Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jean Patou Que-sais je?

In an essay on the pain d'épice (or gingerbread) of Dijon, M.F.K. Fisher writes of its "flat strange odour, honey, cow dung, clove, something unnameable but unmistakable," a scent that insinuates itself everywhere, sometimes as a little cloud, sometimes "as thick as a flannel curtain". The top notes of Patou's Que-sais je? make me think of her recipe for making a pain d'épice starter: you allow to ferment for many days or weeks a paste made from bread flour and black honey, "the older and blacker the better." Her pitch-perfect description of that spicy yet flat scent is what links her essay to Que-sais je? in my mind: they are reminders that there is something about honey just waiting to go bad.

Que-sais je? is part of the trilogy created by Henri Alméras in 1925 as the launch of the Patou fragrance line. The perfumes were inspired by the stages of a love affair and each was intended to be worn by a woman of a certain hair colour: the heady but delicate floral Amour Amour symbolizes the whirlwind start of an affair and was created for brunettes, Que-sais je? represents the more settled and yet questioning period of love and is for blondes, and Adieu Sagesse, for red-heads, is "Good-bye wisdom!" or the face-forward pitch into love. I can find no useful note list, but Que-sais je? smells to me of peach or apricot, honey, spices (clove? allspice? a tinge of cumin?), orange blossom, neroli maybe, nuts definitely, amber, oakmoss and something animalic, probably civet. Luca Turin recommends it for those who dislike the vanilla in Shalimar, and far be it from me to disagree, but I think it is a more intimate, almost unwashed perfume with none of the brightening citrus or flirty powder-sweet sillage of the Guerlain classic. I agree with Angela that this is a perfume for lovers of Rochas' Femme, versions old and new.

The opening moments are gorgeous, a balance between spiced and honeyed fruit and the creamy nuttiness of a praline. The top notes are particularly short-lived in the EdT formulation, however, and are replaced by a rich, warm chypre that smells of skin without being even the least bit light. There are definitely animal undertones with an old-fashioned quality about them, most likely from civet: indeed, Que-sais je? is a very feline perfume, poised, lithe and little depraved. My husband made a face when I had him smell it. "It's too musky or something," he complained, "and heavy and old." Colony and Normandie had both received unsolicited compliments from him, so he is not categorically opposed to vintage scents. Still, Que-sais je? was my initial favourite from the Ma Collection, and while I find myself loving and wearing Colony, Cocktail and Normandie more often, I would still recommend Que-sais je? as the one to seek out first for those interested in this line.


At 6:00 a.m., Blogger marchlion said...

I ran upstairs yesterday to put some on after your review (although I'm not a blonde.) Totally agree about the Femme reference -- I smell cumin and something animalic at the base, although the rest of that confection is so astonishingly lovely I had to stand still and enjoy it.

At 10:59 a.m., Blogger Erin said...

I understand from Marina (and from the cartoon of "you" on Perfume Posse) that you are a (naturally) raven-haired beauty. I imagine you could look quite a bit like me, actually. At first, I thought this was certainly a scent for blondes, much like Colony, but I love it so that I refuse to reserve it for one type of colouring. "Confection" is just the right word - there are some moments to it that among the most beautiful I know. Of course, there is the much desired twist or "off" quality to it, too, and so I really have enjoyed wearing it over the last week - glad you enjoyed your time with it too!


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