Today I’m exploring an iconic fragrance – Cepes and Tuberose – created by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, an indie outfit from Berkeley, California. Regular readers of this blog will remember my series of reviews of Aftelier’s Chef’s Essences. The creative experiments I undertook in the kitchen while working with these edible essential oils fostered a new interest in the relationship between taste, aroma, and flavour. As Cepes and Tuberose contains an unusual mixture of ingredients from the realms of both food and fragrance, it is an especially appealing creation for me to ponder, explore, and review.
Cèpes (boletus edulis), as it is known in France, is a mushroom that grows naturally in the Northern Hemisphere. I know it by its Italian name, porcini, due to the considerable culinary influence of the large Italian community here in Australia. While porcini/cèpes mushrooms don’t grow here naturally, they are available at Italian grocery stores and gourmet food outlets, and are most often sold dried or preserved in cute mushroom-shaped jars. They have a pungent and intense flavour and aroma, somewhat like that of the Japanese shiitake mushroom.
Apart from eating these mushrooms occasionally in risotto, I was lucky enough to smell cèpes absolute at a gathering at Fleurage Perfume Atelier in Melbourne last year. Perfumer Emma Leah of Fleurage hosted a meetup for an avid group of fragrance enthusiasts to talk about her perfume making practice and to share with us some of the wonderful ingredients that she works with. Of the many rare and unusual ingredients that were passed around that night, cèpes surprised and impressed us the most. It smelt mushroomy, earthy, intensely fungal and yeasty, and somewhat like the iconic Australian spread Vegemite, which is made from brewers yeast, a by-product from beer production. For those who haven’t tasted Vegemite, it’s similar to Marmite and Promite, but with more kick, less sweetness, and more salt. For those who haven’t tried Marmite or Promite either, Wikipedia describes Vegemite as “salty, slightly bitter, malty, and rich in umami – similar to beef bouillon.”
Tuberose (polianthes tuberosa), a bulb that produces white, flamboyantly fragrant flowers, grows best in warm and tropical climates. It blooms at night and is native to Mexico. Tuberose is a very popular note in feminine scents and is both heady and sweet. It is notorious for containing indole, a chemical compound that is present in many of the popular and pleasant white flowers used in perfumery, including jasmine, gardenia and orange blossom. Indole also features in less pleasant aromas including halitosis, the smell of faeces and mothballs. It is also produced during the decomposition of corpses. Due to the presence of indole in mothballs, to me, anything containing indole (including tuberose) smells quite cool and camphoraceous, stale, and a touch medicinal.
Some say that the bodily associations and characteristics of indole lend animalic, even sexual qualities to a fragrance, which can be utilised by the wearer to allure and attract. It must be mentioned that most wearers of perfume (other than enthusiasts, critics and perfumers) are probably not aware of indole as a discrete smell, nor its unpleasant associations, but probably do notice that the compound adds a certain “je ne sais quoi” to the fragrance. I feel that these animalic aspects may be detected more at a subconscious level by the average wearer. As indole is but one constituent of a perfume ingredient, its effect is usually fairly subtle, unless the wearer has a particular aversion to the smell, or if it is overused in a fragrance.
I’m not a huge fan of indole, so tuberose has been a problematic ingredient for me in the past. I used to flat-out loathe the ingredient. Now I believe this was probably due to some unfortunate experiences smelling tuberose-heavy fragrances that emphasised the indole and intense headiness of the flower to the extent that these aspects overpowered everything else. Now that I’ve had more experience smelling this note in a greater number of perfumes, I can say that I find the smell of tuberose to be more complex and varied, not always overtly indolic, and at times even hard to detect. Histoires de Parfums’ Tubéreuse 1 and Tubéreuse 3, for example, use tuberose in the background (despite their names suggesting otherwise!), to sweeten rather than overwhelm the other ingredients in the fragrance.
Aftelier Perfumes’ Cepes and Tuberose
Mandy Aftel’s Cepes and Tuberose has not one, but two starring ingredients, and they take on an equal role in this fragrance. As one starring ingredient – cèpes – is primarily associated with food, and the other – tuberose – with fragrance, this perfume is received by the brain in a curious and interesting way: do I eat this, or do I smell it? But we have come a long way from simply associating smells with either the realm of food or the realm of fragrance exclusively. Gourmand fragrances featuring the aromas of edible ingredients have flourished for decades now: notes such as vanilla, chocolate and fruit are commonly found in mass-produced fragrances, proving that they are indeed suitable and popular to wear in fragrance. Mandy Aftel expands the notion of what a gourmand can be with Cepes and Tuberose, demonstrating that food ingredients such as the savoury, fungal cèpes can be used as valuable and interesting fragrance ingredients too.
So, food has made its way into our fragrances, and the converse of this also applies: we can eat a range of perfume ingredients, including frankincense, fir, Peru balsam and ylang ylang, to name but a few. Mandy has been instrumental in helping us conceive of perfume ingredients as being edible. Her book Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance, written in conjunction with chef Daniel Patterson, is a study of essential oils and how they can be used in both cooking and fragranced products. Her partnership with Patterson led to the creation of Aftelier Perfumes’ Chef’s Essences, a comprehensive range of essential oils, absolutes and isolates that can be used to flavour food. I experimented with and wrote about a number of the Chef’s Essences earlier this year and they were a joy to work with. What I enjoyed most was how the essences seemed to straddle the realms of flavour and aroma, while at the same time highlighting the complex interrelationship between them. As aroma accounts for approximately 80% of our perception of flavour (aroma + taste = flavour), our sense of smell is incredibly important in how we experience food.
Naturally, having such an interest in Mandy’s Chef’s Essences, and as a perfume enthusiast, Cepes and Tuberose jumped out at me as a must-try from the lovely box of samples that Mandy generously sent me a few months ago. My review is of the Eau de Parfum strength.
So – how does Cepes and Tuberose smell?
Sweet and savoury, rosy and floral, ever-so-slightly salty. The tuberose is lightly indolic, but in this context I like it. It adds a medicinal edge to the otherwise lush and rounded composition. The cèpes is yeasty, rich and earthy. It does smell edible, but this is balanced out by the rich floral tuberose. Both key ingredients hint at the animalic: the earthy and almost meaty smell of the cèpes and the noticeable, yet not overt bodily associations of the indole in the tuberose. The two main ingredients are equal players in this perfume story, with neither dominating. Other notes in this composition support the starring duo: rosewood (bois de rose), rose and benzoin. The rose used here reminds me of the culinary rosewater used in Turkish Delight; it emphasises the sweetness of the tuberose, while the benzoin adds a creaminess and solidity to the fragrance. Overall, Cepes and Tuberose is quite an edible concoction; several of the notes listed are also regularly used in cooking or as flavours, or smell like food ingredients: benzoin (which smells like vanilla), rose, and of course cèpes.
Cepes and Tuberose is an uncommon and daring perfume that traverses the realms of food and fragrance and in doing so breaks down boundaries of perception. The two starring “Odd Couple” ingredients of cèpes and tuberose combine surprisingly well: they contrast with and complement one another in a way that is unique and interesting to the nose. Perfume enthusiasts should give this a try to experience the unusual marriage of ingredients, but Cepes and Tuberose is also suitable for lovers of white florals and gourmands, due to the fascinating foody-floral mixture of the composition.
Cepes and Tuberose can be purchased directly from the Aftelier website, in a range of concentrations and sizes, including pure parfum and sample sizes. Prices range from $6 to $300USD.
I tried the Eau de Parfum sample, courtesy of Mandy Aftel. I wish to extend my warmest thanks to Mandy for providing my sample.