Bring on the animals! In perfumery, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” turns into “deer and beavers and furry rodents,” with a strong whiff of goats and horses as well. It’s quite another world, one where the materials in their concentrated or raw state smell very different from how they end up in a fragrance bottle on the store shelves. This is Mother Nature in her stinkiest, most feral, most natural form, though the skank sometimes feels like Mother Nature is on steroids.
Beaver glands, the basis for Castoreum in perfumery. Photo: my own.
What was so special about AbdesSalaam’s perfume course was the opportunity to smell some truly rare materials, to actually hold them in our hands, smear them on our skin or, in one rather disconcerting incident, even taste them on our tongue. From fossilized African hyraceum to Ethiopian civet anal sac paste and muskrat genital glands, each bore a scent that was truly like nothing that I’ve ever encountered in perfumery. Their aroma was so alien from my every day existence that I lack the olfactory vocabulary to convey the full extent of their aroma, but I shall try to do my best. Ultimately, like everything else in AbdesSalaam’s perfume course that I’ve written about so far, there is no substitute for personal experience and my posts can only convey one-tenth of what it was like. The animalics are just one part of why his perfume course is so unique, as well as why it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you should experience for yourself if you have the time, means, and opportunity.
The Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome. Photo: my own.
Hello everyone! I’m back from my trip to Italy, and it was quite an experience. There were some very memorable highlights, like taking AbdesSalaam Attar‘s 6-day perfume course on a mountain-top outside Rimini and, later, in Rome, accidentally stumbling upon a papal event in St. Peter’s Square and seeing Pope Frances less than 2 feet away from me. Florence stood out for its wonderful new artisanal food hall and its graffiti’d, foodie statue of David, while Siena’s UNESCO World Heritage site cathedral made my jaw drop in awe.
The trip as a whole had its highs and lows, and it wasn’t quite the restful vacation that I had anticipated, if I’m to be completely honest. One reason why is that Italy was going through a severe heat wave and was the hottest it had been in more than 30 years. Even Italians complained. And you know it’s terrible when the Vatican sends out several of its firefighters to St. Peter’s Square to hose down the crowds so that they don’t collapse in the sun while waiting for the Pope. No, I’m not joking. I went for a hosing myself, twice, only to become dry within minutes.
One of the several firefighters in the square, hosing down the crowds. Photo: my own.
Brutal, blinding heat aside, it was quite an interesting experience to see the Pope. The event in question was an international youth group rally, and “Papa Francesco” went through the crowds twice in his Pope Mobile with surprising accessibility and minimal protection, before participating in a lengthy ceremony along with the Bishop of Rome and various senior Vatican officials.
I stumbled upon the event quite accidentally, and managed to take a short video of the Pope. Frankly, I’m rather amazed any of it came out, let alone in focus, since I couldn’t see a single thing I was filming in the glare of the sun and was simply aiming in the Pope’s direction with the hope that I was capturing him. The video does go a little wonky at the end in terms of angles, so I apologise in advance; I’m not at all proficient in filming videos (I think this was the 2nd one I’ve ever taken), but, if you tilt your head, it should work.
Another fun, completely unexpected thing was seeing a vibrant, passionate group of young Italians performing Brazilian drums in the light of the setting sun at the Colosseum. I’d visiting the iconic structure hours before, then walked through the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, before taking the Imperial Forum Way (not its official Italian name) up to the massive, white-marbled Victor Emmanuel monument. I hadn’t planned to walk back down to the metro, but was glad I ended up doing so because I came across this group performing for a large crowd at the base of the Colosseum. Everyone was dancing, happy, and smiling, impacted by the infectious exuberance of the young Italians whose group name is Bekhanda. (Bekhanda has a Facebook page, if you’re interested.) I managed to squeeze my way to the front of the crowd, and take this small video of them:
Florence’s graffiti’d version of the famous statue of David. Photo: my own.
I took several thousand photos, all in all, from historical sites to food, art, museums, Tuscan landscapes, perfume shops, Santa Maria Novella, and more. Initially, I had planned to share some of them with you in a handful of “Travelogue” posts, the way I did after I came back from my trip to France, with photo galleries and explanations, as well as one post devoted solely to Italy’s amazing food scene. I’d thought of posting it after I shared my series on the Via del Profumo / AbdesSalaam Attar‘s perfume course, but I ended up concluding that a travelogue would probably bore the majority of you and I should stick to perfume.
So, in the days ahead, I will be focusing on writing an in-depth, multi-part report on AbdesSalaam Attar’s seminar, from the subjects we covered, to the many fragrances we each made, the theoretical and concrete approaches to perfumery, the animalic rarities we got to handle (like, a Musk Tonkin deer gland from 20 years ago, now prohibited in perfumery, to an almost 10,000 year-old fossilized piece of Hyraceum/African Stone, musk-rat glands, civet, castoreum, etc.), and more. There will be a lot of photos to accompany each post, but here are a few as an early preview:
Part of our classroom with the perfume organs of essential oils and absolutes. Photo: my own.
