christmas card

scent story by Florian

The rue du Faubourg Saint Denis is a commercial street, not only because it supports lots of storefronts but also because its character is determined by loose but unmistakable clots of similar kinds of stores. From the Gare de l’Est to the Grands Boulevards it’s all fruits and vegetables, or Pakistani restaurants or hair product wholesalers, with offshoots into the passages whose mustiness has never been penetrated by modern notions like merchandising.

It’s a historic commercial street, not only because it has probably played host to these kinds of businesses for a very long time, and to people who don’t seem to belong in modern France (like the produce men hocking wares in rhymes that were ancient when Proust wrote about them), but because some of the merchandise itself, with the exception of the beautiful produce, seems to have been neglected for far too long, long enough to collect dust and leach pigment. I was recently walking down this street when I had a kind of experience that sometimes happens on commercial streets, when two strong but antagonistic smells hit you back-to-back so that as soon as you’ve smelled the second you can never imagine enjoying the first.

In this case, it was a butcher shop, rabbits and foul and collections of terrine laid out, and more especially dozens of golden chickens spinning not quite in unison on three or four rows of spits inside a glowing glass case set out on the sidewalk, with pans of Noirmoutier potatoes below them absorbing a hot rain of chicken drippings. And guess what was the second? A poissonnerie, all ice and oysters and chilly white filets, with palm fronds and kelp stalks expertly tucked into the bins, marking the extreme brininess of the air above the slippery sidewalk with chlorophyll. Walking by the boucherie, it might take a second to become fully enveloped in the aroma produced by the rotisserie chickens, the salted skins neither too fatty nor too thin but crisping into a even brown armor, no ingredients involved most likely beyond the alchemy of chicken, salt and heat, but when the aroma hits it’s enough to make someone who’s just had lunch into a Dickens ragamuffin or some loose dog, hardly even noticing they’ve stopped to watch the chickens spin and hear the drippings hit and sizzle, not even really wishing for one to take home but just pausing to be awash in winter joy. But that is exactly when the smell of fish interrupts, dispelling the sidewalk hearth and luring you into cold within coldness, past Finisterre to the ocean, as the hearth, despite its charm, loses its power to claim you. The smell of seafood is revolting unless completely accepted, and so arresting in those circumstances that it pushes the smell of meat immediately out of mind.

It would take a very strong olfactory mind to head off the onset of fish and cling to the aura of meat. And the fish shop was so pretty, trimmed as I said in various foliages of dark green, that it was all the easier to let the merry boucherie slip away. The blobs of coquille and oyster flesh jiggled like bits of Ice Queen, tokens of a cold and enigmatic, pristine and lonely person. On the one hand, I can never pass fish shops without thinking of the fishermen, deliverers, shopkeepers, all the people who live in the frozen yet pungent world of seafood, spending a lot of chilly early mornings wet, even spending weeks at sea on crummy, cramped fishing boats. On the other hand, seafood never seems as convivial as rotisserie chicken. At best, some of these firm white filets suggest a sedate dinner at home with a distinguished young dinner partner and a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. But these odd shapes and quiescent forms, decorative in their lightness and variety, also suggest to me the lonely passion of the collector, driven by his mania for these not-quite-alive, not-quite-dead gems to live in an Ice Palace all by himself.

This moment on the rue Faubourg Saint Denis brought to mind another experience of extreme, contrasting sidewalk odors, this time on Telegraph Street in Berkeley. This is a street for which I have no fondness, not only because it serves as the epicenter of a bygone and by now morally compromised counter-culture, including aging Berkeley folk whose defining life experiences may have occurred as long as 40 years ago and young dreadlocked street people who copy the hippies’ style without their convictions; but also because it served as my route home every evening from campus to the 1R bus, often in the course of trying to rouse myself from a kind of bored daze after a seminar or reflecting on how long I would likely have to wait for the bus and how much work there was left to do when I got home. Places that have witnessed your routines for years and never oblige so much as a flicker of nostalgia should be avoided. And the smells I have in mind were equally ungracious, both separately and, naturally, in their dissonance.

