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MORE SCENT MEMORY THAN PERFUME:
Frederic Malle Bigarade Concentrée


October 23, 2008:

Bigarade Concentrée, from Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums, is the first niche fragrance I ever purchased. I bought it unsniffed, based on an intense curiosity stirred by New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr, whose review of the scent was utterly intriguing—he made it sound so dirty and complex. In fact, he used the word ‘complex.’ “Bigarade smells like a person trapped in a complex weather system, the wonderful scent of a guy’s armpit and a woman’s humid skin washed in fresh rainwater and ozone,” Burr wrote in his column, published August 27, 2006, under the heading “Dark Victory,” where he also reviewed two other fragrances that exuded a certain quality of darkness (“darkness, when it is crystalline and somewhat luminous” was his description).

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Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Frederic Malle lists the notes for Bigarade Concentrée as bitter orange essence with a touch of rose, on a woody bed of hay and cedar. (One striking characteristic I neglected to mention above: this scent lasts and lasts on me, unlike the vast majority of citrus perfumes.)

It can be purchased online or in-store from the Frederic Malle boutiques and from Barneys New York, where a 50-ml bottle is currently priced at $175.

Image of hayloft is by photographer Larry Kanfer and can be purchased from his website, LarryKanfer.com.

Art being a subjective thing, I have no quibbles with Burr’s review: I’m sure it hit home with a good number of people who’ve tried Bigarade Concentrée, judging by some of the reviews I’ve read on Basenotes (“a cab driver eats an orange” being the spare but evocative appraisal of one Basenoter). But for me, whether a matter of skin chemistry or my uneducated nose, the fragrance turns out to be simple and linear and devoid of much in the way of dirty bits. If I wear it in hot, humid weather, I do get a very light dose of the sweaty cumin and cedar that others delight in, but not nearly enough to serve my interests.

So does this failure (either on my part or the fragrance’s)—this perceived lack of complexity—imply that the fragrance disappoints or is without charms? Do I regret having purchased it unsniffed? Not at all. One of the most enchanting things about sniffing perfumes and reading reviews is in observing how a scent can inspire such diverse feelings and perceptions among its wearers. The associations Bigarade Concentrée holds for me are perhaps the polar opposite of the associations it holds for others, and if I was disappointed the first time I opened the bottle and didn’t get what Chandler Burr got, I nevertheless got something that has proved invaluable to me. Bigarade Concentrée is the sweet, uncomplicated smell of my childhood—so piquant and precise and, yes, uncomplicated, it has an immediacy and a directness that teleports me—blink!—to a particular memory from childhood. For me, Bigarade Concentrée is the smell of bright, juicy tangerines eaten in a hayloft—one of my favorite places to burrow in with a book, to build forts with my two sisters, or to cuddle a litter of kittens or puppies when I was growing up on the farm.

For this reason, I tend to view Bigarade Concentrée as a fall and winter scent. In November, boxes of tangerines, oranges and grapefruits began showing up at our house; my mom would order them in bulk and keep them in the cold storage of our enclosed, but unheated, back porch. (A month later, an orange, accompanied by a walnut, would show up in the toes of our Christmas stockings. You’d think it wouldn’t leave much of an impression, considering all the toys we received, but this tradition instilled me with the belief that oranges were special: a brightness in winter, a treat.)

Fall-winter was also the best season for playing in the hayloft. In spring, the hay was largely depleted, making it not only difficult for my sisters and I to scrounge up enough bales to stack into forts, but allowing dangerous holes in the floorboards to gape open. A covering of loose hay would sometimes disguise these holes, which opened into the bottom part of our barn—to cattle lowing in their stalls and an unforgiving concrete floor. In summer, our enthusiasm for playing in the loft was tempered by the grinding reality that it had become our workplace: our job was to help my father, grandfather and the hired hands to unload hay wagons and painstakingly stack the freshly-mowed bales from the loft floor to its high rafters. This work nearly always coincided with eighty- and ninety-degree weather, and until we three girls realized that we’d be better served to wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts, rather than shorts and tees, the rough bales scratched at our arms and legs until they were raw, while loose alfalfa clung to our damp skin like chaff.

But in winter, oh!! Snug in warm coats and mittens, our pockets stuffed with apples and tangerines, we climbed and jumped around the loft as if it was a jungle gym. We startled pigeons at roost in the barn’s high beams, leaned our heads out of the paneless square “window” that provided ventilation and a dizzying view to the landscape below, and felt a sense of daring and, at the same time, of being securely ensconced. Our female beagle dog must have shared our sense of the latter, for she always seemed to find a way to enter the loft at the low end, where the bales were thrown through a trap door to the cows down below, to secure a hiding place to birth her puppies. The milky-warm scent of those velvet-furred pups from long ago remains lodged in my mind; it’s amazing to me that I can still recall it at will. And now, wearing Bigarade Concentrée, it occurs to me that if I “got” the warm cedar and animalic cumin that other perfumistas smell in this scent, the olfactory memory it evokes for me would be complete. But I don’t get it, and I’m not complaining. The scent of tangerine peel and hay is enough to go on, is sufficient gift. Like that ventilation window high up on the barn that my sisters and I leaned out of to sniff the cold air and survey the scenery, Bigarade Concentrée provides a splendid view into a childhood I never intend to fully relinquish.