Chattering Class

A Life Lived with Common and Uncommon Scents

In her new book, "Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent" noted perfumier Mandy Aftel follows her nose to odd corners of the globe -- and into near-forgotten chapters of history -- to explore the world's "rock-star scents." Yes, one of them is whale waste.

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Rico Gagliano: Thanks for coming. By the way, how is the scent in the studio? Is it pleasing?

Mandy Aftel: There’s none, which is always good.

Rico Gagliano: Let me ask you this: what got you to devote a couple of decades of your life to delving into fragrances? Because, I think most of us in the modern world try to avoid intense smells. We go for a neutral smell.

Mandy Aftel: Yes. The “neutral smell of modernity,” which was a wonderful quote I found and put in my book. I was wanting to write a novel, and I wanted to make my main character a perfumer, and I don’t know why. I loved doing research, so I went back a hundred years to do my research. And then, just between smelling the ingredients and reading about them and the lore and the people and the eccentric stuff, I just fell in love and followed my nose.

WB-BOOK-Fragrant-2Rico Gagliano: Is there one eccentric thing that made you go, oh, I’ve stumbled onto a motherlode?

Mandy Aftel: Well, just like, ambergris.

Rico Gagliano: Actually, let’s start with ambergris. You divide your book into five sections. Each one is devoted to what you call a ‘rock star’ scent. Ambergris is one of them. We actually discussed ambergris years ago on this show, because it started showing up in cocktails. It comes from a very strange place.

Mandy Aftel: Ambergris comes from the sperm whale. He gets this kind of indigestible mass in his body, which is, in part, they think, from eating cuttlefish. It’s mysterious in there, and he’s got to get it back out, and so he poops it out. Then, it tosses around on the water, and there are a million myths.

People are blown away by this stuff. There are a million myths, like, they thought it was dragon spittle. They thought it was some kind of special mushroom that grew into the ocean. They thought so many things. The stories are just incredible.

Rico Gagliano: And, it’s actually the most semi-disgusting thing that you could imagine.

Mandy Aftel: It is so not disgusting, though. It is the most ethereal, amazing smell.

So, it washes around, and there were these people in Australia, last year. They find this thing on the beach, and one of them thinks it’s a cyst. One of them wants to put it in the car and take it home, but the other one doesn’t. So, they go home, and it’s obsessing them. They get, basically, called back to the beach to pick this thing up, which they do, and it turns out, of course, that it’s ambergris. They sell it for a quarter of a million dollars.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, it’s really rare, this stuff.

Mandy Aftel: It’s rare and it is beautiful.

Rico Gagliano: What would you describe the smell as?

Mandy Aftel: Ambergris not only smells ethereal and beautiful. It’s kind of amber-y, kind of warm, amber-y, a little caramel-ly. A little of the ocean, a little mineral-y, but it has this almost alchemical effect on anything else it’s with. There’s a wonderful description, long ago, of people putting it into chocolate. I’ve tasted it in chocolate. It’s phenomenal. It’s just transformative to everything it gets with, plus, it smells divine.

Rico Gagliano: Another chapter of the book is based around cinnamon. One of the most interesting things to me is the story that was dreamt up by the ancient Greeks to explain where it came from. It was so exotic to them. They came up with this.

Mandy Aftel: It wasn’t bad enough that the spices came from so far away and you risked your life and you didn’t come back and whatever. They even made up stories to make it more rare. It was like marketing copy.

They said cinnamon came from this bird in a tree, and they would wave pieces of meat under the tree to get the bird to come out of the nest, and then, in the nest was the cinnamon. So, the nest would fall down and they would gather the cinnamon.

Rico Gagliano: This was a way to drive up the price of cinnamon, to kind of fake this backstory that made it seem super-rare and amazing?

Mandy Aftel: They wanted to lie about where it came from. They did things to keep the price up. Plus, when you really think about cinnamon, it’s so sad. Here’s the titan of the spice trade, which has become an artificial flavor, and because it’s common and it’s available, people don’t really value it anymore.

Rico Gagliano: You actually found a rare cinnamon essence?

Mandy Aftel: I found this very beautiful one. It was just warm and round and less pointy and sweet, but kind of a little bit hot, a little woody.

Rico Gagliano: Where did you find it, and what makes it so different from others?

Mandy Aftel: I found it in Switzerland. It’s something called a CO2 extraction, which is done with carbon dioxide, rather than distillation. Distillation is how most essential oils are gotten. With either water or steam, you boil the living daylights out of the material. It’s kind of rough. With the CO2 extractions, they’re often gentler and warmer, richer, more true to the best thing in that aroma.

Rico Gagliano: You actually spend a lot of time tracking down scents like this. What’s the rarest?

Mandy Aftel: The most expensive thing is Oud, or augerwood, which there’s a lot of, in a lot of perfumes, but it’s not the real thing. Oud is, oh my God, it’s so interesting. Oud is $22,000 a kilo. I buy it by the hundred grams, so I’m not buying $22,000 a kilo. Oud is augerwood that rots inside the tree, and it makes this amazingly, almost holy, animal-like, precious wood, complicated smell. There’s lots of fake oud.

Rico Gagliano: Really quickly: if you had any smell, only one smell, for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Mandy Aftel: Probably ambergris.

Rico Gagliano: You’d spend the rest of your life in a room full of something that had come out of the wrong end of a whale?

Mandy Aftel: Without a doubt.