Oud is a note I fell in love with long before I found out what it was. About ten years ago, in search of some Lebanese ingredients for a dinner party, I found myself standing rigid in the middle of the pavement, trying to locate a curiously wonderful smell. My Lebanese grocer was in a predominantly middle-eastern area of London, and all the women around me were hidden behind identical black hijabs and niqabs. One of them, though, stood out from the crowd. There was no reason I should have noticed her among the other women; she wasn't particularly slim, plump, short or statuesque, and she was dressed in the same way as everyone else - but she smelled so beautiful that I found myself quietly following her down the road for the next five minutes, inhaling deeply.
Years later, I was sent some samples of some of Montale's oud-based fragrances, and on spraying a few found myself transported back to that pavement, following a stranger dressed in black. Oud (also transliterated as aoud) is a note very foreign to those of us brought up with European perfumery; it's an almost medicinal, leathery, amber-woody resin from the bark of the aquilaria or agar tree. This resin only occurs as a kind of immune response in trees which play host to a specific fungus, and is found in around fifteen different species of aquilaria, each species offering its own, subtly different interpretation of the scent.
There's more oud popping up in western perfumery as the houses continue their search for something new. Montale is a French line based largely around the note, and Tom Ford's Oud Wood (from the Private Collection) showcases the expensive resin in an expensive and thoroughly western style. Ford keeps the oud note in Oud Wood almost restrained, layered with amber and vetiver. The note also appears in Ormonde Jayne's gorgeous Ormonde Man, but again, the oud here is subdued. I wanted something as assertive as the fragrance the lady in the street was wearing, with its formidable but soft sillage and rounded, woody and rosy corners. Fortunately, I had a pretty shrewd idea of where I could find what I was looking for.
Arabian Oud is a shop on Oxford Street with Arabic text on the signboard, alongside an English translation. The shop front is, frankly, a little intimidating; peering in through the window you'll see lots of gilded furniture, marble floors and some very sharply-dressed shop assistants. Something unfamiliar is also going on with the bottles, which are all on display on the shelves and look like very expensive ornaments - each has its own casket, and bottle and casket alike are made in fantastic, florid shapes. There's a little hollow crystal mosque; there's a Faberge-type egg with its lacquered, egg-shaped casket. There's Cinderella's slipper, full of perfume; there's a filigree sword and scabbard, filled with dark oil.
The sales assistants ran up and sprayed me with a number of different perfumes, and removed the friend I'd brought with me to a tiny little table with a mosaic top, where they served her coffee ground up with cardamom pods. I asked a few questions (yes, oud was present in all the formulations, and no synthetics were present in any of fragrances), and was let loose on the bottles lining the walls.
Arabian Oud uses many different forms of the resin in its products. You’ll find blended perfumes with oud from Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Java and other Asian countries, each oud having a slightly different character. The pure, aged oud oil is also sold – you can purchase nine different varieties, ranging in price from £65 for 3ml of the least expensive Cambodian variety to £1065 for a very rare Soufi oud.
I sniffed the pure Cambodian oil (the more expensive bottles were kept well out of reach in a locked cupboard behind a phalanx of desks and assistants), and found it was almost too much for my nose to understand; this time I was sniffing something so strong and dark it was almost animal, far more musky than woody, with undertones which were slightly sweaty and metallic. This wasn’t something I could wear. I moved on to the blended perfumes.
The bottles and their caskets are, on occasion, so ornate that your mind is almost taken off the perfume. That Faberge egg was full of a lovely spring blossomy fragrance, with lilac, Himalayan balsam and apple blossom working with a rich background of rose and jasmine, all underscored with a quiet oud and musk. In a more ordinary bottle, covered with Arabic script, I found something called Mokhalat Momayaz: a blend of jasmine, Turkish rose and cedar with a sandalwood and tobacco flower base. Traditional scent pyramids are hard to apply to these perfumes, which tend to be more linear than western perfumes and place notes in areas you may not expect – Mokhalat Momayaz has oud running through it like a musical ostinato, appearing at all three stages in its development; while the cedar, which you might expect as a base note, is lemony and fresh, behaving more like a top note. This was a fragrance I particularly liked; there were echoes of sun lotion and a lovely sense of dry heat to it.
