Considering the vanilla orchid is harvested in remote parts of the world, it is something most of us will come in contact with on a daily basis, as a flavour in our breakfast yoghurt, an odour in a bath product, an ingredient in a chocolate lunch pastry or the perfume we choose to wear to dinner. In perfumery, vanilla is highly relied upon. Most perfumes contain natural or synthetic vanilla odours. There are fragrances that are all about vanilla, for example the niche Vanille Absolument by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Guerlain’s super gourmand Spiriteuse Double Vanille or the luxurious Vanille Galante by Hermes. Other fragrances require vanilla as part of their DNA; it forms part of the skeletal system of many oriental/ambreine perfumes such as Guerlain Shalimar and Calvin Klein Obsession. In a composition, vanilla can also be used to round off base notes. Sometimes even the most bitter eau fraiche might contain just a touch of vanilla to neutralise the acidic bite of the citrus notes as well as acting like a fixative, to bond the more volatile notes to skin.
From a perfumer’s perspective, the beauty of vanilla lies in its complex odour. It is an odour that encompasses a broad range of adjectives. Depending on the origin of the bean, how the odour has been extracted and the concentration in which you smell it, you can describe vanilla as being gourmand, soft, floral or dried tobacco, woody and resinous. These multiple facets present a perfumer with an exciting range of possibilities.
There are over 100 different species of vanilla orchids in the world. Of these species, two are commonly used in both culinary and olfactory arts. Vanilla planifolia is the most commonly used vanilla bean and Madagascar is a source of high quality planifolia beans as well as Comoros, Reunion and Mayotte. The cultivation of vanilla on these islands is labour intensive, requiring both horticultural know-how and expertise to cure the green beans once they are picked. The beans are aged in the sun and as the green beans cure, their scent evolves from one of bitter almonds to a dark woody, tobacco-like scent.
It is these minuscule variations that keep perfumers travelling in search of new sources. This could make all the different in a competitive market for luxury perfumes. In 2010 Guerlain launched a limited edition called Shalimar Ode a la Vanille. Thierry Wasser, Guerlain’s in-house perfumer explored the world for exceptional vanilla. His travels took him to Madagascar and Mayotte and the vanilla he found there inspired a reinterpretation of Guerlain’s legendary Shalimar from 1925. At the time of Jacques Guerlain, Shalimar’s original author, it was customary for perfumers to use a high proportion of alcoholic tinctures made from natural products. In addition, many of their molecules were distilled from natural origins giving a wonderful quality and life to the finished product. In their book, Perfumery Principals and Practices, authors Calkin and Jellinek write:
“In a perfume created at the time of Shalimar, the qualities of citronellol and geraniol used in the perfume would have been from natural origin, rhodinol from gernaium, and geraniol from palmarosa. These products, because of the numerous trace materials retained from the starting material, have a quality and performance in the end product that is almost impossible to achieve using purely synthetic counterparts” p124
The use of tinctures in commercial perfumery is today less common, but for the hobbist perfumer, it is one of the easiest ways to create raw materials. Last year I travelled to New Zealand to find beach cast whale ambergris, which I used to make a tincture. Recently I made a vanilla bean tincture using a very simple process prescribed by Steffen Arctander, author of Perfume and Flavour Materials of Natural Origin.
For my tincture I wanted to source the best quality of vanilla bean I could find. I had a serendipitous meeting with Fabian Courtaux, an expatriated Frenchman living in Melbourne. Our meeting was work related but once business was out of the way, our conversation turned social and Fabian mentioned to me he represented a family of Tahitian vanilla farmers. For the past three years, their vanilla beans have won consecutive awards in Paris at the Concours General Agricole and Fabian has been supplying a number of highly respected Michelin star rated chefs with this family’s vanilla beans. Fabian helped me understand the Tahitian vanilla is different from the Madagascan variety. The number of plantations are less; therefore it is more rare. Unlike vanilla planifolia, Tahitensis vanilla has a smoother, more floral character and is often favoured by pastry chefs. Another key difference is in the harvesting. Chefs may request green Madagascan beans, which can be provided before the beans are cured. In Tahiti, local farmers age the bean on the plant. This results in a full-bodied bean, no doubt changing both the odour and the flavour of their unique produce. After my meeting with Fabian a packet of his Tahitian vanilla beans turned up on my desk the following week with an introduction to the Hotu family. Hotu Vanilla was created in 2006 and the family live and grow their beans on the sacred Tahitian island of Raiatea. The smell of 100g, 12-13cm 1st grade beans is wonderful so I was very keen to tincture this intoxicating odour.
Steffen Actander’s process simply calls for 125g of beans to be coarsely chopped and placed in 1000g of 95% proof denatured alcohol. The beans are left to macerate for 14 days and the resulting tincture can be filtered and used for perfume compositions. I scaled the size of my tincture down to make a 50ml test batch and the result was an easy success and surprisingly potent. Considering the odour of an absolute is by nature more concentrated than a tincture, my perceptions between the tincture and Madagascan vanilla (absolute) for comparison are:
Vanilla tincture (V. Tahitensis) on a blotter:
Soft, ripe fruit – dried fruit, pale almonds, heliotrope, marshmallow dry-down
Vanilla absolute (V. planifolia) at 10% on a blotter:
Intense, dark, animalic, civet-like, tobacco, black raisins, ambery, resinous
If you would like to know more about Hotu Vanilla from Tahiti, their website (in French) is www.hotu-vanilla.pf or you can contact Fabian Courtaux by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Fabian’s phone number is +61 421 946 556 (Australian Eastern Standard Time)