Have you ever felt like you’ve missed the boat on a certain brand or a fragrance? I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling. Given the depressing frequency of botched reformulations and senseless axings, the life of a fragrance enthusiast is often fraught with the fear of missing out or, worse, the agony of knowing that you failed to strike while the iron was hot.
I’m no stranger to missed chances myself. I arrived too late on the perfume scene to scoop up two fragrances that would later become big loves of mine, namely Guerlain’s Vega and Attrape-Coeur. I dithered on Dior Privée Mitzah until it was gone – ditto Eau Noire. I had a bottle of Parfums de Nicolai Le Temps d’Une Fete, and stupidly sold it; by the time I’d realized my mistake, that too disappeared into the ether, along whatever raw material that made its production impossible. Other bottles carelessly sold or swapped away were Fendi Theorema, a bottle of pre-1950’s Chanel No. 5 extrait, and a large decant of Serge Lutens Rose de Nuit that I missed desperately the minute I’d mailed it off to its lucky recipient. I can almost feel you all wincing out there, so I won’t continue. I’m embarrassed.
Then how much worse is it that I might have missed the chance to buy another bottle of a rare Irish-born-and-bred wonder, Castaña by Galway-based perfumery, Cloon Keen Atelier, a mere four hours down the road from me?
I have excuses at the ready. I thought that the perfume was the star of the brand and would therefore never be discontinued. I assumed that I could always buy another bottle of it because the brand was based locally, or that, if it was temporarily out of stock, I could buy it from Brown Thomas, the luxury retail space in Dublin that carries Cloon Keen Atelier. There was always something new and flashy pressing ahead of Castana in the need-it-now stakes. I believed that there was, and always would be, time on my side.
Well, wrong on all counts, and how stupid do I feel right now. Castaña is being discontinued. And although it may be brought back as a special seasonal release every now and then, its future is about as secure as a panic room made out of straw.
I don’t mean to imply that Castaña is or was a grand masterpiece along the lines of Attrape-Coeur. But like Mitzah, it’s a simple pleasure done right and done quietly – no fanfare, no drama, or bells and whistles. It’s the type of perfume that seems to carry something serene or dignified within itself, so that just spraying it on feels like putting salve on a wound.
Castaña, meaning chestnut in Spanish, is technically a gourmand, although it feels like much more than that to me. What I love about this scent is its leisurely exploration of the murky connective tissues of each note, from the hot, oily hazelnut nuances of vetiver and the gluey peanut milkiness of sandalwood to the faintly poisonous cherry pit aroma of tonka bean. The result is something very close to smell of Rome in January, when the scent of roasted chestnuts and powdered sugar carries through the frigid but crystalline air.
It succeeds better than any fragrance I know, including Nuit de Noel, at capturing the mealy, almost cotton-wool dullness of chestnut, a word that I use in a positive sense. Because dullness and mealiness are nature’s sop to life’s jagged little edges. Ask anyone who’s ever baked a Maris Piper potato for an hour in the oven, smashed it open with their (towel-covered) wrist, and slid a generous sliver of Kerrygold Irish butter into its steaming crevasse.
Chestnut seems to be one of those “in” notes these days, and I see it turning up in everything from By The Fireplace (Maison Martin Margiela) to Noir Exquis (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and Majaĩna Sin (The Different Company). But chestnut is more a texture than a taste. On its own, it is just a big ole sponge with which to absorb other stronger, more distinct aromas, and some perfumes take this property too far, piling on the sugar or whipped cream until the result is nearly as bloated and as shapeless as a chestnut itself.
What makes Castaña so special it that it takes the opposite route. Instead of panic-piling on the calories to fluff the chestnut up into something more exciting, it chooses to emphasize the sheer homeliness of its heft. There is a charming plainness here. The result tastes of earth and powdered sugar and air and nuts pulverized so finely that it almost makes me cough. It is delicious but not glutinous; its gentle sweetness coming from the natural sugars in the nut. It feels as light as air itself, and silvery-white in color.
Castaña is related to Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur, but is lifted away from a literal flour accord by way of cassie absolute, which here does not smell floral but like a strange mixture of wet cardboard and bitter dust laced with cumin, not unlike the shape it takes up in the audacious topnotes of Ashoka by Neela Vermeire but still quite far from the animalic role it plays in Une Fleur de Cassie (Malle).
Even the tonka bean in Castaña doesn’t smell like the dense tonka accord found in many modern niche perfumes (and especially in modern masculines). In fact, it takes on a shape that’s unfamiliar to me here, as if the lush, cherry-almond creaminess of tonka bean had been air-dried, vacuum-packed, and blitzed into a fine powder. The note is just about recognizable as tonka, through the nutty weight it adds to the body, but it doesn’t detract or distract one bit from the general tone of dustiness.
There’s a thread on Basenotes that asks, what is the fragrance that makes you smile when you put it on? Now, this is a simple question that calls for a simple answer. You shouldn’t have to think too hard about it. But in reality, this is the sort of question that causes almost immediate angst in any collection-focused community or hobby, be it perfume, bikes, or watches. Why? Because it forces our noses against the windscreen of that whole Kon Mari thing, which tells you to throw out everything that doesn’t give you joy, isn’t useful, or isn’t beautiful.
The organizing principle (sorry) behind Kon Mari is appealing, I’ll admit, and definitely works on the children’s sock drawer. But when applied to perfume, it breaks me out in hives. The concept of throwing out everything that isn’t beautiful, useful, or joy-giving isn’t nearly elastic enough to cover all the other perfectly valid reasons why one might keep a perfume. Perfume isn’t useful, technically, so that leaves the categories of “beautiful” and “gives you joy” into which to shoehorn my perfumes, and at a glance, perhaps 60% of them wouldn’t make the cut on either. But there are other reasons to keep a fragrance around other than beauty or its joy-giving properties.
These reasons include: A fragrance that reminds me of my past but that I’d never wear now, a perfume I hate wearing but love smelling every six months, a perfume I don’t understand yet, a perfume I paid too much for and now am loathe to let go at a fraction of its cost, reference perfumes, a perfume that completes my violet or sandalwood or vanilla collection, a perfume that was my training wheels for a note I once hated and now love……and so on, times infinity. You get the picture.
But at a very basic level, Castaña is a perfume that makes me smile. It’s one of those perfumes that, while it mightn’t make any top ten list or “best of” lists, seem to expand my world when I put it on. It makes me feel grateful that such a thing exists in the world, and therefore it gives me joy.
I feel bad that I never wrote about Castaña, but just continued to wear it in private. Maybe if I’d sung its praises from the tree tops, more people might have discovered it, bought it, and kept it in the permanent line-up? So this review is my apology to Castaña. I am sorry I ever took you for granted. I am sorry that I never bothered to buy a back up until it was too late and the little red light was already blinking over your head. You are so gentle and unassuming that you got buried in the avalanche of flashy new releases and more exciting perfumes. That’s on me.