Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fragrant by Mandy Aftel: perfume book giveaway

More of a biographical mapping out of the discovery of a new career path and the richness with which it has gifted its author than a mainstream guide, Fragrant: The secret life of scent by Mandy Aftel is a fascinating journey into four key materials (cinnamon, incense, mint, jasmine and ambergris), their mystical significance, their aura, their historical pathway and with it the trajectory of natural perfumery. The book takes the form of a meditation on the sensuality and pleasure that natural materials offer, divided into 5 parts corresponding to each material) and a plea for the embracing of their sensuous capabilities in our increasingly sterilized world.

Aftel's Essence and Alchemy is already a perfume book classic, aimed at the fragrance enthusiast with the desire to learn (it includes a hands down approach to learning to build fragrant chords with natural essences and a classic fragrance pyramid structure tutorial a la Jean Carles), while Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent is less of a traditional guide. Instead Aftel muses on several points on scent while adding tidbits that are always interesting and a handful of recipes for edible stuff that would make you see things in a new light. For that reason it would appeal to the novice, as it does not require special knowledge in order to follow its beautiful prose, but also to the more accomplished fragrance collector as a tome to stand proudly in their library.

You can order the book on Amazon at a special price.

I have a new hardback copy to share with a lucky reader. Please enter a comment below to be eligible. Draw is open internationally till Friday midnight.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Carrot Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting: Adventures in the Kitchen

Yes, you are looking at five dozen boxes of the carrot cupcakes I've made. Though truth to be told I haven't had this exact recipe written down until six weeks ago, when my friend Caroline asked me out of the blue to share, simply because people in my office love them so much. ("The best thing I've put in my mouth" was the generous review from a co-worker.)

~by guest writer AlbertCAN

Carrot cupcakes with cream cheese frosting by AlbertCAN, all rights reserved, use granted for PerfumeShrine by the owner

Am I this expert at baking? Not at all. In fact I only know how because I used to be terrible at baking cupcakes. Ghastly terrible. But I tested recipes and learned from my mistakes. The recipe is simply a starting point for any baker, although for best results anybody starting out should stick reasonably close to a recipe. (A friend tried making this recipe last weekend without adding carrots. No carrots. He ended up eating hockey pucks unfortunately.) I have, however, noted some reasonable changes to this recipe.

The cupcake itself is essentially uses just one bowl, although anyone trying this out for the first time probably should use 2 (one for the wet and one for dry ingredients). The secret to the cream cheese frosting here is actually buttermilk powder, which is available in fine food stores. (Do not substitute buttermilk for buttermilk powder.) I have tried making this recipe with zucchini or chestnut: I'm sticking with the carrot version though.

The recipe takes about 90 minutes to complete, although I usually make the cake and the frosting separately the day before an event, and just frost the cupcakes the morning of.

NOTE: Normally a carrot cupcake recipe calls for regular baking soda, but I've tested double-acting baking powder, and found it to be much better here. The former will lend a slightly wet texture, whereas double-acting will give the cupcakes the necessary extra lift during baking.

(Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)

Makes about 18 large cupcakes

Carrot Cupcake

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon double-acting baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 ¼ cups light brown sugar
¾ cup canola oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract"
2 ⅔ cups shredded carrots (about 4 large carrots)
zest of 1 fresh large sweet orange (optional)


16 tablespoons butter, softened*
3 cups confectioners' sugar
⅓ cup buttermilk powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract"
¼ teaspoon salt
12 ounces cream cheese, chilled and cut into 12 equal pieces


1. FOR THE CAKE: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Fill a large cupcake tray with cupcake liners. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves together in large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl whisk sugar, oil, eggs, vanilla extract and orange zest (if using) together until mixture is smooth. Using a large box grater shred the carrots on a large kitchen towel. Pat the carrots dry before stirring in. Add flour mixture and fold with rubber spatula until mixture is just combined. Do not overmix.

3. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake until center of cake is firm to touch, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool cake in pan before removing them out of the pan for frosting, at least 30 minutes. Bake the remaining cupcake batter until all finished.

4. FOR THE FROSTING: Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat butter, sugar, buttermilk powder, vanilla, and salt on low speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed. Increase speed to medium-low; add cream cheese, 1 piece at a time; and mix until smooth, about 2 minutes. Do not overmix.

Use a butter knife, apply the cream cheese onto the cupcake. Lift the knife straight up after each application to create even small peaks. Decorate each cupcake with one almond, if desired.

“ I substitute 1 large Tahitian vanilla bean for every teaspoon of vanilla extract in this recipe.
* The original recipe calls for unsalted butter but I actually use regular cultured butter, and just omit the salt altogether. Very unusual, but it works great for me. Perhaps it’s the subtle tang in cultured butter that adds another dimension to the frosting.

Photo by AlbertCAN. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hermes Le Parfum de la Maison Reveries collection: Hermes forays into Home Scent

An ice vault tunneling below the ground, covered with a glass panel. Illuminated objects below the glass shining with an unearthly beauty. A 18th century private home in the not-as-hip 13th arrondissement in Paris, on a side street. Touring through 5 rooms, each propped to reflect a different scentscape. This is the somptuous setting for the presentation of the latest collection by Hermès. And last Tuesday a presentation in a Manhattan mansion built in 1905 by society architect C.P.H.Gilbert, again split into 5 different rooms, decorated to a fault to reflect something which is by nature abstract.

via Mitchell Owens

No, it didn't involve either accessories, nor saddlery (on which la maison built its reputation), not even perfume, though the link with the head perfumer is hard to miss. The charming and no-nonsense Céline Ellena, 3rd generation perfumer and daughter of in-house master perfumer Jean Claude Ellena and an accomplished artist in her own right, has composed a range of home scents for the super chic French brand: Rêveries, Dreams.

Céline is said to have been inspired by Cabris, the olfactive references in her father's home there, giving the rationale behind creating a home scent line: "A home breathes and whispers, it makes noises and murmurs that cause your mind to wander" And none of the scents created are specific. "I wanted to create stories that could be olfactory murmurs". Care was taken to distinguish this home scent collection from any perfumes in the Hermès catalogue.

The 5 different Hermès home scents come in 3 formats: Limoges porcelain white faceted jars holding scented candles with a different color glaze inside for each scent designed by Guillaume Bardet, ceramic "stones" (which can be rescented) and paper origami horses that can fold flat for transport. The porcelain bowls start from $185 (they come in varying sizes), the stones start from $245 and the originami horses cost $79 for a package of 4.

  • À cheval!  (Saddle Up!) is of course the one most tied to the heritage of the house, presented via a lifesize horse model amidst books and smelling of smoky leather and beeswax. 
  • Temps de pluie (Rainy Day) evokes the favorite past-time of many a perfume lover, reading in the bedroom, and Celine herself, spending time with her kids on the sofa, watching movies: the misty atmosphere and the freshness of geosmin. 
  • Champ libre (Open Field) is a green composition that was conveyed via a wall covered in reeds. Fenêtre ouverte (Open Window) is as literal as it is evocative of a bedroom with its window open into the fresh air. 
  • Des pas sur la neige (A Walk in the Snow) smells of hay, soft and fluffy like snow, like the the artificial snow that overflowed from a Parisian bathtub. 
The collection will be available in select Hermès boutiques starting from December.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Extra special sale: not to miss!

