Every morning for my breakfast I have tea, toast and home-made marmalade. It’s one of my favourite things, and I love the bittersweet smell of Seville oranges, which only appear in the shops for a couple of weeks around this time of the year.
In fact as I sit here writing this post in January, Roy is busy cooking marmalade next door, and the powerful odour of bitter orange (known as bigarade in French) is suffusing the house from kitchen to attic.
So it could hardly be a better time to review Cologne Bigarade, created by the perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena for the French fragrance curator and marketeer, Frédéric Malle (nephew of the film director Louis Malle). Launched in 2001, it was one of the first of the Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, and to my mind it’s one of the most immediately appealing and easy to enjoy.
On first – I was going to say ‘glance’, but I suppose I should say ‘spritz’, it smells like a simple but high-quality natural scent, with the exact mix of sweet green freshness and slight bitterness that you get from orange peel and its bitter pith.
You could, I guess, just bottle Seville-orange extract and have done with it – and apparently Jean-Claude Ellena did commission a special new essence for this scent, obtained by molecular extraction. But like all good perfumes Bigarade Cologne is ultimately a clever recreation of what seems, on the surface, like a simple natural scent, using a careful balance of other ingredients to enhance and support the main ingredient.
In this case, Ellena has added a bit of hay and grass – or rather their synthesised essences – which makes the orange even fresher somehow, then subtly underpinned it with a little cedar-wood and rose, adding extra depth and staying-power. You could even say that these extra ingredients suggest the smell of the leaves and the twigs of orange trees, though perhaps that’s going too far.
(Actually, unless you concentrate very hard you can’t really smell them at all; but then we’re so suggestible when it comes to scents that once someone has told you that a particular ingredient is present, you’re more than likely to ‘smell’ it whether it’s actually there or not.)
To me Cologne Bigarade also has a very slight and not unpleasant sweatiness, which (from a short trip to the kitchen and back) is part of the authentic Seville orange smell. In perfume that faint sweatiness is often derived from cumin, and I wonder if there might be a touch of that classic curry spice here too.
Cologne Bigarade is not, perhaps, the most complex perfume on the market, but like most of Jean-Claude Ellena’s fragrances it’s rather more thoughtful and unusual than the general run. Given that he’s also the in-house perfumer for Hermès, it immediately made me think of Hermès’ classic Eau d’Orange Verte, which is also based on the scent of bitter oranges. Though that perfume was originally created by Françoise Caron in 1979, Ellena developed a new version in 2004 called Concentrée d’Orange Verte.
Eau d’Orange Verte is one of my all-time favourite fragrances, yet comparing them side by side, it smells sharper and fresher, but perhaps also slightly less interesting than Cologne Bigarade, which also seems to have much more staying power (a rare quality in a citrus-based cologne, though you can also find it in the fantastic sherbet-lemon Monsieur Balmain).
All the fragrances in the Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle are expensive, and Cologne Bigarade is no exception, even if its packaging is extremely smart. The heavy, plain-glass bottle has a chunky black cap and comes in a slide-out, black foam-padded box, which in turn slides out (with some effort) of a scarlet card wrapper. If you have money to burn then there’s an even more expensive version called Bigarade Concentrée, which I’ve smelled as a sample and lasts even longer than Cologne Bigarade. The concentrated version also seems to have less of that faint sweatiness about it, which I suspect many people would prefer; I think I do too.
Either way, a fresh but unusual cologne is a wonderful thing to have, so full marks to Jean-Claude Ellena and Frédéric Malle for giving men something a bit different to wear. In a similar vein, though with a very different smell, is Malle’s Geranium Pour Monsieur, which I hope to be able to review before long; watch this space.