Scent of a room

Photography Jane Ussher

In the 70s, when I was a teenager, my bedroom reeked of incense I had bought at the Cook Street Market in Auckland. I lit those sticks daily and wafted around my bedroom trying out the latest outfits I had put together on my sewing machine. I was probably also listening to Carole King’s album Tapestry.

Just writing about this makes me feel a strong sense of nostalgia, like looking at an old 70s photo with its orange tint which makes all the colours look so autumnal.

My father has always had a really strong sense of smell, so it was no surprise to me that when I lit my first incense stick he came rushing along the hall from the other end of the house within seconds to check I wasn’t smoking some sort of illegal substance.

When I showed him the innocent, fragrant incense stick he was still not quite sure that what I was doing was legal, but he left me to it anyway.

From that day on, when I returned from school, I would open the door to my bedroom and it smelled like me. A mix of musk (very big in the 70s), a hint of frangipani and patchouli. Heaven.

Without realising it I had created a safe haven for myself where I could happily read, sew, listen to music, not do homework.

My sense of smell once triggered by those incense sticks calmed me down.

Sadly, my 90-year-old Dad has lost his sense of smell which he has taken very well, but it means his taste is also affected and food just doesn’t hold the same fascination for him anymore. He is also very worried that his house smells and has made me promise that if I ever walk in and it smells “off” I have to tell him.

These days I still light incense on occasion. I also burn essential oils and scented candles, but only if they are scented with natural essential oils.

Last year while I was in Rome I discovered another intense smelly pleasure made by nuns. Santa Maria Novella is a very successful business which sells little slips of paper about the size of a stick of chewing gum. You fold them up, as you would making a paper fan, then light one end. They sizzle for about 60 seconds and distribute the most amazing smell which purifies the air. I have not met one person who doesn’t love these.

Smells can also take us back in time, opening up our memories to bring back a person or an event where that smell took hold of you.

Science has proved this over and over, pointing out that odours take a direct route from the olfactory bulb, a structure in the front of our brain, to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.

Inhaling scent can take us on a trip down memory lane and allow us for a moment to enjoy that memory all over again.

I will often stop when someone passes me in the street, having had a whiff of their perfume and think “Ah, Paula!” If I’m not too busy I’ll spend some time with that memory of my old friend Paula and I 35 years ago getting ready for a night on the town, deciding who gets to wear the stretch, tight, sequin skirt we used to share. Other perfumes remind me of past loves, special moments in time and a very musky smelling Fleetwood Mac concert in 1977.

I recently picked up a tester of Rive Gauche perfume and was instantly transported back to my early days as a reporter on the Auckland Star. Opium reminds me of my Nana’s death when I was given $100 for helping to clean out her house and bought my first bottle. When I met my husband I was wearing Chanel No 5 (he was wearing Comme de Garcon White which is still my favourite men’s perfume). I wore No 5 for many years combined with Chanel Rouge Noir nail polish. Then I toyed with Issey Miyake’s L’eau D’Issey. I can basically recall my whole life in perfume if I choose to and have sometimes done just that at Smith and Caugheys on a rainy afternoon.

Years ago I stopped using commercial perfumes simply because I could not find out what was in them. Perfumiers are very secretive about what they put in their bottles because it is a highly competitive business and once you hit on a smell everyone likes, you can make millions out of it.

Rubbing that stuff on my skin didn’t fill me with confidence that something nasty was making its way into my system.

So, I started making my own perfumes using a base oil and a mix of essential oils. I tried very hard to make a natural Chanel No 5 and I think I got quite close to it after scouring the internet for any secrets about its ingredients.

I then started making perfumes for my friends and giving it to them in bottles with specially designed labels such as L’Eau de Kerre, or L’Eau de Louise. I thought it was such a lovely thing to do and was very proud of myself.

But there is one universal truth about homemade, essential oil perfumes. They don’t last. You will smell great for 10 minutes and then you’ll need to reapply constantly throughout the day. They don’t really supply that endless aroma that we like to have as we waft around scenting the air with our presence.

The logical thing to do is simply drop the essential oil directly onto your wrist for a super strong charge but this is very dangerous as the oils can be too strong for your body and your nose and some people have extreme allergic reactions to some essential oils.

Now I just don’t wear perfume if I’m at home mucking around with my cows, chickens, dogs and cats. I dunk myself in sea water with my ocean swims and I generally just smell… well… like me, according to my husband. But when I’m going somewhere special and having a night out then I do use commercial perfume. I figure that it’s an occasional use on a very chemical free body so a little now and then won’t do too much harm.

My perfume for this period of my life is the one that author Jean Rhys used to wear. I am having a bit of a Jean Rhys moment and reading all her books. I was listening to a podcast about her and one of the panellists had taken the trouble to go to her local department store and spray this perfume onto a piece of cardboard and pass it around the studio for them all to smell. A way to summon the essence of Jean Rhys into the studio. 

