From mouth to nose: when flavours become fragrances

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Behind the evident familiarity of food notes lies a creative challenge for perfumers. Mane provides them with innovative ingredients so they can reach beyond a literal interpretation and come up with inventive signature fragrances. One of the pillars of this process is biotechnology, a field where the French composition house has operated its own research laboratory since 1987.

Sugar is addictive. A fact well known in the food industry as well as in perfumery, which has been playing the glucose card, with its easy appeal for consumers, for several years now. Some perfume industry players, however, look beyond this simplistic view and propose a more creative approach to food notes, devising tomorrow’s perfumery trends. Mane is one of them. As well as its role as the leading French composition house, Mane is also a pioneer when it comes to working with salty notes. Notable examples of this work include two feminine fragrances with a hint of sea salt, New West for Her for Aramis in 1990 by Yves Tanguy, and Escape pour femme for Calvin Klein in 1991. These perfumes spearheaded a new trend that took off over the following years, representing what was then a bold, risky – and ultimately successful – choice. Because while the memory impact of taste notes is worth exploiting, they can also swiftly summon up associations that are not really a very good fit for the perfumery realm: 

“One of the challenges is finding the right balance between the literal aspect, the innovative idea and the perfume’s wearability. You need to be extremely accurate because the nuances quickly become perceptible: it’s painstaking work, which explains why some creations take so long to develop, such as Womanity,” explains Mathilde Bijaoui, one of the perfumers who helped to compose the 2010 Mugler perfume. A project that required two years to take shape: “Sometimes certain innovative ingredients help us make progress with the composition. In this instance, we used our Jungle Essence caviar extract to come up with a caviar accord that teams up with fig and creates a bold signature for the perfume.” 

Transcending the literal

That same year, she composed Like This, fruit of an encounter with Tilda Swinton for niche perfume house État libre d’Orange. During their first conversation, the actress mentioned the smell in her home, particularly the aroma of pumpkin crumble she was cooking for her children: “That sparked the idea for using the colour orange as my theme. It’s a nod to Tilda’s complexion, the brand name and, of course, the squash. I wanted to recreate its creamy texture rather than its smell, which I enveloped in lactones, mandarin, orange blossom and immortelle. I listened to my imagination rather than trying for an identical reproduction of the vegetable!”

Mathilde Bijaoui also created the English Fields collection for Jo Malone in 2018. The ground-breaking range put cereal grains centre stage at a time when their presence in perfumes was still very discreet. An olfactory session was organised at a bakery to appreciate the full array of their nuances thanks to the aromas of different flours, from delicately smoky rye to the more sugary chestnut. The collection’s five fragrances offer a variety of interpretations and inspirations, as illustrated by Primrose & Rye, inspired by the colour shared by barley, corn and mimosa, Honey & Crocus, where honey takes on an almost hay-like feel, part cereal grain, part wildflower, softened by almond milk, and Oat & Cornflower, an olfactory version of muesli with dried fruit the perfumer created while steering clear of sugary notes. While the names of all five compositions may suggest a literal rendering, we should not forget that whenever perfumers tackle a creative task, they bring with them their specific sensibility and even their history: “If I composed one of these perfumes again today, I know I wouldn’t take the same approach,” Mathilde Bijaoui points out. Just as painters do not reproduce a landscape on their canvas but always offer their own particular interpretation of it, perfumers convey “the atmosphere of things” in the words of philosopher Ernst Cassirer in his An Essay on Man: “If we say of two artists that they paint ‘the same’ landscape we describe our aesthetic experience very inadequately. From the point of view of art such a pretended sameness is quite illusory. We cannot speak of one and the same thing as the subject matter of both painters. For the artist does not portray or copy a certain empirical object – a landscape with its hills and mountains, its brooks and rivers. What he gives us is the individual and momentary physiognomy of the landscape. He wishes to express the atmosphere of things, the play of light and shadow. A landscape is not ‘the same’ in early twilight, in midday heat, or on a rainy or sunny day. Our aesthetic perception exhibits a much greater variety and belongs to a much more complex order than our ordinary sense perception.” Thus the perfume creator’s approach cannot be reduced to an ordinary sense perception: it transcends the immediate to offer a new construction of the real. Which means that food notes should not be understood literally: they evoke, denote, enrich; they are not confined to pure transcription, even though their base material sometimes does originate from food flavouring research.

