Bring on the animals! In perfumery, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” turns into “deer and beavers and furry rodents,” with a strong whiff of goats and horses as well. It’s quite another world, one where the materials in their concentrated or raw state smell very different from how they end up in a fragrance bottle on the store shelves. This is Mother Nature in her stinkiest, most feral, most natural form, though the skank sometimes feels like Mother Nature is on steroids.
What was so special about AbdesSalaam’s perfume course was the opportunity to smell some truly rare materials, to actually hold them in our hands, smear them on our skin or, in one rather disconcerting incident, even taste them on our tongue. From fossilized African hyraceum to Ethiopian civet anal sac paste and muskrat genital glands, each bore a scent that was truly like nothing that I’ve ever encountered in perfumery. Their aroma was so alien from my every day existence that I lack the olfactory vocabulary to convey the full extent of their aroma, but I shall try to do my best. Ultimately, like everything else in AbdesSalaam’s perfume course that I’ve written about so far, there is no substitute for personal experience and my posts can only convey one-tenth of what it was like. The animalics are just one part of why his perfume course is so unique, as well as why it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you should experience for yourself if you have the time, means, and opportunity.
One of the most momentous aspects of the course for me was the chance to explore deer musk glands from the near extinct Tonkin or Asiatic deer, making it an experience that very few people in the world can have today, sadly enough. AbdesSalaam obtained his deer glands from Kashmir, more than 20 years ago, and they are essentially museum pieces of a sort more than anything else. Despite protections against hunting and bans on the use of the musk in perfumery, the animals have been targeted by poachers, and AbdesSalaam said only a few are left today, perhaps in Siberia.
The male deers have a gland under their belly that produces a pheromonic musk which they use to mark and establish their territory, in addition to attracting females. Unlike several of the other animals whose pheromones we explored, the sacs are outside the body, so hunters technically do not need to kill the animal to obtain it, but they usually do so anyway. AbdesSalaam saw the size of the glands offered for sale decreasing in size, meaning younger and younger males were being killed because the older ones were no longer easily found. It’s a truly sad state of affairs, and one which added both meaning and weight to the glands we were privileged to hold.
In general, the glands are filled with tiny, seed-like pellets that the deer drops to scent mark his territory. AbdesSalaam had a glass bottle filled with unopened glands, and one open, empty one. They were so old that they weren’t heavily or powerfully redolent with scent anymore, but there were still whiffs of something earthy, musky and very furry, along with a sharply ammoniac odor. I’m afraid my photos aren’t great and are occasionally a little blurry because I tried to capture as much close-up detail as I could.
We didn’t see any of the pellets that fill the gland in an earth-like mass, but, on AbdesSalaam’s website, he has some great photos showing the full extent of the contents. There, he also talks about the olfactory history of the scent going back to the time of Marco Polo, while the page for his sandalwood-based tincture adds other details, like how perfumers saw the musk as a “magical” ingredient that worked as an aphrodisiac. Ultimately, though, these are all words, and they fail to convey the enormity of what it’s like for a perfume lover to be able to hold one of these things in their hand and to experience it concretely for themselves, knowing that the animal may soon disappear from the face of the planet entirely. There is a sense of history involved, a feeling that I can’t properly describe, and that you won’t really understand unless you take the class yourself.
Another incredibly cool experience was being able to touch, hold, and sniff Hyraceum, also known as African Stone. Again, AbdesSalaam has a really interesting, detailed piece on his website that explains things further, but I’ll try to do my best here. Hyraceum is the fossilized remains of the urine from an adorably furry African rodent called the Hyrax (or Dassie). I’ve written about the animal and its hyraceum in several past reviews, but there were a lot of things that I never realised or knew until the course. For example, did you know that the hyrax’s claim to fame is that it is the closest, living, genetic relative to the elephant? (You should read AbdesSalaam’s description of its funky anatomical oddities on his website, because I really did blink a little.) The other points I never knew were that: the hyrax pees a jelly; that they live in large colonies; that the colonies choose the deep recesses of caves high within the mountains; and that they turn that cave into a communal public toilet!