There is a pastry shop which sells donuts, M&M cookies, chocolate croissants, eclairs and other rough sweets just after Moe’s, and it exhales a warm, buttery breath. It seems to be venting its sweetness on you. It is the aroma of “baked goodness”, strangely identical everywhere, and, even when, while walking to the bus alone, it raised the specter of home for me, I was never fooled into buying something. In any case, its mellow doughy aroma gives way on Telegraph Street to the sharp aroma of essential oils, a small Indian or maybe Sri Lankan shop with lots of bottles in the windows, letting off an indefinable mix of patchouli and maybe oregano . . . that completely displaces the aroma of the bakery just before. As with boucherie and poissonnerie the dissonance is absolute, but here the transition entails a queasy lurch from the one to the other. The swift succession fascinates, but neither smell would be as noteworthy without its odd complement. And although the sharp and spiced essential oils store overwhelms the seemingly much mellower bubble gum-brown butter bakery, I feel quite sure that, in reverse, the warm, pervasive bakery aroma cloud would succeed in simply blotting out the pungency of the exotic oils.

guest story N°3 – the fish sauce affair

scent story by Trang

It was so cold that winter that we stood by the furnace and kissed. He said I tasted like cigarettes and fish sauce. And then, an octave lower, “I love it.”

The boy is now gone, along with the smoking habit. But like so many things we obsess over because of their maddening potency, Vietnamese nước mấm remains the epitome of this affliction. For me at least. My name is Trang, and I’m addicted to fish sauce. I confess. I will seek every vehicle to transport it to my mouth. I simmer down chicken carcasses for broth, but really, just to be able to dip bits of flesh in fish sauce kicked up with slivers of chili and a hit of lime. I wilt garlicky pea shoots because the bright green bite picks up the richness of fish sauce perfectly. I put a few drops of this fermented liquid in my butternut squash soup for that extra, discernable depth. Capers aside, my beurre noir sauce is not complete without it.

I can’t claim this obsession as my own eccentric quirk though. Known as nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, badec in Laos, and bagoong in Indonesia, fish sauce is adored across Southeast Asia and resonates in histories of the world. Once it was a great favorite of the Romans. Apicius cited it over 2,000 years ago in his cookbook, calling it garum and liquamen produced in salting factories, and sold by salsarii. From the loftiest Roman foodie court to the lowliest peasant hovel, fish sauce held its place in nearly every home. The most superior of this form was made using “the fresh spilled blood from the still-beating heart of a live mackerel.” The Greeks prized fish sauce so much they used it in social negotiations of desire. In one case, a man refused to trade his stash for an evening with a famed courtesan. The English dubbed their version fishpickle, and the original Worcestershire sauce claims to be the happy descendent of this.

For the uninitiated or lily-livered, fish sauce proper can be a dense salt-punch to the face. It’s visceral and pungent, funky even. It assaults the senses. After all, we are talking about a pure concentrated liquid extracted from fresh fish (usually uneviscerated anchovies) steeped in layers of salt and fermented in huge wooden or ceramic vats for 1-2 years until the clear supernatant liquid oozes out. Microbial digestion of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and salt ensure that the liquid remains pure. Once extracted, the liquid basks in the hot sun to mellow and develop flavor; the rest of the original concoction is fashioned into other edibles, namely fish paste. Much like the processes of casketing wine or scotch to encourage depth and smoothness, the best fish sauce leads a life of leisure before it is filtered, bottled, and sent off to work.

The sensitive palate can pick up complex notes of sea salt and noses of caramel in the first pour. This transparent amber liquid is comparable—in mouth feel, unctuousness, and depth—to the first pour of a vintner’s blend, or the first press of the most verdant extra virgin olive oil. It’s the difference between 2% and whole milk. This upper echelon of the fish sauce hierarchy is generally reserved for closest of kin, gifted to the most esteemed patrons, or used to lube up influential officials to this very day. Subsequent pours lack the same tone, clarity and complexity, but are nonetheless delicious (and more economical for everyday cooking). The sauce itself may be “dark” in flavor, but gussied up with a squeeze of lime, sugar and garlic, and the liquor grows bright and festive. Most of us have typically encountered fish sauce in this peppy diluted form: as a dip for Vietnamese spring-rolls, or as dressing in a bracing Thai papaya salad. Its uses, however, extend beyond the usual blendings and fixes.