It is a Guerlain perfume called L’Heure Bleue which was created in 1912 by Jacques Guerlain to capture his favourite moment in Paris when “the sun has set, but night has not yet fallen. It’s the suspended hour… the hour when one finally finds oneself in renewed harmony with the world and the light.”

I was hooked and after a long internet search found a bottle which turned up just before Christmas as my present to myself.

I love that it is over 100 years old and it makes me think of black and white movies, slinky ball gowns and men in dinner suits. It contains anise, neroli, coriander, bergamot and lemon; middle notes are heliotrope, carnation, violet, cloves, neroli, ylang-ylang, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, orchid and tuberose; base notes are iris, vanilla, benzoin, sandalwood, tonka bean, musk and vetiver.

So if I’m ever tempted to try to recreate this wonderful smell naturally I’ll have quite the task ahead of me, not to mention the expense of finding all the natural essential oils.

How our home smells is also really important to most of us. We want to walk in and feel like it is familiar and we want other people to walk in and feel the same comfort.

For me it is important to do this naturally. I want the air we breathe in my home to be the best it can be and free from any chemicals. Opening the windows and airing out my house every morning is a ritual, even when it’s raining.

That amount of space devoted to commercial air fresheners in the cleaning products aisle of your supermarket is evidence that we do spray stuff around or plug stuff in to make our homes smell of something.

Unfortunately, despite using labels such as ‘essential oil’ ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ none of those products have an ingredients list to prove any of this is true.

Instead, it is well known that air fresheners contain many chemicals to imitate the natural smells of lavender, rose and frangipani, as well as chemicals to hold the spray in the air for the longest time, colour it, disperse it and mainly make you think that you are smelling a garden of roses or a bed of lavender, when you’re not.

Most of us are very familiar with essential oils by now. We’ve all gone out and bought a burner or diffuser and there are some really cheap ones out there. They do a great job of spreading harmonious vibes through your home and it means you aren’t inhaling something that might cause allergies or toxicity in your body.

Essential oils must contain 100 per cent essential oil so stay away from anything labelled fragrance oil or that doesn’t prove that it is the real deal.

These oils are natural plant essences that have been extracted into oil. Unlike the synthetic perfumes added to commercial cleaners and air fresheners, natural essential oils not only add an amazing smell but have powerful aromatherapy properties which can affect your mood, your health and some of them have powerful antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and antiseptic qualities. If you want to get the full benefit of the oils you need to buy good quality ones from good suppliers like Lotus Oils or Absolute Essential.

Some people have trouble working out what they like in their homes, what smell sets off the right reaction of comfort and familiarity. The best way to find the best oils for you is to sniff the bottles. Find a health shop which has a range of oils and testers and sniff them. You will know immediately which ones work for you. Buy them and take them home to use in my Liquid Air Freshener and Air Freshener Powder recipes or mix them with each other to create blends that are even more delightful.

Here’s a guide to the properties of some essential oils:

Anti-anxiety – basil, bergamot, geranium, lavender

Calming – sandalwood, sage, lavender, chamomile, neroli

Depression – bergamot, clary sage, neroli, chamomile, juniper, lavender

Energising – rosemary, pine, lemon, orange

Intimate – sandalwood, patchouli, jasmine

Mental fatigue – basil, peppermint, rosemary, pine

Mild shock – chamomile, melissa, neroli, peppermint

PMT – rose geranium, bergamot, jasmine

Relaxing – neroli, lavender, vetivert

Uplifting – geranium, orange

Liquid air freshener

I made this for a TV show years ago and after it had been sprayed around the studio the crew immediately became relaxed and asked me to leave it behind for them to use more often. The bergamot gives a lovely citrus smell and the clove oil, which is highly antiseptic and antiviral, gives a lovely warm, cosy smell. The vodka or gin helps disperse the essential oils into the water.

10 drops lavender essential oil

5 drops bergamot essential oil

5 drops clove essential oil

2 drops peppermint essential oil

½ cup vodka or gin

½ cup water

Combine in a spray bottle and spray as frequently as you like, avoiding the eyes. You can experiment with your own blend of oils, depending on your needs. Just remember to mix with the vodka or gin and water.

*You can use any essential oils you like, so have fun experimenting but make sure you use the same total amount of drops as in the recipe. It is possible to overdo essential oils and give yourself a headache or nausea.

Air freshener powder

Put some baking soda in a medium-sized jar with a tight-fitting lid. Sprinkle 10-15 drops of essential oil into it and give it a good shake. Keep tightly sealed and fill little bowls of it when you need to freshen the air. It’s also good to shake on a carpet and leave for about half an hour before vacuuming to freshen.

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