Culture: 377 posts

Art, travel, books, history

Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries: On Happiness

Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” tells a story–two friends, Ivan and Bourkin, shelter from the rain at another friend’s house. They take a swim in a pond and then Ivan tells about his brother, a civil servant, who had a dream of owning a house and a gooseberry patch. This idea so possessed him that he married a wealthy widow, starved his wife to death trying to save money, and finally bought an estate. When Ivan visited his brother in his new home, he found him not the meek civil servant that he once was but a pompous man who oppressed his peasants and took offense over not being saluted properly. A plate of gooseberries harvested from his patch was brought in during dinner. Though they were hard and sour, Ivan’s brother ate them with relish, delighting in every bite.

As Ivan tells the story, he turns to his friends and makes the speech that forms the climax of “Gooseberries.” He says that happiness doesn’t exist, that it shouldn’t exist. He urges his friends, younger men, to do good. “Obviously the happy man is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if there were not this silence, happiness would be impossible,” Ivan says in agitation. “Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him — illness, poverty, losses, and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.”

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Corsican Eucalyptus and the Scent of the Maquis

A few years ago I met a woman who talked about her fiendishly complex emigration from Russia to Israel in the ’80s and how instead of Jerusalem she ended up living for a year in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica. I asked what Corsica was like, my own mental image comprised mostly of Napoleon, the French Foreign Legion, and Laetitia Casta. She reflected for a moment and then said that it smelled heavenly. She meant the smell of the maquis. Since then I’ve been obsessed with the maquis, or as it’s known in Corsican, machja.

In Corsica, the maquis is ever-present–this wild scrubland vegetation covers nearly 20% of the island. Even when you don’t see it, it fleets before you in bits of folklore and stories. For instance, the guerilla fighters of the French Resistance in World War II were called maquisards, from the maquis (pronounced in French as ​[maˈki]) that reach up to 10 feet and make for an ideal hiding place. The maquis provides food, medicine, and lore. The scrubland starts at the sea coast–le maquis bas, climbs higher–le maquis moyen, and clings to the mountains–le maquis haut. These low, middle, and high maquis are woven of more than 2,500 varieties of wild plants, and their aromas build up slowly like a pyramid of a perfectly constructed perfume.

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Favorite Perfume Books to learn about history, science, and techniques

Whenever I’m asked about my favorite books, two parallel thoughts flash through my mind–how much time do you have to listen to me and which are my favorite books. As someone who reads in all genres and on all topics, I have difficulty pairing down my favorites to to a small-talk appropriate list. However, when it comes to perfume books, I have no difficulty answering the question; my most read books are always within reach. Today, I will start with a list of books that I use for reference. I read them cover to cover and dip into chapters at random to learn about perfumery techniques, styles, or the fragrance industry.

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee

I first talked to Harold McGee about this book project more than ten years ago, but I believe that it took him even longer to research it. The wait has been worth it. McGee’s erudition sparkles on every page, and you can open the book on any chapter and find something new about aromas, molecules, emotions — and your own nose. It’s a study of olfaction as well as the world as we experience it through our senses. McGee weaves his personal experiences throughout his discussions, which gives Nose Dive its rich, layered quality. If you’re familiar with McGee’s writings on food and the science of cooking, you don’t need me to advertise this book further. Highly recommended.

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Why Is Rose Centifolia Such An Expensive Ingredient

I had a chance to harvest roses in Grasse on a couple of occasions and to observe the process of rose absolute and rose essential oil distillation. The experience of jumping into a pile of rose petals was certainly heady and memorable, but what struck me the most was the work involved to produce rose absolute. Since the famous rose of Grasse, rose centifolia, or rose de mai, contains less essence than rose damascena, it’s rarely steam-distilled. Instead, it has to be processed in a multi-step manner, which requires skill, experience and the right equipment.

My most recent video is about rose centifolia. As I explain, the processing of rose blossoms into rose absolute is a complicated and time-consuming process.  First, the flowers are treated with an organic solvent such as hexane, and the resulting extract is then vacuum distilled. The solvent is removed, and the resulting product is called concrète.

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The Scent of Empire Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlogel

The Scent of Empire: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel

The first time my grandmother was introduced to my future grandfather, he was performing a duet with his brother. Identical twins and devastatingly handsome, the duo sang their most popular number about a girl holding a bottle of “Tejé.” This French-sounding perfume intrigued me, but despite searching for Tejé in Google and various perfumery databases, I couldn’t find any trace of it. It was not until I read Karl Schlögel’s book The Scent of Empire: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow did I realize that that it wasn’t Tejé, but rather TeZhe. It certainly was not French. TeZhe stood for the State Trust of Fat and Bone Processing Industry, which included perfume manufacturing. It was the LVMH of the USSR, if you will, and it was under its auspices that the most famous Soviet perfume, Red Moscow, was born. Schlögel’s book is about the world of Red Moscow and its intriguing connection to Chanel No 5.

Brocard Moscow vintage poster

Schlögel’s story alternates between Moscow and Paris, Red Moscow and No 5 and the personalities that surrounded them. Red Moscow was created in 1925 by Auguste Michel, who like the creator of No 5, Ernest Beaux, was a French perfumer working in Moscow. Michel was born in Grasse and joined Rallet in Moscow in 1908, where he and Beaux were students of Alexandre Lemercier. Beaux and Michel had been influenced by the work on aldehydes done by the perfumer Robert Bienaimé at Houbigant. Beaux remained with Rallet, while Michel moved to work for Brocard, another French perfume house in Moscow.

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