At the risk of sounding like a dogmatic Vietnameanie, I will state: it is not okay to use soy sauce in place of fish sauce! Soy sauce floods and overtakes other flavors, which is fine if you want that. Fish sauce, on the other hand, harmonizes ingredients and conducts symphonies. It is a little alchemy in the kitchen, whether you prefer your magic rustic or elegant, rowdy or refined. But to experience the full toasty nuttiness of this condiment, choose a first pour of superior quality (labeled nuoc mam nhi on Vietnamese brands). The different is a few dollars, but worth it. Splash a few drops over some grilled fish, drizzle over a bed of baby watercress. Or, as I do, pour into a shallow dish and dip, dip, dip your fingers in. And if you can find someone who will kiss you afterwards, count that as your double bliss.

guest story N°2 – retour à la source

Back to the Source

– scent story by Laureline –

Skip to the original French version.

Just before turning fifty, one summer, Marie-Claire read Perfume by Süskind. There are certain books which, upon reading them, engender in us, or retrace, according to the philosopher Ricœur, the very contours of our life. For Marie-Claire, Literature suddenly gave her a nose right in the middle of her face. She know that she had one, perhaps even one more prominent than most, and more sensitive for she recognized in her nasal papillae the components of flowers and spices that a woman or man happened to be wearing during the day. All of a sudden, she discovered that this nose would help her heal others.

Marie-Claire had two first names, linked by a hyphen, two names composed by chance, as if by essence they granted their bearer two lives instead of just one. Marie-Claire had, in fact, had many lives, from her work in agro-alimentation in the Dordogne, directing regional cultures to her desire to create an entirely different culture and plant an artists’ residence in her town, which, thanks to funds from city hall and the state, had subsisted for nearly ten years. When the money ran out, Marie-Claire was forty years old. She thought that it was just as well, there were different joys for every decade.

She had just found out that her grandfather was a diviner, which finally explained the meaning of the tingling sensations she felt in her hands, the electric charges she experienced in full force not only when embracing others or gliding her hand over the handle of a car door, but the violent jolts that moved through her as soon as she approached any object made of iron. Then again, she had been well aware of the fact that people felt better when she rested her hands on their backs during long conversations. Her healing was such that though the artists’ residence was packed, the great calm and spirit of regeneration that reigned made it seem more like a spa retreat. Marie-Claire decided to train as massage therapist in Paris and join a massage therapy clinic.

Until she turned fifty, Marie-Claire dedicated herself to training in different therapeutic modalities for treating aches and pains with massage. It was while reading Perfume that her nose became a pharmaceutical laboratory on its own. She had a revelation: a body concealed odors where the body’s memory had been imprinted as if in colored characters on a sheet of paper. By working on these odors, one could undoubtedly modify the pains trapped inside of the body. In the next decade of her life, Marie-Claire decided to specialize in the aromatherapy massage.

When I paid her a visit in Paris, she calmly told me where she had found her calling: it was in a book devoted to a perfume-loving murder capable of controlling the minds of others, a scent puppeteer who unleashed human bodies by gently manipulating the delicate threads of odor.

Such a tale should have raised my suspicion about this masseuse. A shrewd mixture of her oils would undoubtedly have the power to command my body to unconsciously perform dangerous acts.

Then she explained to me about aromatherapy to treat severe amnesiacs. In hospitals, doctors would administer them chemical compounds that implant a sort of odor catheter in their memories which would draw out their memories to the surface of their mind piece by piece. I was suddenly filled with envy: I had always thought that inhaling a package of just opened Haribo strawberry gummies would bring me out of the deepest coma. To my great disappointment, floral-scented essential oils have nothing to do with chemical miracles. I would have adored being massaged with oil of warm bread rising in the oven and oil of butter saturating a French croissant.

In order to extract the hidden resin of my memory, buried in the recesses of my nose, Marie-Claire laid me down on a massage table, I heard the clinking of bottles she was opening, I had a pitied thought for the pure essence extracted from sacrificed flowers whose life had been crushed to reaffirm mine. Marie-Claire spread these concentrates over my skin, the scent of cedar, sage, the prickling of the lemon tree and the wild secrets of the mauve lilac and other more exotic smells whose names I don’t recall. While smoothing these odors to penetrate my skin, taking each cell of my body for a tiny nose unto itself, Marie-Claire lulled me with her voice.

