Mandy Aftel loves cheese. A lot of people love cheese, but I was surprised to learn that Mandy did because, as a celebrated perfumer, she spends most of her day sniffing tuberose and sandalwood. Could the same nose be drawn to cheesy aromas like leaf litter and cow barn?
Mandy’s Berkeley company, Aftelier, works exclusively with natural ingredients, unusual in an industry dominated by synthetics. In a phone conversation recently, we explored some of the links between cheese and perfume, two human creations that seduce us with scent.
You had other professions before you were a perfumer. Do you think your appreciation for cheese deepened when you began creating perfumes?
It might be the opposite. I think my interest in perfume might be connected to the fact that I love the smell of cheese. I was attracted to the way cheese smells from the get-go—that weird, complicated, animal, strange smell. It says something about my olfactory palette.
Cheese is my absolute number-one food on this planet. I like everything about it. I like how it looks, I like the texture, and I love how it smells. I love the shapes, the colors, the rinds, the artfulness. I like how one thing can have so many permutations. I’ll go to a restaurant just because they have a cheese plate, and I am incredibly disappointed if they have pedestrian cheese.
Do you find any overlap between the aromas you use in perfumes and the aromas in cheese?
There is a lot of overlap. I have old civet, which comes from a cat, and it has a very cheesy smell. Some of the natural musks have cheesy smells.
You write in your new book, Fragrant, about the “foul-fragrant duality” in perfume, the fine line between arousal and disgust. I’ve certainly experienced that with cheeses. How can a cheese smell like dirty gym socks yet still be so appetizing?
In the world of essences for perfume, as opposed to the finished product, there’s a yin and yang to smells. The best example is jasmine. Many of the most precious florals have a fecal aspect to them. What makes these florals so beautiful is that yin and yang, the mix between the beautiful and the putrid. It’s the edge.
You are lucky to live near Berkeley’s Cheese Board, so I have to ask what you like to buy there?
I love Gorgonzola Dolcelatte but I also love Point Reyes Original Blue. I like Humboldt Fog, especially the runny, gushy edge of it. I love La Tur and Beemster Vlaskaas and a really good piece of Parmigiano Reggiano all by itself. I like Italian Fontina and very fresh, tangy goat cheeses.
Why is it that we consider certain scents suitable for perfuming our body while other scents that we enjoy—like nutty, buttery or meaty cheese aromas—are not appropriate for perfume? I love how cheese smells but I would never dab cheese behind my ears.
Some of those scents do make their way into perfumes as an accessory note. I use a porcini absolute [a highly concentrated liquid essence] in a perfume called Cèpes and Tuberose. It’s a meaty, somewhat floral perfume. At the root of the tuberose is a very earthy note. Perfume is all about proportion and intention, the experience you want to give someone. I have some perfumes that have a little bit of hazelnut aroma. You could do something kind of funky and animally—as a facet, not as the whole thing. I buy a CO2 extraction of butter that makes a floral fattier and creamier. I love, love, love the smell of butter.