Nourishing the palette

Given that composition houses work on both perfumery and flavours, there are constant interactions between the two activities, something that nourishes the creative palette and inspiration alike. However, many ingredients used for food are unavailable for perfumery, either due to legislation or alcohol solubility. Introduced in 2020 as precious jewel-like materials, Jungle Essence extracts have expanded the olfactory vocabulary of Mane’s perfumers. Notable examples are a creamy and addictive hazelnut and a red seaweed with nori sheets facets which Ugo Charron used to build the umami effect of Umema, created with Emmanuelle Dancourt, a journalist who was born with anosmia. The cutting-edge technology also makes it possible to extract certain ingredients for the first time, including fruits: “Julie Massé used a blackcurrant Jungle Essence extract in by Giorgio Armani, which is much fruitier and juicier than blackcurrant bud absolute without being sweet: it’s very naturalistic,” explains Mathilde Bijaoui.

Molecules derived from biotechnology offer another excellent resource for extending the perfumer’s palette: “To obtain them, we use micro-organisms to reproduce what happens in nature, but under controlled conditions, where the parameters (humidity, temperature, etc.) are optimal. Although their price remains high, at a time when consumers – and therefore brands – are increasingly demanding naturalness as well as sustainable development (less waste, etc.), we are backing them strongly. Not to mention the fact that 95% of them can be used in both flavouring and food,” says Fanny Lambert, head of the biotechnology department at Mane.

In this field, the idea is not really to replace molecules that have disappeared from the palette, but rather to introduce new ones. They do, however, all have to exist in nature: it is not a question of inventing from scratch by adding chemical elements to existing molecules to create others, as can be done in classic synthesis. So how does the research process work? “If I’m asked for a particular molecule, I need to know exactly what I’m looking for, so that I can find it in nature and understand how it came about: only then can I reproduce it using micro-organisms as catalysts. But innovations most often come from academic research that identifies new molecules and the metabolic pathways used by plants to produce them,” Fanny Lambert explains. More rarely, the molecules come from scientific flukes. As was the case for Tropicalone, synthesised during work on another project: “The story is fascinating, because it was while trying to produce one molecule that we obtained another, which we didn’t expect. In olfactory terms, it’s a magnificent tropical fruit note, powerful and complex.”

From idea to reality

This is only the first step towards the production of the molecule once it has been identified. Fanny Lambert describes what happens next: “Several stages are still necessary, and it takes nine to twelve months for it to be produced on an industrial scale, with authorisation of the production stages that ensure consistency, establishment of the cost, quality control of produced batches, regulatory approval for toxicity, and so on. Everything is repeatedly reviewed until the final meeting of Mane’s scientific committee.” The meeting, which is chaired by Jean Mane himself, is attended by perfumers and flavourists, researchers and the quality and toxicology teams who all discuss whether the new product is worthwhile from every perspective. 

Once a new molecule is available in the palette, the perfumers then need to take the time to get to know it and learn how to work with it. Which is often a highly gratifying process: “There are some really gorgeous molecules. I love Cocotone, which creates a coconut water effect, with a lot of naturalness, and can also add a creamy texture feel: it’s very addictive without being sweet!” says Mathilde Bijaoui. Another of her favourites is Vayanol, “very complex, which can reveal very different facets depending on whether compositions are syrupy, with woody, leathery, smoky vanilla, or spicy, which can create the effect of a carnation in a bouquet.” The two new products were presented at this year’s World Perfumery Congress in Miami and mark 35 years of Mane’s expertise in this field. Other perfumer favourites include Melbatone, which offers a velvety smooth feel, and Orcanox, a highly potent and persistent woody amber that adds a salty facet reminiscent of ambergris, the “white gold” of perfumery.

All that remains is to wait for the right brief to be able to put these naturalistic wonders to work. But since the creative instincts of the family-owned company from Le Bar-sur-Loup in southeastern France have repeatedly proved to be right on the button, it’s safe to bet that brands will soon be looking to these savoury food notes to supply the addictive naturalness perfume lovers are calling for!

  • This article was published in partnership with Mane.

Visuel principal : © Andrii Leonov / Unsplash

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