Presenting you with once in a lifetime things today, on a first come, first served basis.
Top notch items, tested for accuracy and quality by myself. Email me using Contact for rights to grabs! Be quick ;-)

Guerlain Parure vintage Limited Edition le flacon strié, very unusual bottle shown here  (numbered edition, circulated only between March 1994-August 1995): €340 plus shipping (convertible to $ if you prefer)

Guerlain Vol de Nuit 1950s vintage extrait de parfum 15ml, plain glass vial: €230 plus shipping (convertible to $ if you prefer)

Guerlain Vertitable Eau de Cologne Impériale extra-dry: This is the design shown above (oblong, not the later cylinder, with flat stopper), giant glass bottle empty. Highly collectible from beginning of the 20th century. €190 plus shipping (convertible to $ if you prefer)

Lanvin Mon Péché (My Sin) extrait de parfum 1960s vintage with box, box & bottle with cord show wear, but scent smells impeccable 15ml (This is the French edition, not the American one, the name in French): €250 plus shipping (convertible to $ if you prefer)

Roger & Gallet Extra Vielle Eau de Cologne Originally sealed, bottle height 19 cm/7.5 inches
Tiny crack on right hand bottom corner. Subtle discoloration of label, visible up cloase.
 (I'm acting on behalf of seller on this one, haven't tested it personally) Auction style bidding starting from $59 in mails sent to me, auction ends Sunday 16/11 midnight.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hermes Hermessence Cuir d'Ange (2014): fragrance review

 The sum of its constellations is not one and the same as the Milky Way, and likewise holding an exquisite map is not one and the same as knowing the whole world. My exploration of Hermès Cuir d'Ange, the latest Hermessence creation by master perfumer Jean Claude Ellena, serves yet another subtle reminder to such empiricism.

~by guest writer AlbertCAN

Yes, I have been playing with Cuir d'Ange for a week now, complete with my Hermès leather notebook, leather bracelet and the latest Le Monde d’Hermès magazine. But the story goes back further.

Photo “Hermès, 2014” by AlbertCAN, all rights reserved

More than after a decade of charting Ellena’s tenure at Hermès one would think Cuir d'Ange serves as an inevitable arc to his craft―our Elena’s initial thought on this creation is worth repeating here:

In Jean le Bleu, Jean Giono, perfumer Jean Claude Ellena's favorite author, describes the father of the narrator as "a cobbler who makes soles in angel leather". Angel leather, cuir d'ange… the newest in the Hermessences, (those are boutique exclusive fragrances by Hermès) is recalling the passage which served for the inspiration for another perfume by Hermes back in 2007, Kelly Calèche. Indeed "cuir d'ange" was the VERY expression Ellena used when promoting Kelly Calèche. And Giono had a prominent position anyway in the presentation of Cuir d'Ange to our world of journalism as pretty young men and women actors read passages from his opus in le jardin de Paraïs at Giono's house at Manosque…

There, such marvellous consistency in story telling, la clarté de l'image. Taking this notion to its logical conclusion reviewing Cuir d’Ange can be the gentlest curation for any capable fragrance writer. And indeed during the research phase of this review yours truly had it all deftly mapped out, starting with Monsieur Ellena’s initial visit to the fabled Hermès leather vault, his surprising discovery that the scent of finest leather is laced with an infusion of delicate florals. Segue into a review of the original Kelly Calèche eau de parfum, reflection of iris, violet, mimosa into leather; perhaps a comparison with my initial thoughts on the ephemeral parfum variation. Cue Cuir d’Ange, perhaps the requisite list of fragrance notes here, perhaps an impression of Jean Giono’s poetic prose there, punctuating with generous quotations from Ellena’s books. Respectfully faithful, diplomatically articulate, effortlessly pleasurable to write. One delicate problem: I could convincingly review Cuir d’Ange this way without needing to sample the scent first.

Learning so much about the aesthetics in this case one runs the danger of pondering the aesthetic experience without having an olfactory experience firsthand. Curating beautifully detailed maps in lieu of an actual exploration, if you will.

I am by no means to suggest Ellena’s paradigm, so singularly well thought out and elegant, as anything else but commendable. The master perfumer has left an indelible mark in industry with his verve, flair and panache. Nor am I wishing the Hermès communication process to be any different: the authenticity of its communication here is incredible. With this being it’s the fundamental duty of any respectable fragrance writer to compose an equally genuine and independent reflection upon reviewing any scent.

