Lingering on a pillow
Only seven francs a kilo
And still my heart has wings,
These foolish things,
Remind me of you
These lines are from the famous song where a man wanders around Paris to find that the sights, sounds and smells all remind him of his lost love. When These Foolish Things was written in London the 1930s a trip to Paris was still an exotic thing to do. Having breakfast in Kensington and lunch near Les Invalides as I did a while back would have been something that would have astonished previous generations. But while Paris is still Paris, we have lost something in the process of globalisation and mass transport. There are fewer things that you can only get by traveling to particular places.
When the song was written synthetic fragrances were in their infancy and the gardenia perfume lingering on the pillow was almost certainly in the form of monoi oil. This is a traditional product of Tahiti and involves infusing gardenia petals in coconut oil. This creates the mild but evocative scent of monoi that was a favourite in France when our winsome lyricist was there and remains popular to this day.
On Tahiti itself the traditional usage was as a general skin and particularly hair care product. I imagine there are not a huge number of options to pick from in Tahiti, but by luck the choice of coconut oil was a good one. It is one of the best oils for conditioning the hair going, showing an unusual ability to penetrate the hair shaft. The smell is an added benefit, and the one that appealed first to the French whose contacts with the island go back to the middle of the eighteenth century, and later to the rest of the world.
Genuine monoi oil is a completely natural product adding a further appeal to its attractive smell and its cosmetic properties. But that does make it relatively expensive and also it is rather subtle for modern tastes. Also like most natural smells it isn’t as stable and the already mild smell will fade with time. The concept is often copied by using a synthetic gardenia fragrance. These usually have a lot more punch, will last longer and cost less. Any product that claims to contain monoi oil but also lists parfum on the ingredient list is likely to be adopting this approach.
But if it smells good and works well, why not?
“Hodges, Resolution and Adventure in Matavai Bay” by William Hodges – http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/images/700/BHC1932_700.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.