There, hundred and hundred of these furry rodents pee their gelatinous urine as a form of pheromone communication. Messages of identity, as AbdesSalaam put it. Over thousands of years, as the sun and heat hit these caves, the accumulated layers of jelly “messages” in the communal bathroom slowly turn into a hard, dense mass. Scientists estimate many date to around 10,000 years. The information amazed me; I had thought the hyrax lived in the African desert and simply peed all about like regular animals, so I had never understood the mechanics of how precisely people had found the remains of what I thought was basic urine. Nor did I know that the hard mass was so incredibly ancient. Well, caves high in a mountain certainly explains how the material would stay untouched long enough to turn into a fossil! What happens then is that archaeologists break down the strata with hammers, yielding large black chunks which perfumers have begun to tincture or turn into essences. Tinctures are basically a more delicate, lighter, alcohol-based, extracted form of a raw material, containing a lower level of the substance in question and steeped over a period of time. (More on tinctures much later.)
The scent of the hyraceum rock was interesting. It was sharp, earthy, and intensely pee-like, but its true scope came out in the tincture that AbdesSalaam provided each of us in our Kit of Animalic Essences. To my nose, it smelt like stinky, raw leather at a tannery that had been covered with musky horse sweat and goatiness, then drenched in urinous ammonia. Unexpected hints of grass and hay lingered at the edges. In a nutshell, it was the “animal” part of the word “animalics,” though it was actually milder than I had expected when sniffed in the bottle. That’s because tinctures have a weaker, more delicate aroma than essential oils.
Castoreum also had a bouquet of raw leather in tincture form, but it’s different. Castoreum is the perfume name given to the soft paste inside the glands of a male beaver. The glands are black globes marbled with the thinnest white veins, and in the shape of testicles or pears. Because the glands are inside the animal, the beavers do have to be killed to obtain them, but modern efforts target the animals only as part of culling for population control. Like several of the other animalics we smelled, the castoreum’s aroma is also like musky, raw leather, but I found it to be substantially softer than the hyraceum. More importantly, it lacks the same degree of sharp, concentrated ammonia, though, to my nose, the tincture had a slightly similar grassy undertone to its earthiness. In perfume form, I find that castoreum’s scent can be golden, musky, velvety, leathery, like a man’s perianal area, or some combination thereof. In contrast, I think hyraceum in perfume is more generally limited to smelling of urine (particularly the cat kind) or, in some extreme cases, of badly soiled, ammonia-heavy, cat litter boxes.
Muskrat glands were next. According to AbdesSalaam and his website page on the tincture, the animal has scent glands in its genital area. They were tiny in comparison to everything else that we’d examined, roughly the size of a thumbnail and, my word, did they reek! They smelt like dirty leather and the very worst of stinky, dirty shoes. Oddly enough, they also bore a whiff of something that, as Manuel put it so well, resembled the left-over sediment in a bottle of very aged red wine. Yet, that doesn’t really convey the totality of the odors. Honestly, I don’t have the words. Nothing I saw will adequately convey the sheer rancidness of its hideous reek. Suffice it to say that, as the glass container was passed around the room, there was a domino effect of people physically recoiling with full body shudders, one after another. Not even the aged civet paste which followed triggered the same amount of revulsion. You simply have to experience it for yourself.
Civet was next. It’s a small mammal that looks like a mix between a cat, a racoon, and perhaps a mongoose. Both males and females secrete a strong-smelling musk (which is also called civet) from their anal glands. Most perfumers use synthetic civet due to animal cruelty concerns, though there are some Ethiopian farms where civets have been domesticated and are raised with kindness. I don’t know the source of the first paste that we smelt, but it was about seven years old.
My initial notes on its aroma read as follows: “aged vomit leather with warm fur, living skin, and pee.” You know the smell of stale, dried vomit? Imagine that slathered over raw leather in a tannery, which is then doused with a cup of the smell of an animal’s sweaty ass. Finish that up by layering the aroma of dirty animal skin, urine, and warm, musky fur. That’s the aroma of aged civet paste. Manuel, my table mate and partner for the course, summed it up as “fetid yak butter,” to which he later added the word “rancid” as well. That sums it up, too. (Believe it or not, I think that all of this is still better than the aroma of muskrat glands!)
To my disbelief, AbdesSalaam then asked us to taste the paste. Throughout the seminar, he’d said something to the effect of, “a perfumer should be able to eat and drink his products and, if he can’t, then that says something about the ingredients he uses.” That’s all well and good, but eating aged civet paste seemed to be going a step too far, and I think the expression on my face mirrored my horrorified feelings because the entire class burst out laughing. Like something out of a car wreck captured in slow-motion, I put some on my finger, raised it to my tongue, swallowed, and waited for the ensuing nightmare.