Thus to me, upon hearing so much of Ellena’s thoughts on the concept of angel leather, it’s absolutely paramount to do Cuir d’Ange justice when sampling the latest Hermessence. Assumption cannot be made that this leather fragrance is the re-edification of the Kelly Calèche base. And long and behold those two are not the same.

The most marked characteristic of Hermessence Cuir d’Ange to me is the absence of the traditional top notes. Whereas Kelly Calèche opens with grapefruit and mango, Hermessence Cuir d’Ange opens with a halo. Yes, a nimbus: There no other way to describe the creamy roundness of white musks―most notably of Ambrettolide to me―and the unmistakable depth of Ambrox. Yet Ellena deftly cues in the leather, along with its Hermès floral nuance: Violet, narcissus, hawthorn all contribute to the hologram, with a delicate depth of powder from the violet, tobacco sheen the narcissus, and honeyed sweetness the hawthorn. There’s heliotrope at its depth, too, yet more noticeable as the leather develops. Kelly Calèche, in comparison, is more floral, as climbing rose and tuberose are definitely not present in Cuir d’Ange; the vegetal verdancy of green tea and iris, too, is all just Kelly Calèche. Hermessence Cuir d’Ange, in comparison, stays ho-hum in its billowy glow; while the aura is delicate, round and soft, there isn’t a distinct leap of notes in its scent progression. In fact all things considered Hermessence Cuir d’Ange doesn’t fit into any traditional olfactory pyramidal structure, lacking the top-middle-base counterpoints (the opening musks persist even during the drydown). Now during the time of master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska such compositions would be considered more as a perfumery base, yet a light bulb went off in my head upon sampling Cuir d’Ange.

As a Hermès client who has frequented the boutiques for 12 years (and counting) I can confidently ring the affirmative: Hermessence Cuir d’Ange is truly an olfactory reincarnation of the Hermès leather, period. Even the re-emphasis of flower into leather isn’t co-incidental, as the 2014 global theme of Hermès is “Metamorphasis”, as witnessed by the venerable brand’s print communications.

Now while many would place Bandit and Knize Ten as the touchstone of the classic leather genre, namely the isobutyl quinoline school, or Chanel Cuir de Russie the rectified birch tar school, Hermessence Cuir d’Ange is unapologetically a whisper in comparison—yet that’s not the point altogether. Ellena has been dreaming of a leather Hermessence fragrance even since his 2004 appointment as the master perfumer of Hermès, and I would argue that his ten years is reflected in Cuir d’Ange: part Jour d’Hermès radiance, part sparseness of Voyage d’Hermès . In fact if I am allowed to widen the scope of this discussion I would even say that this is a re-interpretation of the fundamental idea Ellena explored in L'Eau d'Hiver Frederic Malle, namely the modernization the halo effect found in Guerlain Après L'Ondée (1906) but without the Baroque frills: In the Malle hay absolute is paired with Aubepine (foundation of hawthorn) and Heliotropin (of heliotrope) instead. Yet the same idea of roundness in shaping.Which is to say the same Ellena caveats are still decidedly present: Ellena is still not here to persuade you about, well, anything. Hermessence Cuir d’Ange glows close to the skin—in fact I’m wearing 5 generous sprays (including a spray to my clothes) in order to ensure a long-lasting halo. And similar to the other Hermessence fragrances Cuir d’Ange I find modifies once on the skin. Osmanthe Yunnan and Iris Ukiyoé sing exceptionally well on me, whereas Vanille Galante and Rose Ikebana decidedly not. I’m giving Cuir d’Ange some more time to rest on my skin as the result.

Verdict: Luminous, deftly crafted, a fantastic addition to the Hermessence collection. Best to test it thoughtfully on you before committing to it.

Photos, from top: “Hermès, 2014” by AlbertCAN, all rights reserved; Hermessence Cuir d'Ange; Hermès Fall/Winter 2014/2015 campaigns.

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