After a half an hour of her verbal massage, I wondered, “How do you know which oils to use?”

Marie-Claire laughed, “I sense it through the vibrations in your body. When it responds well, my hands receive a discharge of electricity.”

My body suddenly appeared to me as an immense field left fallow for years over which Marie-Claire’s hands wandered slowly step by step, attuned to the slightest magnetic tremor that would send her subsoils of water. A well hollowed between my shoulder blades where Marie-Claire drew from the deep waters that she let my nose drink in to relax me. I was propelled from the massage table to a hilltop in a village of Charentes on a bed of thick, damp grass when rolling around in it, searching with your eyes for a four-leafed clover, nose brushing the ground, your tongue chances upon a taste of calcium from a pebble. I had sought these clovers at the foot of a statue of a crucifix which protected a square of wild greenery at its base. I treated myself to three of them for the occasion.


Retour à la source

– scent story de Laureline –

Juste avant ses cinquante ans, Marie-Claire lu, un été, Le Parfum, de Süskind. Certains livres nous engendrent aussitôt fini, ils refigurent, disait le philosophe Ricoeur, jusqu’aux contours de notre vie. Pour Marie-Claire, la Littérature lui donna soudain un nez en plein visage. Elle savait qu’elle en possédait un, plus proéminent que la normale peut-être, plus sensible aussi car elle reconnaissait jusque sur ses papilles les composants de fleurs et d’épices qu’homme ou femme portaient la journée. Soudain, elle découvrit que ce nez l’aiderait à soigner.

Marie-Claire avait deux prénoms, reliés par un trait d’union, les prénoms composés ont de la chance, comme si par essence ils accordaient à leur propriétaire deux vies au lieu d’une. Marie-Claire en avaient eu plusieurs des vies, depuis son travail dans l’agro-alimentaire en Dordogne, gérant les cultures régionales, à son désir de faire une tout autre culture et d’implanter dans son village une résidence d’artistes qui avec différents fonds de la mairie et de l’Etat avait pu subsister près de dix ans. Quand l’argent avait définitivement manqué, Marie-Claire avait quarante ans et se dit que ça tombait bien : à chaque dizaine, ses plaisirs.

Elle venait de se découvrir un grand-père sourcier, et enfin lui avait été révélé le pourquoi de ces chatouillements dans ses propres mains, de ses décharges électriques qu’elle prenait à tout va, pas seulement en embrassant les autres ou en frôlant une portière de voiture, mais des secousses violentes dès qu’elle approchait un objet contenant du fer, et puis elle avait bien remarqué combien les gens se sentaient mieux quand elle posait longuement ses mains sur leur dos en faisant la conversation, au point que sa résidence d’artistes ne désemplissait pas : on y trouvait plus de calme et de régénérescence qu’en Thalasso thérapie. Marie-Claire décida de suivre une formation de masseuse à Paris et de s’installer dans un cabinet en association avec d’autres.

Jusqu’à ses cinquante ans, Marie-Claire se dédia à diverses formations pour soigner les douleurs corporelles avec ses massages. C’est en lisant Le Parfum que son nez devint un laboratoire pharmaceutique à lui-seul. Elle eut une révélation : un corps recélait des odeurs où se trouvait la mémoire du corps comme imprimée en caractères colorés sur une page : en opérant sur les odeurs, sans doute on pouvait modifier les douleurs prisonnières dans le corps. Pour sa nouvelle dizaine, Marie-Claire décida de se spécialiser dans le massage aux huiles essentielles.

Lorsque je la consultai à Paris, elle me raconta ainsi tranquillement d’où lui venait sa vocation : c’était un livre consacré à un meurtrier amoureux des parfums, contrôlant même jusqu’aux cerveaux des autres, marionnetiste par l’odeur dont il tirait les fils subtils pour déchaîner les corps humains.

Cela aurait dû me rendre cette masseuse suspecte. Sans doute un mélange savant de ces huiles avait-il le pouvoir de commander à mon corps des actes inconscients dangereux.