I know it will be hard to believe, but the paste actually tasted better than it smelt, at least relatively speaking. The first and main sensation was butteriness, something a little like Vaseline in texture, except significantly oilier. There was a leathery taste but, also, to my confusion, a definite floral aroma. Don’t ask me to describe it because, just as with all the other animalics that we explored with AbdesSalaam, I don’t think the olfactory vocabulary has yet been invented to adequately, fully, and completely describe the aromas we encountered.
AbdesSalaam later brought us a younger civet paste to smell. It was only a year old, and its aroma was simultaneously better and worse than the seven-year one. I can’t really explain it but, it was fresher, rawer, milder, sharper, and more ammonia-heavy. The older one felt smoother, deeper, richer, but also more rank. More “vomit leather,” if you will. We did not taste the fresher one. (Thank God.)
Finding the right words is difficult in large part because your senses become overwhelmed by the intensity of the alien, unconventional odors that are not only far from your every day life, but also rarely encountered in such concentrated form, let alone one after another. It’s a deluge of wildness that you have to experience for yourself at AbdesSalaam’s hands in order to understand just how raw and primordial it really is.
All I can say is that the cumulative effect on one of us, Matthew, was so intense, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He was suddenly beset by an explosion of energy and restlessness, so AbdesSalaam suggested that he run it off during the break. When that failed to alleviate Matthew’s state, he went and climbed a tall tree, much to the horror of the hotel staff who were undoubtedly having visions of litigious Americans suing them if he fell and injured himself. Thankfully, he did not, but Matthew’s reaction lends some weight to AbdesSalaam’s belief that animalics have a powerful effect on our senses and body, whether we actually like them or not.
We also dealt with ambergris. In a nutshell, it’s the actual vomit from a sperm whale, and there are various types or colours of the substance, from gold to grey, black, and beyond. I don’t know the technical classification for the hardened piece that we had; its colour seemed to depend on the light, but was also different when cut into pieces. In essence, though, it looked brownish and had tiny black, grey, and white bits. AbdesSalaam said it weighed roughly 50 grams which, at today’s prices, would cost about €1000.
Its scent was simultaneously salty, sea-like, horse-y, musky, and leathery. We tried a tincture that AbdesSalaam had made that was more than 5 years old. I thought it smelt of pure horse leather, like the heated leather of a saddle that has absorbed the aroma of a horse’s body after riding, though it wasn’t a sweaty odor, per se.
Tincturing can be done for practically anything, from goat hair to seaweed or even dust. A tincture is an alcohol-based liquid with a lighter, more delicate, less concentrated odor than essential oils, because it contains a lesser quantity of the raw materials. You’re basically extracting the aroma of something by using alcohol to absorb it after steeping it over time. Tinctures come in different percentage concentrations. For example, a 1% tincture means (I think) that 100 mls of liquid contains 1 gram of the raw material.
AbdesSalaam showed us how to make an ambergris tincture. He chopped up the 50 gram piece into powder and small slivers, then poured it inside a large 1 liter bottle of alcohol.
After that, he heated it repeatedly with a torch burner in order to melt the larger pieces. He said it is important to continuously shake the bottle every few hours on the first day, then several times a day thereafter for the next few days.
Tinctures are usually left to steep several weeks or for about six months, but AbdesSalaam leaves his for at least five years and never filters them. He added that ambergris tinctures are usually 30 grams per liter of alcohol. Because ours contained 50 grams, it was stronger.
Initially, the colour of the liquid was black, because the powder was in suspension. However, after several hours, the hue began to change as the powder sank and began to be absorbed into the alcohol. Eventually, after a day or so (I think), we saw the liquid slowly turn into a dark red.
We also got to touch and sniff resinoids, though the materials technically weren’t animalic in nature. According to the Lawless’ book that I talked about in Part I, resinoids are basically the hardened, extracted form of dead organic material, as opposed to previously living tissues like botanical plants. The usual source material for resinoids are resins or gums — like amber, Peru balsam, frankincense, or benzoin — and they’re used as fixatives in perfumery.
AbdesSalaam showed us benzoin and frankincense resinoids. The benzoin smelt much as it does in essential oil form: vanilla-ish, warm, and with a small, cinnamon-ish undertone. In the photos below, the lighter piece is the frankincense, while the darker, more solidly coloured, brownish one is the benzoin resinoid.
After that, we got to play with different types of frankincense, in addition to burning a wide variety of materials on coal beyond just the incense. For example, labdanum absolute versus cistus absolute, and even a tree or neroli oil, if I remember correctly:
That’s it for today. Next time, in Part VII, I’ll take a brief look at olfactory psychotherapy and distillation, before concluding with some final thoughts on the course.