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From the Middle East and coffee to men’s colognes, cardamom is this season’s favoured fragrance note
“He says you won’t like it, that it’s too spicy,” says my translator. Without lifting my head from deep inside a huge burlap sack filled with dark coffee beans mixed with whole cardamom seeds I answer, “Nope. I’ll take a pound.”
I’m in Amman, Jordan, sniffing the goods at one of the city’s best coffee stores. Surrounded by local women—their stunningly made-up faces an exquisite contrast against their black burkas—my equally blonde photographer and I stand out. Disheveled and dusty from 12 hours spent in the country’s oldest refugee camp, we’re Arabic-coffee newbs and it’s clear the shop owner and his customers think I’m out of my element. They’re right.
I am far away from home where coffee’s ordered to go, one half-caf-skim-milk-lots-of-foam grande latte at a time. But they’re wrong about my coffee choice. Over the past two weeks, the matriarchs of the families whose homes we were invited into served steaming cups of the dark brew while I conducted my interviews. I was hooked on my first sip.
A Spiced History
In the Middle East, drinking cardamom-infused coffee is a ritual with history that goes back centuries. In the 1200s it was rumoured to help Bedouins stay alert during long travels through the desert. Later, is was used as a stimulant for all-day prayers. Indigenous to the region, where the beverage is served black with a healthy helping of sugar, cardamom gives the bitter Arabic bean an exotic and flavourful spice. The same qualities it is revered for in perfume.
After saffron and vanilla, cardamom is perfumery’s third most expensive spice. And while in ancient times, the Egyptians were said to have used it in perfumes and incense and to whiten their teeth, its essentials oils are now favoured for their woody, sweet, somewhat nutty and aromatic scent.
“It’s subtle and spicy and often reminds me of the smell of suede,” says Ruth Sutcliffe, the founder of The Scent Guru Group in Greenwich, Connecticut. “There’s usually just a nuance of it to add depth, spiciness or what I describe as a masculine, leathery effect.”
A Fragrant Future
Formerly used almost exclusively in colognes, the spicy note was swirled into men’s scents commencing with Parfums Berdoues Mandarine & Cuir cologne in 1902, Novaya Zarya Classique in 1958, Gap Blue No.655 For Him in 1997, Dolce & Gabbana The One for Men in 2008 and Ermenegildo Zegna Z Zegna Shanghai in 2016, to name a few. Most recently, it has been mixed into Burberry Mr. Burberry for a warm and woody, balsamic finish. Its status quo, however, is changing and cardamom is now as equally favoured in perfume marketed to women.
“It adds a particular sophistication and subtle masculinity and coziness to fragrance,” explains Sutcliffe. “Perhaps it’s just a new note to use because we have run the trend of other spices, like all the various peppers, for instance.”
With perfume houses integrating the note into their feminine eaus, the variety of the scent is abundant. The result is fresh and aromatic with a blend of citrus, fig, tea, cashmere and wood in NEST Indigo. Soft, warm and spicy with a hint of cinnamon in Demeter Cardamom. Sweet, powdery and floral in Jo Malone London Mimosa & Cardamom and, much like the favoured Middle Eastern beverage, warm, nutty and flavourful with a touch of spiced coffee in By Kilian Intoxicated.
“While it’s almost never the main note in a perfume, cardamom gives a unique twist to a formula,” says Sutcliffe. “Enhancing it either in a suede like way or a mysterious spicy way.”
Kind of like how it now enhances my morning brew. Back in Jordan, I was right when I made my coffee choice. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more than one pound.
Try these perfumes with a cardamom note
This aromatic fougere includes notes of tarragon, grapefruit, lavender and vetiver alongside cardamom for a fresh, herbaceous fragrance. Burberry Mr. Burberry EDP, $145 (150 ml), www.thebay.com
Coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom combine for a nutty, spicy, rich perfume. By Kilian Intoxicated, $375 (50 ml), www.nordstrom.com
Cinnamon and cardamom offer a straightforward take on this note trend. Demeter Cardamom, $40, (100 ml), www.demeterfragrance.com
The trio of tonka bean, mimosa and cardamom create an aromatic and floral spritz that isn’t too heavy. Jo Malone London Mimosa & Cardamom, $165 (100ml), www.holtrenfrew.com
Cardamom mingles with tea, bergamot, fig and cashmere for a sultry, comforting fragrance. NEST Indigo, $88 (50 ml) www.sephora.com