Perfume Polytechnic’s Christmas Gift List & Olfactory Experience Ideas

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Christmas Party on Bondi Beach, Australia, 1959. From The National Archives of Australia.

Is it that time of year again already?! My, hasn’t it come round fast! I’m sure most of us understand the sensory and emotional excitement that Christmas brings. For those us in the Southern Hemisphere (including myself), Christmas is an important part of summer; most people are on annual leave, children go on school holidays, families go away together, spend days at the beach, picnicking or bush walking. Christmas in Australia is part of an extended summer festival, and is – I can only imagine – very different to the cold Christmases up north.

But there are things we all no doubt have in common: those of us who celebrate Christmas often get overstimulated, overwhelmed even by all the expectations and complexity of this holiday. There is frenzied shopping, cooking and eating, and a busy schedule of catch-ups with friends, family and work mates before the year is out.

Here at Perfume Polytechnic I like to focus on the sense of smell, learning about olfaction, the connections between people (and the role smell plays in that), and explorations of multi-sensory art and experiences. I like to keep things personal, small-scale and intimate, and as a starving artist myself, have learnt that the best things in life are often free, or at the very least, affordable.

So, this year, instead of focusing my Christmas Gift List entirely on consumables, I’m including some experiences that cost nothing (or very little), but might just bring you joy, happiness, wonder and connection with those you love anyway. I’m also including fragrances or fragrant products that I love, or those that involve a process of exploration, curiosity, daring or education.

I hope these ideas interest and inspire you and that you all have a very lovely and peaceful Christmas.

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Top Ten Olfactory Moments of 2014

This time of year perfume bloggers around the world often post their top ten fragrance releases of 2014. Living on the somewhat fragrantically-isolated island of Australia, without easy (i.e. free) access to many of these releases makes it difficult for me to write such a post. No matter, as this blog is as much about the sense of smell and all things olfactorial, I am going to list my top ten olfactory moments of 2014 instead, in no particular order. This list includes perfumes, real-life smells that really made a mark on me and my nose, and creative experiences based around scent and fragrance.

Sheep and twin lambs in the clean, fresh country landscape.

1. Moving to the country

Moving to a small rural town in Australia, away from the stinking, pollution-filled hubbub of Melbourne this year, has given me access to clean, fresh air, a wonderful petrichor-like smell as dusk falls and the massive fields of grasses release their oils into the atmosphere, and of course the smell of sheep. We live on a sheep farm, and I love the smell of oily, slightly animalic lanolin that pervades the air subtly at all times. It’s warm and comforting, just like the smell of your favourite woolly jumper.

Guerlain's Shalimar

Guerlain’s Shalimar

2. Shalimar

As much a constant in 2014 as the clean country air, the gorgeously rich, animalic and constantly delightful Shalimar was my most worn fragrance this year. While I own this in many different vintages and versions, including several flankers, the 2010 EDP is the version I like most. Every time I wear Shalimar, it surprises me, but it also soothes me. I wear it on special occasions, when I want to wear an old favourite, and when I need cheering up.

Bois des Iles by Chanel (vintage version)

Bois des Iles by Chanel (vintage version)

3. Smelling Bois des Iles for the first time

When a friend brought her large bottle of Chanel’s Bois des Iles to a lunch catchup last Easter, I was taken aback by this beauty. I’ve long been a fan of sandalwood, and smelling Bois des Iles for the first time, I felt like I’d discovered the superlative sandalwood fragrance. This fragrance is such a gorgeous melange of creamy sandalwood, ylang ylang and spice, held together with the floaty, fizzy lightness of aldehydes. This will be a life-long love, up there with my favourite fragrance Shalimar.

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Smell walks

4. Smell Walks

When I started this blog, I started going on smell walks. Smell walks are an exercise in mindfulness, appreciating the present, and the everyday smells around me. These walks open my nose up to all kinds of smells, and I’m learning to notice and appreciate all the odours around me, not just those that are considered pretty or pleasant. A good side-effect of these walks is that I am more mindful of the smells around me most of the time now, whether I choose to write about them for Perfume Polytechnic, or not. If you’re interested, you can read about my Smell Walks here.

