Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire: Musings on the Nature of Fire and the Smell of Smoke

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I’ve had an interesting week and the smell of smoke has played a starring role. As the saying goes, “where there’s smoke there’s fire”, and this week there was indeed a fire, a 1,200 hectare fire (3000 acres) in fact, quite close to our house in rural Victoria. On a 39 degree, windy day, with grass and foliage as dry as tinder at the end of an El Niño summer, we watched a terrifying bushfire start in the nearby mountains and get out of control very quickly. Our adrenal glands were exhausted from the panic of that day and we are still recovering from the stressful evacuation that we chose to undertake. Though the fire was 18 kilometres away, across the dry grassy paddocks, fire can move at a speed of 60 kilometres an hour in the right conditions (trust me, it was the right conditions), and with the strong wind shifting to fan the fire our way, there was no way we were going to take any chances. We left.

Cat in box, valuables in car, we drove to a safer country town an hour away, and waited and waited. Night came, the fire was contained (but not out) and we returned home to attempt to sleep. The hills were dotted with glowing red flames, which were rather pretty, truth be told, although terrifying too. Flames have a way of mesmerising and enchanting. An open fire in a cold house in winter is inviting and comforting. The smell of wood smoke from the chimney entices you inside with the promise of warmth. That same element, fire, uncontained and at the beck and call of Mother Nature, can wreak havoc and destruction, destroying homes and lives, flora and fauna, and traumatising all in its path.

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Smoke from an incense stick

A twisty tendril of smoke curls up from a lit incense stick, promising relaxation or meditation and a pleasant scent, yet a column of smoke from a bushfire, similar in form but magnified many thousands of times in size and issuing from burning forest, grass and shrubs, terrifies and warns us. Fire and smoke are either appealing or terrifying depending on size and context. Fire, the element we need for survival, for cooking, for warmth and light, can shape-shift and become a monstrous killer if treated without proper respect or care.

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Smoke from the Mount Bolton fires

As the fire burnt, and before we evacuated, we couldn’t smell it at all, even though we could see plumes of smoke, really huge amounts of it, in fact. The smoke warned us to pay attention, and to get out. We evacuated first to a nearby town called Newstead and loitered in the car, air conditioner on, for a couple of hours. At one point a heavy downpour suddenly fell from the sky. It brought down with it – and temporarily trapped – a surreal layer of smoke that looked like a red dust storm, along with the smell of the fire. The smell of that smoky air was identical to the lovely aroma of an open fire-place. Of course it was; the same wood that one burns for warmth at home was burning en mass in the bushfire. We didn’t notice the smoke again until we returned home and tried to sleep. We were treated to a few welcome showers overnight and the next day, and the same thing happened: as it rained, gusts of wood smoke would fall down from the high heavens and suddenly gush in through open doors and windows.

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Chinese brown cardamom (L) and Indian brown cardamom (R)

The Mount Bolton fires were not my only experience of smoky smells this week. I also encountered, for the first time, not one, but two varieties of brown cardamom, both Indian and Chinese. Both smell intensely smoky and nothing like the common green cardamom, that is, until you cook them and break the tough pods open. Then they smell like green cardamom on steroids: intensely and exotically spicy and citrussy. It turns out that smoking is part of the production/preserving process for the brown cardamom pods, so it isn’t actually part of the natural smell of the spice. I added two enormous pods of the Chinese brown cardamom to a Phillipines-inspired beef stew with onions, garlic, soy sauce, pepper, brown sugar and star-anise. It was simple but delicious, although next time I think I’ll try to bruise the pods before cooking to release more of the amazingly zesty, almost lemony flavours from inside. This smoky-smelling spice was super nourishing and super tasty. Smoking is used to flavour many foods across many cultures and demonstrates another way in which humans have tamed fire and smoke for both preservation and pleasure.

Smoky Lapsang Souchong tea

And now I move onto perfumer Mandy Aftel’s recently released Vanilla Smoke perfume: an example of the smell of smoke being used purely for pleasure and to conjure up lovely and comforting associations that we might have with the aroma of smoke. Vanilla Smoke by Aftelier Perfumes is an airy and appealing fragrance that combines the eponymous notes of vanilla and smoke, as well as some other beautiful supporting materials. The smoke note in Vanilla Smoke is gentle and airy, not overtly woody like a smoky campfire, but clean and elemental. I suspect it comes from the lapsang souchong note listed in the ingredients. The smoke hovers above a rich and warm vanilla, supported by a gorgeously complimentary coumarin, and supplemented by a hint of yellow mandarin and saffron. Mandy generously sent me both EDP and pure parfum samples to try, and I find the EDP version emphasises the smokier aspects of the fragrance more, and overall smells lighter and more “layered” or airy, while the parfum is a richer, more edible concoction, with a sweeter and more caramelised vanilla note. I’m relieved that after a few days of recovering from the stress of the bushfire to be able to experience such a positive application of the use of smoke, in a product aimed primarily at inducing pleasure in the wearer.

It’s been a challenging and interesting week, and I’ve been left to ponder and weigh the significance and power of elemental fire: the wonders and the terrors of it, the necessity of it, and the applications and effects that the smell of smoke has on both the psyche and the senses. Weeks like this are priceless: they may exhaust and terrify, but they also clarify what is precious about life and what needs protecting. Safety, love, pleasure and nourishment are essential for our bodies and our souls, and are worth reflecting on and cherishing.


Disclosure: Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes sent me samples of Vanilla Smoke in both EDP and parfum versions to try. You can read my review policy here.

Vanilla Smoke is available for purchase at the Aftelier website.

Brown cardamom (both types) can be purchased at Gewürzhaus.

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One thought on “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire: Musings on the Nature of Fire and the Smell of Smoke

  1. Pingback: Muse-Inspired Scents: IME Natural Perfumes Australia Review | Perfume Polytechnic

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