When you catch a whiff of it on a scarf or jacket, you just have to ask what it is. Sarah Vine is in love with Frederic Malle's Carnal Flower
First, a warning. This is not a fragrance for the faint-hearted. Nor, I suspect, would it suit a very young woman. It is not the fragrance of innocence or youth or sophistication; it’s a scent of experience and daring, fleshy almost, animalistic and verging at times on the obscene.
That is because Carnal Flower is a tuberose, one of the most outrageously flirtatious flowers on the planet. A true rose is a cool, delicate, elegant thing, synonymous with romance and fine emotions. The tuberose, by contrast, is a completely different beast - beast being the operative word.
If the tuberose were a woman, she’d be Bizet’s Carmen, sashaying out of the factory with her skirts hitched up and a cigar between her teeth, or Sofia Loren pinning up washing in her negligee on a Neapolitan street. In other words, classy she ain’t. But powerful and intoxicating nonetheless, so much so that the Victorians forbade young girls from inhaling the scent of the flowers, believing they might induce an erotic frenzy (then again, they also gave us Japanese Knotweed, so what did they know?).
The flowers and petals are small and creamy, fleshy even (it is not a rose at all, you see, but a member of the agave plant family). The stems grow erect with an abundance of fragrant, intoxicating blooms. Individually they look rather demure; en masse they form an almost embarrassing tumescence of flowery flesh. The tuberose produces a prodigiously strong fragrance, musky and feral; despite this, it takes over 1200kgs of buds to produce just 200g of the absolute.
sensual yet comforting, a strange and somewhat disconcerting mixture of sinner and saint
Because of this, most tuberose-based perfumes on the market use the synthetic equivalent - and it shows. Not Carnal Flower . As with all Frederic Malle- curated fragrances, quality is key and no expense can be spared, and this formula - developed by celebrated nose Dominic Ropion, widely considered to be one of the best of his generation - contains the highest percentage of natural tuberose of any other fragrance on the market today.
Ropion has a bit of a reputation for making Marmite fragrances - Kenzo’s Jungle, for example, or Mugler’s Alien: you either love them or hate them. Carnal Flower can feel like that, to begin with. But trust me, it grows on you.
There is something of the genius about the way Ropion has married the intoxicating, sweetness of the tuberose with cleansing notes of bergamot, camphor and eucalyptus, thereby deftly cutting through any cloying elements. The inclusion of tuberose’s cheeky young cousins, jasmine and orange blossom, adds warmth and sunshine - while the musky finish injects just a touch of restraint.
The result is a perfume that, while not exactly low-key, is nevertheless very hard to resist. When you catch a whiff of it on a scarf or a jacket, it is both sensual yet comforting, a strange and somewhat disconcerting mixture of sinner and saint. And something that ultimately goes to the heart of what every woman is deep down about.