Suzanne's Perfume Journal

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Sweet without being a pushover; sultry enough to suggest that here is a sex kitten; and urbane to the degree that it has a certain level of wit about it (a characteristic, it could be argued, that isn’t very Bridget Jones-like, as she’s often tongue-tied and prone to ditsy proclamations, but there are moments when her wit shines through), Vanille Charnelle is a perfume of flirtatious charm rather than complexity. It won’t dazzle anyone with its beauty, it’s more of an “easy like Sunday morning” scent, exuding a lounging-in-my-boyfriend’s-shirt vibe, and, like Bridget, prefers a straightforward approach to sex appeal rather than one that is full of artifice. (“Serious problem. You appear to have forgotten your skirt,” Bridget’s devilishly suave boss, played by actor Hugh Grant, says to her in an email when she waltzes into the office in a black mini. “Skirt off sick?” he inquires.)

Which reminds me (and yes, there is a point I’m leading up to), the first time I saw Bridget Jones’ Diary, one of the most striking things about it was how it dared to show the workplace, in this case a swank publishing firm where the doors to the boss’s office are made of glass and everyone is in plain sight (not hidden behind cubicles but completely transparent), as a place that could be sexy in all kinds of regards. The work itself could be sexy, as represented by the book-launch scene, which featured some very real, very famous authors in attendance; and the interaction between co-workers could be passionate too. In the real world, people fall in love at work, but at the time this film came out, most places of business in the US were so intently focused on enforcing laws to prevent sexual harassment, they made people wary of their interactions to the degree that the workplace seemed repressive. Bridget Jones’ Diary, for as much as it is a light comedy, was kind of subversive in its transparency, its straightforward acknowledgements. It acknowledged that Bridget Jones could be sexy in grandma panties, forgiven when flustered, and loved for just being herself. (“Just as you are? Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose?” Bridget’s friend asks her at a point in the film when they are talking about Mark Darcy, the seemingly uptight barrister who has just confided as much.)

Sometimes the heart yearns for artifice—for femme fatales and high drama and profoundly beautiful perfumes. And sometimes it sees the entire cosmos in a bowl of naked soba noodles. The latter is what Vanille Charnelle, not to mention Bridget Jones, is all about.

Chew, and think about their texture—how firm, or yielding, or firm-but-yielding. Take in their flavor—do they taste nutty and earthy or round and mild, like buckwheat or wheat? Do this over and over, learning to notice the unnoticed: how evenly the master cut each strand; how much sauce clings to them; how the noodles change from day to day, season to season, as the flour ages and new crops replace old.

In the waning days of my perfume obsession, I find myself asking, “How did I become so infatuated with perfume that I went to curious (and curiouser) lengths to describe it?” Looking back, I’m struck by my often overzealous attempts to concoct narratives around perfumes, and I wonder whether people reading my reviews found them farfetched. Still, despite the pause that reading them gives me, I know I couldn’t have written them any other way. When moved, even by something as trivial as perfume, I want to give full expression to that experience and to write about it as smittenly as any romantic scholar. In this regard I’m not alone, of course, and this fact was driven home recently when I read this article in Saveur magazine about Japanese soba noodles. Titled “Sonoko Dreams of Soba,” it is writer Francis Lam’s account of a day he spent learning to make soba noodles from Sonoko Sakai, a former Hollywood movie producer who left her film career behind to embark on her dream of cooking, teaching and writing about Japanese food, and what’s clear from the article’s get-go is that Lam has followed her into the dream state. “Soba is what philosophers slurp—a simple buckwheat noodle, a cuisine of purity and contemplation,” he says, guiding the reader on a meditation in which he implores:

Soba Noodles, Bridget Jones and Noticing the Unnoticed

(Along the Way, a Review of Annick Goutal Vanille Charnelle)

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April 9, 2016:

