Fragrance – the ultimate frontier. There has been a leap in our understanding of the position of odor throughout the board, in the animal and plant kingdoms, each severe and superficial, on land and at sea. Once the forgotten sense, odor is now the forerunner in sensory literature.
Plant communication, the secret lives of timber and fungi, are additionally extremely topical, due to Suzanne Simard’s discovery of the “Wood Wide Web”, the subterranean fungal community by which timber share water, meals and even information, and books like Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. This chatter about roots and mushrooms has made us realise how a lot of plant communication, above and under floor, can be certain up with the chemistry of odor.
For vegetation, being static, odor is usually a option to appeal to consideration and get pollinated, or a communicable defence mechanism, amongst different issues. The proven fact that vegetation don’t do any of this for our human profit appears, on reflection, blindingly apparent, however a new e book is proffered as turning “human-centred notion of perfume on its head” by investigating “vegetation’ evolutionary causes for creating fragrant molecules”.
Scent: A Natural History of Fragrance by Elise Vernon Pearlstine is uncommon in being written by a wildlife biologist-turned-perfumer. Pearlstine’s PhD was in the examine of migratory raptors, and she or he received my coronary heart, moderately in the method of Helen Macdonald, by explaining at the starting the significance, nearly to her soul, of the “perfume of the chest of a hawk”. However, as a author, she isn’t any Helen Macdonald. Although her e book is a simple examine a massively huge topic, the construction is barely unclear.
Why begin with frankincense? There might be many good causes, however Pearlstine doesn’t elucidate. Chapter and part headings appear to impose an argument that isn’t truly there. The type is usually conversational, quaintly homespun, and typically imprecise, which feels odd for a scientist.
As a gardener, I discovered her most eloquent when talking as a biologist, empirical about the masterly mixing of volatiles – the compounds vegetation launch as vapour into the air – typically totally different by day or by evening. “Plants are the architects of a lot of our scented world,” she writes, and it was good to learn a correct evaluation of this. But she caught my actual consideration when she acquired into the territory of odor notes. I really like the language of odor. It’s like winespeak, solely higher.
“Very few vegetation produce the musk notes,” she opines, musk being the heavy-noted massive beast of perfumery, scents with a “sure darkish curiosity”. Curiously, musk comes from nocturnal animals – the rock hyrax, the musk deer, civet and beavers’ bottoms; crepuscular she calls them – whose unusual secretions, for marking territory and gluing their dens, we people have oddly sought out for hundreds of years, discovering the odor sensual and leathery.
In the plant world, solely oak moss, currant bud (with its cat-pee aspect) and patchouli have one thing of this alchemy. Patchouli, a herb in the mint household, whose Latin identify is pogostemon cablin, splendidly suggestive of Prospero and Caliban, smells earthy and historic, redolent of raisins and tea. In the early nineteenth century it was used a moth repellent, however discovered favour when Queen Victoria purposefully had her shawls scented with it.
Patchouli shouldn’t be my favorite, however based on Pearlstine, perfumers both like it or hate it. Her chapters on the fragrance business handle to be each unromantic – the artificial molecules largely used right this moment are sometimes derived from petroleum – and, I believe, over-romanticising. She writes as if, whereas many flowers are grown in Asia, the fields round Grasse in Provence are nonetheless an necessary centre for the fragrance business. On my very own small exploration of Grasse, I felt, and I could also be mistaken, there was nearly no actual business flower-growing happening for something greater than touristic impact.
The finest perfumes come from waxy white flowers like jasmine, gardenia, magnolia, tuberose and frangipani. One cause why flower manufacturing in the south of France has nearly vanished, she explains, is that the previous Grasse speciality of enfleurage (a labour-intensive course of whereby these flowers’ scents are extracted by saturating them in animal fats) has turn out to be nearly unaffordable. Hence “Joy” by Patou now not brings any pleasure, being to all intents and functions artificial.
Pearlstine crams in a historical past of gardens, spices, chocolate, resin, incense, cloves and “Fragrance and Fashion”, which was possibly an excessive amount of to tackle. Everything was neatly footnoted, and I learn these notes being a glutton for olfactory literature, however a way of factoid writing haunted me, strengthened by the footnote for the Garden of Bomarzo in Italy, which merely reads “Wikipedia”. However, she was sensible on ambergris, the fabled gobbets of cuttlefish beaks and fats, which whales sometimes eject from their bellies into the sea. Celia Lyttelton is the solely one that has written higher about ambergris, or frankincense from the wild Arabian islands off the coast of Yemen.
It is troublesome to put in writing about style and odor. When it really works, it may be transporting, which is why we learn Nigel Slater with a lot pleasure, regardless that we’ve none of the proper components in the cabinet. Pearlstine writes with palpable ardour, however I’d first ship my fellow truffle hounds to Harold McGee, whose e book Nosedive – sensible title, authentic writing, thorough analysis – is a veritable lexicon of odor, or to Luca Turin, who remains to be the best author on the life, artwork and cut-throat enterprise of the perfumer.
Isabel Bannerman is the creator of Scent Magic: Notes from a Gardener and The Star-Nosed Mole: An Anthology of Scented Garden Writing.
Scent by Elise Vernon Pearlstine is revealed by Yale University Press at £20. To order your copy for £17 name 0844 871 1514 or go to Telegraph Books.