Following the Scent of History, Memory, and Emotion – A Review of Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel

 photo bigfragrant_zps85df6d01.jpg

“That can’t be mango I’m smelling. Mangoes don’t smell like that.”

This was my first reaction after trying on some luxury-brand eau de toilette I’d received as a gift some two years ago. It was a large bottle, too, and I’d been pleasantly surprised to receive it because no one usually gives away anything as expensive as luxury fragrance unless one is very fond of the recipient. But as soon as I tried it on, I realised that the giver was probably eager to foist the monstrosity upon someone else: it was sweet to the point of nauseating, and the little that I’d sprayed on my wrist was clearly entirely too much. I tried washing the scent off, but even after doing so the smell still lingered on my skin.

Not to say that I don’t like the smell of mangoes, because I do. My grandmother owns an orchard, and though most of the fruits are exported to Japan, the “rejects” (fruits that are too small, too blemished, or just not up to certain specific standards, but are nevertheless still eminently edible) are sent to her children: my mother and her siblings. They fill the house with a delicious sweetness, thick enough that it almost mimics the custardy texture of the fruit flesh itself, with just a hint of tanginess that registers at the back of one’s throat when one inhales deeply; the smell is never overwhelming, never cloying, even when the mangoes have reached the point of overripeness. I associate the scent with the comforts of home, of family, and the pleasures of summer, which is probably why I really disliked the eau de toilette and its poor attempt to mimic the fragrance of something that lies at the intersection of so many things that are special to me.

It is this intersection, where scent meets and entangles with history (both personal and of the world), art, and philosophy, that Mandy Aftel tackles in Fragrant: The Secret History of Scent.

The book’s structure is a somewhat-familiar one, having read books by Diane Ackerman, Victoria Findlay, and Michael Pollan. Chapter One is an introduction of sorts, talking in a general sort of what about what perfume is, what is does, and what it has come to mean to different people down the course of history. It also deals a little with Aftel’s life as a perfumer: what led her there, and what she does now. The next five chapters are more specific, and focus on one particular ingredient used in perfumery, and a theme: Chapter Two focuses on cinnamon, and the idea of adventure and the exotic; Chapter Three deals with mint, and is the thematic opposite of Chapter Two, focusing as it does on the concept of home and the familiar; Chapter Four is about frankincense and the idea of transcendence; Chapter Five is about ambergris and the concept of curiosity; and finally, Chapter Six focuses on jasmine and the idea of beauty. At the end of every chapter Aftel includes a few recipes, focusing on the ingredient tackled in the chapter: most are for perfumery-related things, like body oils and solid perfume, but there are also a few food recipes in there, showing the versatility of the ingredients discussed in the chapter. The book concludes with copious notes, an extensive bibliography, and a list of sources should one ever feel inclined to try making perfumes for oneself.

If anyone is going to talk about fragrance and the special relationship humanity has had with scent and the art of perfumery, then Mandy Aftel is certainly one of the best. She is an artisanal perfumer based in Berkeley, California, where she not only makes perfumes, but conducts classes on how to make them. She also collaborates with chefs to understand how fragrance and food can work together to create a unique dining and olfactory experience. She’s written other books before, but those books have been somewhat more specialised, focusing primarily on perfumery and food. Fragrant, however, is considered to be a very fine introductory book for the beginning perfumer or just the curious looking for something interesting to read.

And I must say, that’s rather true. Though reading Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume and seeing the movie adaptation of the same made me interested in the idea of perfumery as a whole, I was completely aware that what I was reading, and watching, was fiction. Suskind obviously took the time to do research, but his work was still fictional and probably not completely accurate to how perfumery is done in the contemporary world. Fragrant, then, looked like—and turned out to be—a good gateway into understanding how perfumery is done by people like Aftel, who take the small-batch, artisanal approach espoused by the slow food/locavore movement that is one of the most powerful driving philosophies in the food world today.

That philosophy is present in Fragrant. It’s especially prominent when she’s talking about her work as a perfumer, and in the recipes she includes at the end of every chapter, but it’s there, in the background, in the chapter-length essays for each individual ingredient. The slow food/locavore movement firmly believes that every ingredient has a story, and understanding that story is key to giving an ingredient its proper value, and, therefore, to treating it as it deserves to be treated. When Aftel tells the heartbreaking story of the cinnamon gatherers in Sri Lanka under Dutch colonial rule, or even the rather whimsical Chinese legend of ambergris being solidified sea-dragon drool, she is trying to impart to the reader a belief that these ingredients, though some have become more commonplace, are actually far more valuable than one imagines—and should be treated appropriately and with the proper respect for their origins and the people behind them.

Interwoven with this philosophy are other musings; as noted earlier, each chapter has a specific concept attached to the ingredient being discussed, and Aftel expounds upon that concept, quoting from a very wide variety of sources, from obscure medieval monks to Coco Chanel, to reinforce her ideas as well as to offer different viewpoints. While this is quite interesting, and something I personally find enjoyable, I do find that it made some chapters weaker than others, since my interest in a specific chapter was dependent mostly upon my interest in the theme in question. A certain imbalance among the chapters is also noticeable: for instance, the chapter on jasmine focuses a lot more on beauty and aesthetics, while the chapter on cinnamon focuses a lot more on history. I found myself wishing that there had been more of a balance in the topics covered in each chapter, just so that one can truly understand how all the topics work together to tell the story of the ingredient and how it connects to the theme of the chapter.

Fortunately, Aftel frequently includes her own anecdotes about her work as a perfumer, because I think that the book wouldn’t be quite as firm without them. It’s all well and good to discuss these intriguing philosophical questions, but without some binding thread the book would fall apart. That’s where the whole perfumery idea comes in, and where Aftel’s experience as a perfumer comes into play. If she had not included that aspect, the book would feel very loose and disjointed, something to merely flip through as one pleases, instead of something to really spend time with and delve into.

It’s also rather clear that Aftel’s writing really comes to life when she’s talking about perfume, or her work, or her life a perfumer. The book as a whole has a relatively unified tone, but where her writing stands out the most is when she’s talking about what she loves most—which is not, necessarily, history or economics or science. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, just something I noted while reading the book, because I realised that I always took a touch longer to get through a portion of text if Aftel was talking about some aspect of her work, or was telling a personal anecdote.

Overall, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent is an engaging read: it sucked me in the way any good book, fiction or otherwise, ought to, and held me there for its entirety. It’s not without some weak spots, however: there’s a lack of cohesiveness in some of the individual chapters, and none of those chapters really go in-depth into the ingredient itself, focusing instead on the theme that Aftel has associated with each one and discussing history and philosophy as necessary to emphasise her point. However, this tendency towards lightness is what makes this book such a good introduction to the craft of perfumery, and the recipes at the end of each chapter are sure to encourage more than a few readers to give making their own scents a shot. Fortunately, Aftel provides a list of sources at the end of the book, so that readers can find the tools and ingredients they need if they feel inspired enough to give perfumery a try.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s