This week, the perfume at the center of my own dream state is Vanille Charnelle (by Annick Goutal)—a perfume that smells simple yet compelling, such that I’m calling it the Bridget Jones of vanilla perfumes. I’ve only ever watched the original Bridget Jones film, Bridget Jones’ Diary, not the sequels, and I still find it memorable. It’s as fluffy as romantic comedies come, while offering enough grainy emotional truths to engage me on a deeper level. Bridget’s love life is messy and so is she, in a sweet way. Because her life is messy with the kinds of things everyone deals with—physical insecurities, bad habits, lack of willpower, the embarrassingly dorky family moments and the embarrassingly painful ones—it’s easy to see oneself through her mirror. Played by actress Renée Zellweger, who gained twenty pounds for the role, Bridget is blonde, zaftig and sexy, not in the ways one traditionally views sexiness in the media, but in terms of her attitude (she clearly likes sex) and also because she has an open-book vulnerability about her that is appealing: she’s very real. It’s this latter quality that brought her to mind in thinking about Vanille Charnelle. While this smoky vanilla perfume doesn’t have Bridget’s zaftig qualities or excesses—it’s not overly vanillic, it’s not overly smoky—it does have her au naturel style, which is to say it’s a charmingly soft vanilla scent with a lick of the sultry about it, and nothing more. No other accoutrement, that is. The vanilla in Vanille Charnelle isn’t rich or opulent: it’s a drifty vanilla, dry and lightly almondy, like an almond cookie of the variety served in Chinese restaurants. One could call it a powdery vanilla, though not in the cosmetic sense of “powdery”; it reminds me more of powdered milk, albeit a pretty powdered milk, like what might go into a milk bath (which is actually the inspiration behind this perfume, although it’s hard to imagine the bath itself due to the perfume’s aridity ). Within minutes after Vanille Charnelle is applied to skin, its vanilla becomes enmeshed in a base that is ambery and smoky in a specific way: the smoke component smells bone-dry and edged with a whiff of seared spices (cinnamon particularly), and the amber is attended by a Play-doh scent (perhaps attributable instead to heliotrope, since heliotrope often smells like a mix of powder, almonds, cherries and Play-doh). This is a very urbane style of smoke, more dry than smoky, and, accompanied by the aforementioned air of tempered spices and Play-doh, it sends a signal of being bedroom sexy as well as youthfully playful. I can’t account for this smokiness in the perfume’s official notes (see bottom of page), but the scent is more than there for me.

“Do this over and over, learning to notice the unnoticed.” Something really clicked for me when I read that line; in one ten-word statement, it was as if Francis Lam had both identified a compulsion that I and others share and validated it. “Learning to notice the unnoticed” is an exquisite and precise explanation of why we do what we do (and by “we” I’m not only talking about perfume bloggers, but beer reviewers, wine experts, food writers, et cetera, et cetera). The joy of recognizing what most other people miss might be viewed by others as a form of snobbism—and for certain people, I suppose it is—but I think the original impetus really and truly is a compulsion, a healthy one, born of wonder, obsessive curiosity and a love for ferreting out secrets. I also think that if you choose to share this inner dialogue with someone else by writing a review of a perfume or wine or a spankin’-good mole sauce, you must use whatever dialogue is true to your experience and not worry whether it will make sense to the rest of the world. Because it won’t. But there will be at least a few people who’ll follow you into that dream state.

Annick Goutal Les Absolus Vanille Charnelle eau de parfum has top notes of ylang-ylang and pepper; heart notes of vanilla, tonka bean, and white musk; and base notes of vanilla absolute and vetiver. It can be purchased from Saks Fifth Avenue or, where a 75-ml bottle is priced at $280. My review is based on a sample sent to me from a dear blogging friend.

Images: film stills from the 2001 film Bridget Jones' Diary can be found countless places on the Internet; I can't say for sure where I stole mine. Photo of Vanille Charnelle perfume bottle is from, where the perfume can be purchased.

Excerpted from "Sonoko Dreams of Soba", an article by Francis Lam featured in the March 2016 edition of SAVEUR magazine, copyright © 2016 by SAVEUR, a Bonnier Corporation Company.