Soft Turkish delight, gleaming lollipops swirled with creamy caramel, bright red candied apples at the fun fair, the delicious creaminess of rich ganache, bittersweet anise-inflicted licorice sticks and the temptation of fine cognac-filled nuggets of chocolate...If you mentioned these aromas as springboards for composing to perfumers 30 or 40 years ago they'd laugh at you. And yet the novelty of gourmand fragrances came to stay, highlighting perfume "notes" such as chocolate, coffee, cupcakes, whiskey, sugared almond and marzipan, even cotton candy/candy floss!
But what is the definition of a gourmand perfume? Simply put "gourmand" (French: [ɡuʁmɑ̃]): perfumes smell almost "edible" and have"dessert-like" qualities that tickle our taste buds as well as our nose. In French the term only slightly overlaps with "gourmet"(connoting discernment), adding a "greedier" nuance which seems to fit; just reading a notes list of a gourmand fragrance is enough to make one salivate!
Technically as they're built on vanilla and sweet ingredients they're a subcategory of the oriental family of fragrances. Talking with perfumers however I realized their appetizing quality is markedly different from perfumes in which succulent notes -such as peach, spices or vanilla- appeared previously, in that gourmands actually evoke desserts in a more concrete way, whereas the classics only hinted at the pleasures of food & drink they were meant to accompany, via abstraction (the delicious duvet-appeal of Farnesiana's sweet acacia, the cinnamon-sprinkled peach skin of Mitsouko).
chypres and fougeres whose traditional aim was to conjure grooming products such as powder, soap and shaving cream and thus denote a "polished" appearance. In contrast gourmands are not concerned with that, unless it's the polishing off a particularly tasty dish!
Comfy and delicious, their more laid-back, casual approachability (everyone eats, after all) accounts for their non-snob factor, making them a perfect fit for the end of the 1990s and the 2000s, when they flourished. Could that surge speak of misspent childhoods pampered by a sugar-riddled diet, of a regression into the protective cocoon of kindergarten, or of the desire to at least partake of the olfactory pleasures -if not the gustatory ones- afforded to people on a diet?
The too sweet stuff can be rather nauseating. Some of the Comptoir Sud Pacifique fragrances for instance seem to cater to the hardcore baked goods lovers, being particularly "foody", a looked down upon term by serious perfume lovers who opt for the more refined within the genre.
History of Gourmand genre
Angel by Thierry Mugler (1992) is generally considered the first gourmand with its overdose of ethyl maltol (the scent of cotton candy/caramel) paired with natural patchouli, plus sweet red fruits and a floral "base". Patchouli has an inherent facet that recalls chocolate, boosting the dessert angle of the Mugler pefume. But perfumer Yves de Chiris (alongside Olivier Cresp) put a staggering 30% of camphoraceous patchouli in the compound to counteract the aching sweetness of the sugar note. Its genius lies in its semi-poisonous subtext under the deliciousness: this is dangerous, dark, powerful perfume, almost masculine, reminiscent of the childish joys of the fun-fair but also of its disturbing aspects...Vera Strübi, at the time CEO of Parfums Mugler, says: ''The feminine is not our aesthetic approach.'' Strübi, having met Mugler and the Clarins Group in 1990, has been recognized as "the most audacious and creative president by the entire perfume industry"; the prototype gourmand only later took on the childhood story of Thierry's love of fun-fairs, but still it never was a marketing "recipe" which is probably why it became so successful in the end...
Molinard already had Nirmala in their catalogue since 1955, a scent that smells so close to Angel in its current form that it ignited a heated legal battle about intellectual rights in regards to perfume in France. The truth is the 1990s revamped Nirmala purposefully twisted its recipe to adhere to a more "Angelic" principle...The pioneer claim of Angel is contested nevertheless: Angel was not the first perfume to bring pure, sweet ethyl maltol into the spotlight; that distinction belongs to Vanilia (1978) by L'Artisan Parfumeur, the scent of a "vanilla ice-cone" as per aficionado supermodel Paulina Porizokva.
