Culture: 246 posts

Art, travel, books, history

What Does The Word Mitsouko Mean?

Of the legendary fragrances, Guerlain classics have some of the most beautiful names and stories to go with them. Shalimar and Shah Jahan’s gardens in Lahore. L’Heure Bleue and the streets of Paris at dusk. Après L’Ondée and a sudden May downpour. And there is Mitsouko. The fragrance created in 1919 was inspired by two extraordinary successes of its time–a perfume and a novel, Coty’s Chypre and Claude Farrère’s La Bataille. Farrère was a close friend of Jacques Guerlain, and a few years earlier Farrère mentioned Jicky in his novel Opium Smoke–“Jicky poured drop by drop onto the hands blackened by the drug.” This image delighted Guerlain enough to return the favor by baptizing a new creation after Mitsouko Yorisaka, a character in La Bataille (The Battle).

Farrère’s novel sold more than a million copies in its day, but the perfume inspired by it survived the test of time better. Much of Farrère’s work, La Bataille included, doesn’t excite. It’s a novel of conventional value and somewhat stuffy, nostalgic style inspired by Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème, Farrère’s commander during his stint with the French navy. To Farrère’s credit, unlike Loti, he attempted to present Japan as an evolving modern society, rather than a place of ikebana and geishas. The background for the story is the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, in which Japan wiped out the Russian fleet and demonstrated that the Meiji era reforms put it on equal footing with the Western powers. Farrère had spent three days in Nagasaki and had done his own research, but in the end, the plot suffers too much from melodrama and clichés borrowed from Loti, without Loti’s refined style.

Continue reading →

Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Grilled Spicy Chicken

Picking a favorite cuisine is not easy for me. I adore the lusty Ukrainian flavors of my childhood as well as the subtle interplay of nuances of Japanese cooking. Italian dishes, especially the Abruzzo specialties I learned as a teenager living in southern Italy, are the mainstay in my repertoire, food I turn to if I don’t know what else to cook. Persian delicacies like layered rices and stewed meats are what I make when I feel like playing with colors and flavors. And the cooking of the subcontinent, especially Pakistan and India, satisfies my perfumer’s sensibilities. Diverse though the cuisines are in different parts of the countries, they give me a chance to compose a dish as I would a fragrance by building accords and creating top, heart, and base notes.

Pakistani cuisine may be less known in comparison to Indian, but it boasts a splendid variety of dishes, from grilled meats to banana leaf steamed fish, from breads perfumed with saffron to rice garnished with dried fruit and nuts. It’s both a new and an old country. Formed in 1947, Pakistan bears the imprints of civilizations that succeeded each other, from the Indus Valley Civilization to the Greeks and the Mughals. As a place where different faiths met and different people traded, fought, loved and lived, it has a varied and rich food culture. Short of visiting a Pakistani family, one way to discover it is via Sumayya Usmani’s cookbook, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan (public library).

Continue reading →

10 Favorite Summer Reads in 10 Subjects

Summer reading lists are a tradition stretching back to my school days when a teacher sent us forth on vacation armed with a compilation of books to be read by September 1st. Now I will make a confession. As much as I liked imagining that come the first day of school, I would have a book report completed, I could rarely stick to the prescribed selection (and not only because it was biased towards the moralistic Soviet classics). At the library other titles tempted me as did the iris and chocolate redolent volumes from my great-grandmother’s old bookcase. Things have remained much the same the older I got. Even if I make reading lists, I leave room to deviate from them, because one of the pleasures of literature is the serendipitous discovery. My reading depends on my current interests, work projects, recommendations from friends, and Bois de Jasmin readers. If I fall under the spell of one of my obsessions–Japanese literature, Persian poetry, Ukrainian history, artist memoirs, or Middle Eastern politics–my carefully planned reading list will unravel and recombine into something else entirely. I follow my curiosity, and as a motivating force, it’s far stronger.

What I do love is reading lists made by others and selecting new titles to inspire my reading. The summer reading recommendations I share in this post were compiled in the same spirit. They include 10 books in 10 different subjects, books that I enjoyed in subjects that I find fascinating. In the words of Montaigne, who stars in one of my favorite books on the list, “When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.” They also enhance the sunniest of days.

Continue reading →

Searching for a Beautiful Scent, A Conversation with Maurice Roucel

Maurice Roucel is one of the best people to talk perfume. For one thing, the rarefied, quasi-mystical approach to fragrance so common among many perfumers is entirely foreign to him. He sees the role of a fragrance creator in need of a clear definition and classification afforded to other artists, but he doesn’t comport himself as a savant of subjects too refined for the understanding of mere mortals. If anything, his down-to-earth attitude and candid manner make him a refreshing presence and a great conversation partner on topics that range from perfume to wine and life in general.

One winter Roucel and I met at a café in Paris and I posed a slightly provocative question to him: what makes a perfume beautiful? His answer and our subsequent conversation that lasted for several hours is the inspiration for my latest FT piece, Striking Accord.

“The idea of perfume making as an art form, however, can be hard to champion. While scents are related to other kinds of intangible Unesco-listed cultural heritage such as cuisine, they don’t benefit from the same recognition or documentation (the Osmothèque, a scent archive based in Versailles, is the main institution studying and preserving historical fragrances), and are generally seen as too subjective to analyse or even describe, making definitions of artistic worth complicated.” To continue reading, please click here.

What is your personal definition of a beautiful perfume?

Photography via WPC

On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.”

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume, is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery. To read the article, please click here.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

To read all articles in my column, please click on my name in the byline.

From the Archives

Latest Comments

Latest Tweets

Design by cre8d
© Copyright 2005-2017 Bois de Jasmin. All rights reserved.