Photo: my own.
Hyraceum or African Stone, fossilized remains, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years old.
Musk-rat gland. It’s a lot smaller than this extreme close-up makes it appear.
Inside a 20-year old Musk Deer gland from Kashmir. Photo: my own.
Simple, basic, and portable distillery set-up. Photo: my own.
Some of the many perfumes I made. Photo: my own.
Musk Deer gland inside a jar. Photo: my own.
The course may have been only 6 days in length, but it packed in a massive amount of information. As one of my classmates said after just the first night, it “was 2 years of perfumery in one day.” For me, it was a steep learning curve because the raw materials smelt worlds apart from what I deal with normally, and frequently were nothing like their typical counterparts in blended, semi-synthetic, finalized scents. For example, the oakmoss essential oil smelt not one iota the way I normally expect and know “oakmoss” to be in blended, finished perfumery. Even for those students who had prior and extensive experience with essential oils, the superior quality of AbdesSalaam’s materials rendered them just as different. Out of 7 people, only 1 person could identify blindly the oakmoss for what it was, and that was because he’d used it before. This oakmoss was so dark and thick, it was virtually black, sometimes smelt like licorice or tobacco, and I wouldn’t have been able to identify it properly if I’d had a gun to my head. It was the same story with a few other things like, for example, “Violet Leaves.” Some materials were infinitely better in real form, like real, actual vanilla which had a surprising woody undertone and was a vast improvement on the chemical, sugary vanillin found in most fragrances. Some surprised me — like tuberose essential oil which smelt strongly of porcini mushrooms to my nose — while several new animalic essences were a complete revelation, like African Karo Karunde paste or Buchu, an African herb which I loved in the bottle and on a strip of paper, but which I found to be more aggressively animalic than even hyraceum when used in an actual fragrance. (Apparently, it’s so intensely animalic than not even Bertrand Duchaufour who has used Hyraceum in the past has dared to make a fragrance with Buchu.)
One of the many wonderful aspects of the course was the camaraderie between the group, an unexpected closeness and unity akin to the very best days of university. There were seven of us, coming from around the world with different backgrounds, reasons for being there, and levels of experiences. And, yet, we bonded in a really intense way, amazed by the flood of sensations and smells, overwhelmed (in a good way) by the extent of new information, and enjoying the undiluted intensity of life in AbdesSalaam Attar’s remarkable world.
One of several dishes that made up just one course in the 7 course extravaganza we had at a restaurant in Coriano. Photo: my own.
Some of my favorite, non-perfume parts of each day were the early morning breakfast sessions on the patio of the lovely Germano Reale where we stayed, and the late night chats hanging out in “our living room,” the outdoor area of sofas near some of the rooms. There, we talked about perfume, the classes, our lives, and more, bonding over bruised feet and the heat, and laughing over misadventures, like the time we unintentionally ordered a 7-course feast suitable for 20 people instead of 7 at one restaurant, and drove back with two of us squashed in the tiny trunk of the car. It’s hard to explain how connected we all became, the close chemistry between us, and how we continuously helped or supported each other, both in the classes and beyond. Suffice it to say, I know I’ve made several friends for life, and that is not something I ever anticipated or expected.
As I’ll explain in my series, the course exposed us to much that was new, different, or unique — with constant guidance and encouragement from our teacher, who ended up being the very best, most awe-inspiring thing of all. All of it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that either challenged me on an intellectual, sensory, and olfactory level, or was just plain fascinating.
Our distillation of cypress essential oil, gathering at the top of the tube. Photo: my own.
There was so much that filled each day that I don’t really know where to begin in describing it. The merest tip of the iceberg included such varied things as: olfactory and marketing psychology; learning about perfume archetypes, olfactory language, ethics, aromatherapy, and the important role of pheromones; creating perfumes from a client’s brief (like, in one instance, how to combine seaweed, cocoa, and hay as the main notes in a perfume, along with coffee, mimosa, and lavender, all in a way that smelt remotely decent), while also creating a variety of scents for ourselves, including our “signature scent;” tincturing a huge chunk of real ambergris, in addition to distilling fresh cypress; learning how to smell the quality differences between different grades of distilled oils; learning the supply basics and practical realities in starting one’s own perfume business; and exploring rare animalics, including eating 7-year old civet paste which, as one person put it, “smells like rancid yak butter.” (It really does, and so much worse, though the actual taste on the tongue wasn’t quite so bad as the smell in the jar. And neither of them reeked as horribly as the musk-rat gland!)
In short, it was incredible, from start to finish. Grueling at times, but truly an experience that I will never forget. I fear I won’t be able to describe it all properly or to do it justice, but, in the days to come, I shall do my best.
[UPDATE: here are Part I, Part II, and Part III on the AbdesSalaam Attar perfume course. Part II includes a lot of food photos for those of you who asked!]