Last Wednesday evening, I was fortunate to attend a Scented Supper hosted by The Perfume Society in honour of artisan perfumer Mandy Aftel.
Mandy was visiting London with her lovely husband, Foster, for their anniversary. Her all-natural fragrances for Aftelier Perfumes – such as the wonderful Vanilla Smoke – are highly creative and have won her a loyal following as well as widespread acclaim. Furthermore, her beautifully written books on the topics of fragrance and food have inspired many, including myself.
The location was the North London HQ of Michelin restaurant trained Pratap Chahal known as That Hungry Chef. He explained to us that he started the Scented Suppers after reading Mandy’s book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent which brought his attention to the connection between fragrance and food. He began to experiment and his wife quipped that at first the house smelled like “A Mexican brothel!”. A couple of years down the line though and he has perfected his art. Last August he actually visited Mandy’s studio in California: there was a lot of synergy going on…
I have to be careful about what I eat and wondered how I would cope with so many strong flavours. However, each dish was subtly balanced and it was one sensory delight after another. Highlights were the patchouli pearl barley, frankincense cream with chickpea and apple crumble, chocolate tartlets with silver leaf and the most tender beef imaginable cooked with tobacco and patchouli (a l’Aftel). Even the slate the butter rested on was infused with fir oil. Not shown was a mini pistachio and saffron kulfi which somehow was in my mouth before I could take a photo.
Above from top left shows the beetroot starter, beef main and dessert of frankincense cream.
Inbetween courses Mandy was more than happy to answer questions from The Perfume Society’s Jo Fairley as well as other guests. What came across most strongly was her passion for the materials she works with. It seemed to me that her perfumes act primarily as conduits which allow her to express herself through her beloved naturals. She loves hunting down new materials and says she gets just as much of a thrill from them now as she did when she started out 20 years ago. Mandy feels perfume is intrinsically interesting and finds smell “primitive and sexy”. She is fascinated by all odours, whether others label them good or bad.
Mandy thinks of smell as “disembodied flavour” and as we know, smell is a huge part of taste. She collaborated on the book Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance with the chef Daniel Patterson and has another book entitled The Art Flavor coming out next summer. She believes the smell of cooking is the ultimate home fragrance. Her Chef’s Essences are concentrated flavours which enliven dishes with just a couple of drops and are used by artisanal producers of items such as chocolate, ice cream and candles. The Essences include Basil, Pineapple, Peru Balsam, Frankincense and Ylang Ylang, among others.
On the subject of perfume, Mandy told us that her favourite material is probably ambergris because she loves everything about it. She’s also noticed that the combination of patchouli with benzoin crops up in a lot of her perfumes and is very fond of gardenia/tiare. While she adores absolutes, Mandy doesn’t tend to work with essential oils that have a camphorous facet, such as tea tree and eucalyptus.
I admire Mandy for sticking to her personal values and not being afraid to take risks. She decided not to play it safe with her recent release Memento Mori which she acknowledged is a polarising scent “partly putrid, partly pretty”. Mandy has intentionally kept her business small-scale, turning down large orders for her Chef’s Essences and maintaining relationships with her customers.
An exciting project that Mandy is working on at the moment is her perfume museum. This will showcase the large collection of fragrant materials she has amassed over the years. It will be open to no more than 6 people at a time, by appointment. They will be able to smell the items on display and Mandy is particularly looking forward to seeing their reactions. She showed us photos of a cache of 100 year-old Rimmel perfumes she obtained from France. It is hoped that the museum, which is on Mandy’s property in Berkeley, will be open by the end of January next year.
Mandy’s first book about natural perfumery, Essence & Alchemy, was life-changing for me when I read it about ten years ago, so it was a complete joy to be able to finally meet her. She was just as warm, thoughtful and interesting as I imagined her to be, if not more so.
Huge thanks to Mandy Aftel, The Perfume Society and That Hungry Chef for a magical evening.