrances with spice in them. I have Jungle L’Elephant and wear it when I want my office to feel like a spice bazaar. I also have Cremo’s Spice & Black Vanilla which is calmer and more cozy. And Maison Sybarite’s Spicy Calabria when I want spice and oud. I have a sample of Parfum Sacré, but haven’t tried it yet. Maybe I’ll spritz that on tonight! January 5, 2022 at 5:35pm Reply

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