Some of these fragrances are blended in a style which will be familiar to western noses. Gourmands should head straight for Prestige Al Arabia. This honeyed, spiced eau de parfum is like an Indian gulabjamun (a sort of spiced honey doughnut soaked in rose and saffron syrup) in liquid form. There are two ouds in this, sweet Laotian oud working as a quick blast in the top, and then settling down behind cinnamon, saffron, honey and a rosy Cambodian oud. Saif al Arab is as close to a chypre as you’ll find here; it’s marketed for the male market with a bottle shaped like a very phallic sword, but has a sweetly floral bouquet over a sandalwood and oakmoss base and should be suitable for both sexes.
Oud has a wonderful affinity for rose, and Al Anoud, a blended oil in a beautiful filigree bottle with a glass dipper, blends Turkish rose and a wild Rosa rugosa with some Egyptian jasmine over a warm, rosy, woody oud. This is a gorgeous rose, almost spongy in its dewy, rubbery treatment of the flower. The rosy side of oud is also explored in Al Haramain (in what was possibly the most extraordinary bottle on offer: a golden mosque with a crystal dome), which, with its rosy top notes, saffron middle and amber/patchouli base smells a lot like nag champa, that very special incense. It was too syrupy and dense for me (and I’m a patchouli lover), but would suit a big personality – I think this would be particularly good on a man.
I eventually found a perfume which reminded me almost perfectly of the day I ended up nearly stalking a stranger. I almost avoided trying Woody, simply because it was in the most unprepossessing bottle I’ve ever seen – a plain glass cylinder with an unattractive plastic top, all cased in a hollowed-out log of agar wood, and strapped together with leather thongs. I’m glad I was able to look past those thongs and try it; Woody is a beautifully dark sandalwood, rose, amber and musk accord punctuated by a very fine oud from Java. It, like all the other perfumes I tried, had good sillage, and fantastic lasting power.
What happened next was a little curious. I went up to the desk and paid for my bottle of Woody (which, rather charmingly, was removed from the agar wood log and sprayed at me before repackaging in the log and a hessian bag, in order to prove that it was the same perfume that I’d sniffed on the shelf). I was then invited downstairs to the store’s VIP area with my (now very caffeinated) friend to see some of the company’s extra-special offerings. A veiled lady wearing more fabulous diamonds than I’ve ever seen in one place was down there having a bespoke perfume blended for her, while, with great ceremony, my hand was daubed with ‘our most special musk’.
Something had gone very wrong here. It was a very accurate duplication of the Body Shop’s White Musk. The stuff was even called Superior White Musk. I am a fan of White Musk, having grown up in the 1980s, but this was a curious place to find it. Superior White Musk only differed from the Body Shop’s offering in price…the sales assistant started by asking £320 for 12 ml, and when I started giggling (I am a terrible inadvertent giggler), lowered the price to £160. Next came 1000 Flowers, a very banana-ish jasmine oil indistinguishable from what you can get for less than a tenth the price at Nemat. They were asking £150 for 12 ml. I made my excuses and left. Crossing the street on the way to our train, I wondered aloud at who the market for the VIP oils could possibly be. My friend said she had a pretty good idea. ‘Oil billionaires who really don’t like Anita Roddick.’
If you’re in London, this is a shop and a perfumery tradition well worth exploring. Be aware that Arabian Oud doesn’t have scent strips on the shop floor, so you are expected to test all the fragrances by having them sprayed on you – fortunately, the fact that they all have similar oud bases means that you leave smelling oud-y, rather than offensive. Stick to the fragrances on the main floor; try the pure wood incenses, which, when lit, are perfumed rather than smoky; don’t go downstairs unless you have very deep pockets; and enjoy yourself. Visiting Arabian Oud is a little like having a half-hour exotic holiday just across the road from Selfridges.