Elle m’expliqua ensuite le travail en aromathérapie pour les grands amnésiques. A l’hôpital, les médecins leur donnent à respirer des composés chimiques pour que l’odeur se plante comme une sonde dans leurs souvenirs et les tire ensuite morceaux par morceaux à la surface. Je les enviai soudain : j’ai toujours pensé qu’humer un paquet de fraises Tagada Haribo fraîchement ouvert me sortirait du coma le plus profond. A mon grand regret les huiles essentielles aux senteurs florales n’ont rien à voir avec ces merveilles chimiques. J’aurais adoré être massée à l’huile de pain chaud gonflant dans le four et au beurre imprégant la pâte du croissant français.

Pour extraire les sucs cachés de ma mémoire, enfouis dans l’arrière-cour de mon nez, Marie-Claire m’allongea donc sur une table de massage, j’entendis le cliquetis de flacons qu’elle ouvrait, j’eus une pensée apitoyée sur cette essence pure extraite des fleurs sacrifiées, dont on avait broyé la vie pour raffermir la mienne. Marie-Claire répandit ces concentrés sur ma peau, odeurs de cèdre, de sauge, piquotement du citronnier et secret sauvage du Lilas mauve, d’autres senteurs plus exotiques dont je ne retins pas le nom. Tout en poussant celles-ci à pénétrer ma peau, prenant chaque cellule de mon corps pour un nez miniature, Marie-Claire me berçait de sa voix.

Après une demie-heure de massage parlant, je m’étonnai : “comment savez-vous laquelle de ces huiles choisir ?”

Marie-Claire rit : “Je le sens aux vibrations de ton corps. Lorsqu’il réagit bien, mes mains reçoivent une décharge de courant électrique.”

Mon corps m’apparut soudain comme un immense champ de terre laissé en jachère depuis des années, et que les mains de Marie-Claire parcouraient lentement, comme pas après pas, sensible au moindre tremblement magnétique que lui enverrait les sous-sols gorgés d’eau. Un puits se creusa entre mes omoplates d’où Marie-Claire tira des eaux profondes qu’elle donna à boire à mon nez pour me détendre. Je fus projetée de la table de massage au sommet d’une colline d’un village de Charentes, sur un emplacement d’herbes humides généreuses quand on s’enroule dedans, en cherchant des yeux un trèfle à quatre feuilles, le nez à raz de terre, et que la langue même s’aventure à goûter le calcaire d’un caillou. Ces trèfles, je les cherchai au pied d’un Christ en croix qui protégeait un carré de verdure folle à ses pieds et m’en offrit trois pour l’occasion.

guest story N°1 – bitten apples

– scent story by David –

We met in an orchard, innocent August. The air was split wide open with the smell of bitten apples. You were riding out of afternoons, wars of attrition into winter, successions of teeth. You wanted possession. Eyes wild for speckled sun streaked skin, you wanted that last hot burn of ripeness. All the wrong animals had answered your want ads and in a rage you left town leaving a litany of acrimony the color of raw grey metal behind. Finite NOs.

Breaking the gate was just so easy after that. Aftermath, open vowels, back tire dug deep into the muddy roadside. You just cut the engine. Looking right. Left. Right again. And the river was out of question. Somehow breaking a lock, climbing a fence, was easier than swimming.

In the orchard the ground was firm. Grassy with yellow curled leaves that didn’t crunch but flattened out of their concave underneath your feet. They were still warm, so fall of empires, embers—warm, so you took your shoes off. Apples wheeled away from your feet everywhere in wild spirals. Golden mean. Red storm of winter just about to begin. Sweetness struck you aggressively, a discrete snap, and reaching down to pick the first one up, you saw me.

I was lying naked, face down on a deep blue blanket, my back exposed to the sun. Sleeping. The stage screen of sheltering sky contracted suddenly. Machineworks were moving behind, switching gears where you couldn’t see. You moved to leave, run perhaps, but my back was speckled, weathered just a little like the skin of the apples.

What would the cold explosion of juice from the first fruit in your hand taste like just then? What would the long wound cords of muscle just beneath my warmed skin feel like between your teeth?

The heft of the apple in your hand was so satisfying, so heavy. You smiled. Such a potent lie. Like gravity. Consequence.

You breathed in.