Culture: 304 posts

Art, travel, books, history

Scented Orchids : A Kaleidoscope of Perfume

Andy wrote this article a couple of years ago after his visit to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and I kept looking for a chance to share it with you. Now in the middle of grey winter days, an invitation to contemplate scented orchids seems particularly welcome.

What does an orchid really smell like? In the world of perfumery, the answer is fairly limited—orchid is usually portrayed using a note that is spicy, exotic, and floral like Tom Ford Black Orchid or Jo Malone Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, often accented by woodsy, powdery, or vanillic nuances. In reality, though, orchids possess far too wide a range of scents to be classified using any of these descriptions. Orchids are a particularly diverse class of plants, found on every continent, except Antarctica, growing in rainforests, deserts, and marshes, on mountains, valleys, and plains, and taking root in just about every type of climate imaginable.

Orchids are highly adapted to their environments, which is reflected in the fact that most species of orchids have co-adapted with their pollinators to exhibit flowers that are shaped, colored, and scented to attract a specific species of insect or bird. This explains why an orchid species like Orphrys exaltata, which is pollinated by male bees, carries a sweet scent that mimics female bee pheromones, and why an orchid species like Bulbophyllum graveolens, which is pollinated by carrion flies, smells like rotting meat. Fortunately for human noses, though, most cultivated orchids smell pleasant, with odors that span the range of fruity, floral, and all other notes in between.

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How I Learn Languages

The KGB blacklisted my stepfather, making it impossible for him to travel outside the Soviet Union. He satisfied his wanderlust by reading and learning languages. I remember our bookshelves filled with self-study books and dictionaries: English, French, Italian, German, Bulgarian, Serbian/Croatian, Czech. I opened them at random and the more unfamiliar they looked, the more I wanted to learn and enter the universe of new languages. It felt exciting and liberating.

That exhilarating feeling of discovery has remained with me, and it drives me to learn new languages. I speak, read and write 11 languages and am currently learning my 12th. Besides English, these languages include French, Italian, Persian, Indonesian, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Vietnamese, Urdu–and German. Most of these I’ve learned in the past few years when I figured out a method that worked for me. I’m often asked by many of my friends and readers to put together my strategy for studying languages, and so I’ve jotted down certain rules and important elements that make my learning efficient. Once I started writing, I realized that I could come up with a whole book on the topic, but since my goal today is to summarize my approach in an article, I’ll leave the comment field for any additional questions and clarifications. Please feel free to ask your specific recommendations and share your experience with learning languages.

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Niko Pirosmani : A Movable Feast

The paintings by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) throw me off balance. It may be a strange reaction to art, especially to the one depicting animals, people feasting, gathering grapes, or fishing, but Pirosmani is not an ordinary painter. Why are the deer’s eyes so much like human eyes? Why do the revelers raising their horns full of wine look so serious? What are they celebrating? What went through the artist’s mind as he sketched and what did he intend for us to see? What motivated him to paint?

Most likely–and we have so little information about Pirosmani’s life that we can only guess–it was hunger that prompted Pirosmani to take up the brush. Born in 1862, in a village in the Kakheti region of Georgia, he didn’t have any formal education, and his stints as a train conductor and cattle herder ended in failure. He learned painting from itinerant artists and he wanted to open a workshop producing signboards. It almost came to naught. The first order he painted for free, while the second one never came. He remained poor and hungry for the rest of his life, a vagabond and a pariah.

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Abhisarika Nayika : The One Who Dares

At the end of the year, I was going through my papers and I found a few notes I wrote about Indian classical art and the theory of rasa. According to the Natya Sastra, a text about arts dating to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, the purpose of art is to transport the person who experiences it to another universe. Delight, entertainment, even distraction from the routine are reasonable goals too, but the main one is a chance to transcend the ordinary and feel wonder.

The theory of rasa is more complex and fascinating than my short description, but its essence is very easy to grasp. Think of a work of art that has touched you so deeply you forgot about all else. A painting, a film, a sculpture, a perfume. I still think that some of my most vivid experiences of this nature have been connected with scents, and I wrote about one of them previously when I described discovering Guerlain Après L’Ondée as a teenager.

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Pandan: the Perfume of Penang

Let me start the new year with a journey and take you to George Town. Located on the Malaysian island of Penang, the city was established in the 18th century by the British East India Company. The population of George Town is diverse, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, each contributing its own traditions to Penang’s cosmopolitan blend. One of the most distinctive layers is formed by the Peranakans. The descendants of the Chinese who arrived starting from the 15th century and intermarried with the locals, the Peranakans blend Chinese, Malay and European customs. Their clothing, art and music are distinctive, but even more striking is their cuisine: Peranakan, or Nyonya, food is one of George Town’s main attractions.

I traveled around Malaysia, exploring its scented and culinary traditions, but I kept returning to Penang. It drew me with its diversity, its history, and above all, its food. Penang’s food and scents are the topics of my recent FT column, Pandan: the Perfume of Penang. I explore the most characteristic of all scents in Peranakan cuisine, pandan.

Although the foods I tried in Penang were varied – I’ve written previously about the sheer variety of specialities on offer across its different neighbourhoods – one leitmotif during my explorations was the scent of pandan leaves. The Peranakans mix shredded pandan with rose petals, jasmine and perfume oil to create a home fragrance, but most often, the leaves of this tropical plant are used in their cuisine. Although pandan tends to be described as the vanilla of Asia for its ubiquity in desserts, its fragrance isn’t sweet. When raw, pandan smells green and nutty, but when cooked, it acquires the voluptuous, toasted perfume of basmati rice. To continue reading, please click here.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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