There are literally thousands of issues to stay your nostril into on the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, a tiny museum in Berkeley dedicated to the sense of odor. You’ll be able to submerge your face in a pile of Provencal lavender buds, or a handful of Somalian frankincense pebbles, or slivers of Venezuelan tonka beans. You’ll be able to open jars of volatilized oils that may shock you with their novelty — the jammy fruitiness of fir absolute; the powdery sweetness of coumarin — or make you’re feeling such as you’re smelling one thing acquainted, like mint, peach or butter, clearly for the primary time.
So diverse and quite a few are the museum’s aromas that rating them, you’d assume, could be an inconceivable process. However ask proprietor Mandy Aftel, and she or he doesn’t hesitate.
“The very best odor in the entire place is ambrein,” Aftel says, referring to a molecule current in ambergris, the secretion of a sperm whale’s digestive system. She picks up a tiny vial that incorporates an ambrein tincture, holding it as much as my nostril. It’s musky, primarily, but in addition floral and candy. The feeling is totally unfamiliar, however Aftel’s proper. The ambrein smells chic.
Ambergris is one thing of a white whale — excuse the pun — on the earth of fragrance: uncommon and costly, and riddled with moral points. Aftel purchased hers, all vintage, from a collector of whale paraphernalia in New England. (She doesn’t condone harming animals.) Generally known as “whale vomit,” the substance will get its personal mini-exhibit right here in Aftel’s museum. There’s a wooden carving of a sperm whale, which she commissioned; glass circumstances stuffed with uncooked ambergris, which appear to be nondescript, grayish stones; and vials of ambergris and ambrein tinctures, in your sniffing pleasure.
Nonetheless, ambergris is much from the one uncommon aroma within the Archive of Curious Scents, which is housed in a former artist’s studio adjoining to Aftel’s house, abutting the again of Chez Panisse. For the $20 value of admission, you can too inhale oud, a resin-soaked wooden from the Southeast Asian agar tree that prices $44,00zero a kilo. You’ll be able to nostril Boronia, a tiny Tasmanian flower whose odor is paying homage to raspberries, a relative cut price at $14,00zero a kilo. On the finish of a go to, you are taking house letterpress tabs soaked in three fragrances of your alternative, and two items of chocolate sprayed with Aftel’s culinary oils in flavors like pink peppercorn, saffron or magnolia.
The Archive of Curious Scents, which has hosted about 3,00zero guests since opening in July 2017, is a ardour undertaking for Aftel. Her important gig is as a perfumer, and she or he has carved out a profitable area of interest for her Aftelier model as a producer of handcrafted, totally pure fragrances. Whereas most business perfumes are created from artificial supplies, Aftel — who has additionally written eight books about perfume, together with two co-authored with chef Daniel Patterson — has lengthy been an advocate for pure perfumes. It’s a motion with a powerful historical past in Northern California — East Bay dressmaker Erica Tanov is launching her first pure perfume this month — that’s gaining steam nationwide as a brand new technology seeks out pure magnificence merchandise.
Aftel believes that naturals, whether or not derived from a flowering plant or from animal excrement, aren’t solely extra lovely and extra advanced than synthetics, but in addition that experiencing pure fragrances can reveal a dimension of the world that we seldom entry on this fashionable age.
She hopes the museum will unfold that gospel. “All of the fragrance that individuals have a relationship to is artificial,” Aftel says. “I would like individuals to connect with these valuable specimens, that are vanishing from life.”
Skeptical? Scent for your self. In a single nook of the museum, Aftel has set out artificial variations of jasmine, rose and vanilla alongside their pure counterparts. To my nostril, the artificial scents all really feel acquainted — the vanilla remembers Bathtub & Physique Works lotion, or a Yankee Candle, whereas the rose wafts a harsh, chemical-laced observe that means a cleansing product. Smelling the pure variations is just like the olfactory model of eradicating a cataract out of your eyes and instantly seeing the world in vivid coloration: The pure vanilla is natural and spicy, nothing just like the cloying, frosting-like odor I’m anticipating. The rose smells refined and tender; the phrase that involves thoughts once I sniff it’s “nourishing.”
It’s not all roses, although. Past the whale vomit, the Archive of Curious Scents displays different “fecal florals”— that’s, fragrant waste merchandise from animals like beavers (whose castoreum smells leathery and spicy), civets (whose gland secretion smells just a little like honey) and musk deer (you guessed it — musky).
Aftel warns me, earlier than I open a vial of hyraceum tincture — created from the urine and feces of the hyrax, a small African mammal — that I’ll discover it offensively putrid. However as soon as I recover from the psychological barrier of smelling animal poop, I truly discover the hyraceum very nice: earthy and fruity in a manner that evokes chocolate. Aftel makes use of hyraceum in a fragrance she calls “Fig,” the place it supplies a sort of funky yin to the floral and fruity yang of lavender and citrus.
“I’m a hunter,” Aftel says, referring to her seek for uncommon botanicals. Half the enjoyable for her is monitoring down the dear components that she makes use of in her perfumes, like, say, a selected sort of gardenia from Tahiti, which she believes no different perfumer on the earth possesses. All through the museum are her different uncommon finds, the loot of 30 years of accumulating: turn-of-the-century books about perfume; vintage postcards depicting fragrance manufacturing in Europe; classic artwork, like Elijah H. Burritt’s fantastical “Maps of the Heavens” (1835). Lots of the fragrances themselves are over a century outdated.
Maybe essentially the most spectacular discover is a signed drawing by Leonard Cohen, hanging above the “organ” — a picket shelf that’s the museum’s centerpiece, which holds tons of of vials of important oils. The musician was one in every of Aftel’s most loyal clients earlier than he died. His scent, she stories, was the Aftelier Oud Luban, a smoky, resinous mélange of oud and frankincense.
If you happen to go Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, 1518 ½ Walnut St., Berkeley. 510-841-2111. 10 a.m. to six p.m. Saturdays. Reservations beneficial. Admission: $20. www.aftelarchive.com
I contemplate myself knowledgeable smeller: I’m a wine author. However as I make my manner by means of a number of dozen of the tinctures on Aftel’s organ, lifting their tiny lids to my nostril, pocket book in hand, I discover myself constantly stumped, unable to place into language what I’m sensing. I’m fluent to find bing cherry or forest flooring in a glass of Pinot Noir, however that train in imaginative metaphors appears futile right here. How would you describe this vial of recent ginger as something aside from, properly, recent ginger? Methods to distinguish, verbally, between cade and pine tar and Peru balsam, every a unique, scrumptious register of smoky?
Then one thing occurs that hits me with an emotional drive equal to the load of a sperm whale. I odor my grandmother. Afterward, I gained’t be capable to bear in mind through which of Aftel’s tinctures I smelled her, or how I knew it was my grandmother, who died seven years in the past. Was I recalling the scent of her outdated leather-based purse? Her breath mints? Her Crabtree & Evelyn cleaning soap?
Aftel, whose first profession was as a psychotherapist, assures me that is frequent. She’s seen a number of guests moved to tears by an aroma on the museum, typically unable to elucidate why.
“Our sense of odor comes from a deep, inside place, removed from language,” she says. “It’s such an animal a part of who we’re.” Scent, she says, awakens us to reminiscences we will sense however can’t fairly articulate. There aren’t any phrases, nor ought to there be.