Still, the caramel-patchouli wildcard juxtaposition of Angel was like nothing else on the market when it came out (the same year as the limpid, totally "clean" L'Eau d'Issey!) and slowly built a cult following, eventually becoming the reference point influencing the entire market to this day (and being a marketing case study!). Angel's spawn is Gremlin-like: 20 years later every house has their "Angel wannabe" (hoping to usurp some of its share on the market): Armani Code for women, Calvin Klein Euphoria, Lancome Miracle Forever, Prada by Prada, Paco Rabanne Black XS, Nina (Nina Ricci), Chopard Wish, Hanae Mori Butterfly...the list is endless! You may see these fragrances colloquially mentioned as "fruitchoulis" in perfume fans conversation, as they all rest on sweet fruits on patchouli; the term is anecdotal.
Of all the variations on the theme, only Lolita Lempicka and Angel's own flanker Angel Innocent (and possibly Sonia Rykiel in the orange sweater bottle and Missoni by Missoni) manage to differentiate themselves enough and inject new ideas; the former through an emphasis on the anisic facets of licorice, the latter by adding a praline note and subtracting the patchouli.
Aquolina Pink Sugar (2003) is another emblematic gourmand, its name an uncontested allusion to pink cotton candy. Again based on ethyl maltol, but with less of the bittersweet edge of Angel that makes it so compelling, yet an equally love-it-or-hate-it fragrance, Pink Sugar smells like overripe strawberries melting into the candy machine.
Dior straddles the category with three of their perfumes in different measure with polarizing results: The original Addict is boozy vanillic and yet with a hint of vulgarity; Hypnotic Poison is the most accomplished in its dark, edible powdery evocation of bitter almonds & musks, whereas the original Miss Dior Cherie from 2005 (before being so messed up with) was a medley of sweet kid's strawberry syrup drizzled onto caramelized buttery popcorn that smelled as cheeky as it sounds.
Gourmands wear nicely in the cooler seasons, although lighter ones, such as Theorema (Fendi) with its orange-filled chocolate note, are fine in summer too. Especially marketable to women (perhaps because they're more mindful of calories or due to indoctrination of adage "sugar and spice and all things nice") gourmands do not exclude men. Some are specifically addressed to them, such as the delicious Lolita au Masculin by Lolita Lempicka, Rochas Man, the so called "Angel for men" A*Men by Mugler (as well as its variations) and Guerlain's L'Instant pour homme Extreme.
If the mainstream market is intent on just "copying" Angel without furthering the conversation, the niche fragrance sector seems to offer varied takes on the gourmand genre, some "dark" and sinful, others airier: Annick Goutal Eau de Charlotte, Serge Lutens Five O'Clock Au Gingembre and Arabie, Hermèssence Ambre Narguilé, Lostmarc'h Lann-Ael, Guerlain Gourmand Coquin, Spiritueuse Double Vanille, and Iris Ganache, L'Artisan Parfumeur Jour de Fete, Bois Farine, and Safran Troublant, Laura Tonatto Plaisir, Hilde Soliani Cioco Spesizissimo, Montale Chocolate Greedy, Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille, Frapin 1270, Ginestet Botytris, Parfumerie Générale Aomassai, Serendipitous by Serendipity 3, Luctor et Emergo (People of the Labyrinths), Love by Kilian, Bond No. 9 New Haarlem, Ava Luxe Milk, Etat Libre d'Orange Like This.
Honorary mention for the loukhoum/Turkish delight fragrances, replicating the famous dessert with rosy and/or almondy notes. Notable examples include Rahat Loukhoum (Serge Lutens), Traversée du Bosphore (L'Artisan Parfumeur), Loukhoum (Keiko Mecheri), Loukoum (Ava Luxe). Although figs are certainly edible and there are many "fig scents" on the market, these are technically classified in the "woods" category, as they evoke the leaves as well as the tree sap in most cases (i.e. Philosykos, Premier Figuier, Figue Amère)
A rather recent sub-category within the gourmand orientals is the "savory gourmands", fragrances which replicate foodie smells but of a non specifically sweet persuasion. One could classify Champaca (Ormonde Jayne) with its steamed rice note in this category, Parfumerie Générale Praliné de Santal with its roasted hazelnuts, Jeux de Peau by Lutens evoking toasted bread, Jo Malone Blue Agave & Cacao, as well as the groundbreaking Womanity by Mugler pairing salty caviar and sweet figs.
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Perfume Primers: concise intros for beginners