Karatta House – finally restored

5. Making my own “Karatta” perfume with Emma Leah at Fleurage

Not only was this a creative person’s dream activity, making perfume for the first time under the guidance of perfumer Emma Leah, but I had a ball sniffing all of the 80 ingredients available to me! What fun for a perfume enthusiast! Best of all, I got to create a perfume that was a tribute both to a wonderful old family holiday house, Karatta (in Robe, South Australia), and to my now-departed father, who had dreams of restoring this lovely old mansion from a state of extreme disrepair, but was not able to do so.  You can read about my experience at Fleurage making my own perfume here and here.

Karatta Beach, Robe

Karatta Beach, Robe

6. The smell of the ocean at Robe

Just before Christmas I made a pilgrimage back to Robe, South Australia, the little seaside town where we spent many family holidays throughout my childhood. I wanted to see Karatta House, and I wanted to see if my smell memories (from creating Karatta perfume, see above) were accurate. The ocean at Robe has the most beautiful smell: intensely salty, strong, slightly fishy, and incredibly fresh. It was marvellous, and I think Emma at Fleurage captured this salty sea smell very well in the Karatta perfume that we created together.

Giant Morton Bay fig tree

Giant Morton Bay fig tree

7. The Moreton Bay fig tree

Smelling the Moreton Bay fig tree at my childhood holiday house in Robe for the first time in almost 27 years was a treat. This fig note also made it into my Karatta perfume, but smelling the actual tree, in real life again, offered so much more than I remembered. If you haven’t smelled a Moreton Bay fig (it’s an Australian type of ficus), let me describe it for you: it’s a bit like a standard fig tree, but with some differences. It’s sweet and figgy, but also dusty, slightly earthy and powdery. It’s a strong smell and this massive old tree gave off quite a fabulous aroma.

Hyper-Natural at the NGV

Hyper-Natural at the NGV

8. Chandler Burr’s Hyper-Natural scent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria

Melbournites were treated to an exhibition curated by Chandler Burr at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this past spring. This scent exhibition, situated in the gardens behind the NGV, was a delight. It featured sniffing stations, or “pods” that contained seven different Guerlain fragrances and the corresponding aromachemicals that feature in each fragrance, and atmospheric mist (sadly unscented, but visually pleasing) was pumped into the air around the garden. The sniffing stations were arranged chronologically in the garden, starting with Jicky (1889), and ending with one of Guerlain’s most recent releases, L’Homme Idéal. I attended the opening keynote speech given by Chandler, and a guided tour with him the next morning, and visited the exhibition a couple more times. Hyper-Natural was my first ever fragrance exhibition, and as Guerlain is my favourite house, this event was pretty exciting! I also made lots of new fragrance buddies and met some online fragrance friends in person for the first time. You can read my blog posts about Hyper-Natural here.

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Cèpes Mushroom

9. The smell of Cèpes Mushroom Absolute

At a meetup at Fleurage Pefume Atelier a few months back, a small group of Melbourne perfumistas got to smell many rare and unusual fragrance ingredients. A highlight of the night for many was the cèpes mushroom. This unusual perfume ingredient smelled of an intensely savoury and rich combination of mushroom and vegemite. I would love to smell this ingredient in a perfume one day. If you want to smell this magnificent, rare ingredient for yourself, you can purchase some from my friend, perfumer Mark Evans (of Evocative Perfumes and Hermitage Oils) here.

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on a lemon myrtle tree. Copyright  James Niland, Brisbane, Australia.

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on a lemon myrtle tree.
Copyright James Niland, Brisbane, Australia. URL: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Trichoglossus_haematodus_-Brisbane%2C_Queensland%2C_Australia-8.jpg

10. Native Australian Spices at Saltbush Kitchen, Ballarat.

Olly Technic and I had a thrill just yesterday while we were snacking at the new Saltbush Kitchen Cafe at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E.) in Ballarat. As well as offering scrumptious food and drinks using Australian ingredients (something that is done far too infrequently in Australia), they had for sale some Australian “Bushfood” spices that smelled absolutely incredible. Our favourites were Lemon Myrtle (a sharp and vibrant smell reminiscent of fresh lemongrass, but somehow richer), Strawberry Gum (a combination of eucalyptus, and intensely sweet, sharp strawberry), and Aniseed Myrtle (a strong, sweet aniseed smell with a hint of lemon myrtle). It was a great olfactory experience to finish off 2014! You can read about Saltbush Kitchen here, and while their yummy herbs and spices are not yet for sale online, they do have plenty of other temptations to indulge in. Or if you’re visiting Ballarat, drop in and see them at M.A.D.E.


