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Bombay Duck London

Sahara (make: unknown)

The Scent Critic is not seriously going to suggest that you trek all the way to Tunisia to pick up a bottle of Sahara, weaving your way through the labyrinth of Sousse’s souk.  (This small bottle:  3.5 dinars, or around £1.75, FYI.)  For sure, this scent is never going to rival Chanel No. 5.  But it’s a reminder that there are scented delights to be found in unexpected places, not simply department stores and Duty Free.  And we’re all missing a trick if we don’t, occasionally, follow our noses to find them.

I spent much of my lounger-time over Christmas and New Year with my nose buried in Celia Lyttleton’s The Scent Trail, a global odyssey in search of rare and precious ingredients for her bespoke perfume (full review to follow).  I’d have headed off to the souk even without Celia’s nudge, but it did encourage me to spend a bit more time sniffing around the perfumeries there:  some barely wider than a corridor, stacked floor-to-ceiling with garish ‘juices’ (NB  don’t go near these fakes with a bargepole:  they’re mostly stinkers), rare oils and intriguing cut-glass flacons.

But it is truly fun to smell your way through some of the scented single-note oils, and the specifically Arabian perfumes on offer:  I came back with little vials of a perfectly decent patchouli, some neroli and rose, which glide on with a rollerball leaving a scented slick on the skin, and which – heresy! – I’m going to experiment with ‘layering’ under other, conventional creations.  (A fragrance can rarely have enough patchouli for my liking.  And the oil helps the scent to ‘cling’ to the body, which can be a problem on desert-dry skins like mine.)

This, so I was told by my perfume salesman (quite unhassle-y, which is a signature of Tunisia’s merchants), captures ‘the flowers of the Sahara’.  I am not quite sure what those are.  And I have absolutely no idea whether this is a ‘smellalike’ scent to a perfume out there(from Madini that’s actually called Sahara, or whether this is a location-appropriate evocative Tunisian souk made-up name for something concocted nearby.

Whatever:  in reality it’s soft and powdery – and dry, too, as a scirocco. Sweet and a bit sunny – but not airy-fairy and ‘sheer’;  there’s something substantial here.  After a while, it develops a slightly green, mossy-grassy edge – galbanum?  – and occasionally, I get a breath, a mere molecule on a desert breeze of something akin to Balmain’s Vent Vert, of which I once had an almost equally tiny, much-treasured bottle.  But overall – and especially considering the rock-bottom price – it’s not badly constructed at all:  a well-rounded and rather grown-up floral, with reasonable staying power.  The base has amber/ambergris undertones, a hint of cashmere musk…

Interestingly – and I wish I could nudge this aside – it’s the bottle itself that steals from its romance.  OK, so I’m shallow.  But like most women, I want to feel indulgent when I touch a fragrance to my pulse-points.  I want that sexy flacon.  I want a bit of gold thread, around the neck.  Really, what do I expect for 3.5 dinars…?  But for this, if no other reason, Sahara is unlikely to take its place alongside the Chanels, the Guerlains and the Frederic Malles in my boudoir. (Weirdly, it’s also slightly sticky, which I’m definitely less than keen on – perhaps because of the oiliness…)

My little fragrant foray, though, turned into an extremely enjoyable adventure of the senses.  Colour, sound, smell.  The texture of rough-hewn wooden spoons, and faux pashminas (to go with the faux scents).  A nibble on a proffered olive, as I meandered down narrow streets.  And that’s despite the fact that Tunisia – unlike India, or Morocco – isn’t world-famed for specific ingredients such as sandalwood, or rose.  In those countries – and in many other markets – you can be truly ‘wowed’, utterly transported by an essence, an unctuous oil, a nugget of incense.

In fact, ever since my teens, The Scent Critic has morphed into The Scent Tourist the minute I step abroad – seeking out the good, the bad, the downright sticky, whether in niche boutiques, markets, or ritzy department stores.  Personally, I enjoy travel all the more when I have a ‘quest’ like this.  So I encourage you:  take a leaf out of Celia Lyttleton’s book and do the same.

Because you never know quite where your nose will lead you…



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