I do hope you’ve enjoyed my top ten wrap-up of olfactory experiences in 2014. What were some of the best things you’ve smelled this year? I’d love to know – make a comment in the box below!

Happy New Year readers and followers and thanks for your support in 2014. See you next year!

Polly Technic

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Smell Walk No. 1

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Photo of dog’s nose by Piotr Grzywocz http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedysta:Paul167/Galeria

The purpose of these walks is to acquaint myself and my nose with the smells of whatever environment I’m in, to pay more attention to these smells, beautiful or not, and to attempt to describe them. Think of them as meditations based on the sense of smell.

Tuesday Evening: 6:45 pm. En route to the compost bin.

I start my adventure in smell walks today with a short walk from my kitchen to the compost bin. Living in the country on a large sheep farm, I’m subjected to all kinds of smells that I never encountered in my city-dwelling days. I decided that it would be interesting enough, therefore, to start by exploring the smells immediately around my house. Today I will describe the smells that I notice while taking out the compost.

First, I inhale the aroma of the bowl of organic scraps that I want to take out to the bin. It contains banana skins, rotting strawberries, mint tea and eggshells. It is musty, sour, fermented, mouldy, sweet, sulphurous and savoury all at once. It’s not a pleasant smell: it’s confused and contradictory, but it is interesting.

Down the hall I walk, and through the laundry, where towels are going round in the dryer. I associate the smell of washing so closely with the concept of cleanliness, so I’m not very objective about what I’m actually smelling, other than something that has become, to my nose, generically “clean-smelling”. Today I pay a bit more attention. As the towels are still quite wet in the dryer, I’m getting a smell that’s a bit like the smell a steam-iron gives off, crossed with a slightly toasty smell; a little like a vanilla cake cooking in an oven, far off in the distance somewhere. It’s a bit sweet, a bit toasted, and warmly wet.

As I open the back door, a blast of fresh, cool, evening air greets me. I deeply inhale the sharp green smell of grass, acres and acres of it, mingled with the faint scent of soil and sheep manure. It’s crisp, earthy and slightly animalic, all at once.

Past the rose-bush I go, towards the compost bin. It’s only just in bud, so the flowers themselves are disappointing and don’t give off much aroma. I have to crush a leaf to smell it – it’s green, fresh and watery and a little like cucumber. Next, I pull out a weed and shake the soil from it: the loosened soil smells of warm patchouli, chopped raw mushrooms and humus. It’s delightful and forms a counterpoint to the vegetal smell of the freshly plucked weed roots.

A fresh peppermint leaf offers much olfactory delight, but I have to break it to really smell it. It’s more complex than I’ve ever noticed before, now that I’m properly paying attention. It smells earthy, zesty, spicy and cool. It also smells a little bit like cedar wood, and there is a surprising sweetness to it. I can’t resist eating it, and when I pop it in my mouth and chew, the aromatic oils dissolve and deliver the pepperiness that this variety of mint is known for.

I round the corner of the path and lift the lid off the compost bin. It reeks of ammonia from the cat litter that is decaying in there. It’s repulsive, off-smelling and foul! I empty my bowl of waste from the kitchen into it, and notice the sweet, acidic smells of banana and strawberry mingling briefly with the ammonia of the cat’s urine. But it’s too much; it’s making me physically recoil. I put the lid back on.

We have a septic tank next to the compost bin, but I detect no fecal wafts from it today, even when I go up close and inhale. Disappointed, I look around for something else to smell and spot some sheep’s wool on our wire fence. The sheep stick their heads through to eat our lawn, and little tufts of wool often remain on the wire afterwards. I pluck off a couple of pieces and hold them to my nostrils. Ah… that comforting, sweet, warm, animalic smell of wool! It’s just like a cosy woollen jumper, but in its raw state, combines with the faint aroma of waxy lanolin and dirt. It’s beautiful and I take it inside with me so I can keep smelling it.