Foodie Sunday: A home where art imitates life ~ The Incredible, Fabulous and Fantastical World of Laurie Stern and Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery
By Beth Schreibman Gehring
Several weeks ago I was in California for an extended period of time celebrating my nephews wedding. We were to be there for two weeks and for the last weekend we decided to take a trip up to San Francisco, literally one of my favorite cities on the planet. We made plans to meet Jim's brothers and my fabulous sister in laws in Napa and we couldn't wait for what I knew was going to be a wonderful time.
But first we need to go back to San Francisco. Many of you who have read my perfumed musings know that regular trips to San Francisco were part of my wonderfully misspent youth and one of the first times that I realized that a city could indeed have a scent template as well as a palpable heat and energy.
San Francisco to me is one of the sexiest cities on the planet. Where else can you experience a 5 star hotel such as I did on one visit where I was served wine and cheese every afternoon in a wonderful parlor accompanied by a mysterious psychic whose skill at reading Tarot is as of yet unsurpassed. Where else after the wine and the Tarot can you get a fabulous Sazerac cocktail , long before Absinthe was once again legal in this country. New Orleans maybe? Although I do love that dripping, wicked part of the south, I am more drawn to San Francisco as Anne Rices immortal vampires were. San Francisco at night comes alive with provocative hum. It's a dark and sensual city; I love to prowl its streets simply observing it's passionate rhythms. I love to wander through its alleys just looking for a glimpse of The Vampire Lestat. San Francisco IS the city where my hedonistic heart feels free to roam and just be....
Regular trips to the Haight in the 70's provided me with more opium dreams, sandalwood and patchouli oil than my indulgent teenage senses could handle. Mix those aromas together with some of the most incredible Indian food that I've ever eaten to this day, the loveliest red wines and some of the most wonderful marijuana that I was ever to smoke and you begin to understand how I became completely enamored with sensual aromas and decadent tastes.
Flying into San Francisco from San Diego always provides a thrill as you land on the runway with inches to spare...a hairs breath from slipping into the Bay. This time it was no different and I felt my heart quicken as I realized that I was back, this time not for business but strictly to play for the weekend with my darling husband. By this time starving, we drove to the Ferry Market building for lunch and to buy some supplies for the evening. I was truly excited as I chose freshly baked bread, wine and the most wonderfully aromatic truffle infused cheese for the evening. The truffles seemed fitting as I was going to finally get to spend some time with one of my favorite natural perfumers of all time - the utterly inimitable Laurie Stern of Velvet and Sweet Peas Purrfumery.
I have known Laurie for several years now, but until that weekend we had never met in person. When I told her that I was coming , she generously asked us to come across the Bay to Berkeley to stay with her and her husband Gary. To say that I jumped at the chance is an understatement. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to stay with someone whose laugh is as enormous as their personality. I had been dying to see her Purrfumery and gardens for years , but I must admit that I wasn't prepared for the generosity of it. The minute we arrived Jim and I were assaulted by the most amazing scents and visions. From the largesse of the blooming Jasmine as you pull into the driveway to the Russian sage and roses that are at least twice the size of what we see back home it is indeed the most fabulously perfumed garden that I've ever been privileged to wander. Even the pictures that I've posted here cannot possibly do it justice. Laurie's garden is the foundation of Velvet and Sweet Peas Purrfumery.
Quite frankly her garden is heaven on earth and is lovingly tended to by Laurie's husband Gary who is a landscape designer and simply amazing plantsman. The man literally oozes juicy green energy from his fingertips. My husband wandered around just shaking his head ...when we were alone that evening in their cottage he said to me that he'd never experienced anything so magical. It is a place filled with all of the best things in life; gorgeous plants , magical cats, cooing birds, lots of velvet and most importantly more love than I'd experienced anywhere outside of my family in a long time. Trust me - If I could have stayed forever I would have.
That evening we laughed, relaxed together and enjoyed the wine with cheese slathered on the fresh yeasty bread and fragrant honey that came from Laurie and Gary's own honeybees. After dinner we said goodnight and I went back to the cottage to feast on some of her homemade Jasmine scented bittersweet chocolate truffles. The next morning we were greeted by the sun rising and a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay. I made a pot of fragrant French press coffee sweetened with the same honey and we reluctantly got into our car to drive to Napa for the day.
The next morning we said goodbye to the beautiful Calistoga Valley and quickly drove back to Berkeley because I had been invited to experience the Purrfumery first hand! I have loved Laurie's perfumes from the moment that I first sniffed her amazing Honey fragrance, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to experience. Laurie Sterns Purrfumery is filled with such intimacy and a beauty that is timeless, whimsical and distinct. Hers is the lair of the consummate artist and filled with everything needed to create her delicious perfumes from start to finish.The space itself is absolutely intoxicating, filled with lace , vintage bottles, embroidery and plenty of color ,velvet and inspiration, but it was the scent of it stopped me in my tracks. I have always said that I could know everything about you by the fragrances that you surround yourself with. Walking into Laurie's studio sent me spiraling to exotic places that only my imagination has ever been. One sniff and I was literally wandering the Spice Roads or the gardens of Versailles.
For the next hour I was treated to an adventure of discovery with some of the most amazing natural, botanical scents that I have ever experienced, a vast collection of ancient and beautifully aged oils as well as some things new and delightful. Laurie's knowledge of her oils, distillations and accords is masterful and she knows how to blend them...she is an alchemist of the highest degree. She is a natural and botanical perfumer whose fragrances and beauty products are layered ,complex and infused with not only the scent but the energy of the wonderful aromatics that she uses. She is passionate about animal rights and has written an entire manifesto about the use of musk and civet in perfumery, products used for centuries but not obtained without total cruelty and torture. She notices everything about her customer and how they respond to each scent that she entices them with. I have no doubt that when I am able I will commission her to create the bespoke perfume that I've always wanted to call my own, a fragrance that is part abandoned Scottish castle, vast flowery mead,unicorn tapestry, kilted male and spirited sorrel stallion.
After a wonderful feast at a local tapas restaurant in Berkeley,we said goodbye to Laurie and Gary and settled back into their cottage to have one last relaxing last evening in paradise. I opened up all of the windows , looked towards the Bay and ate the last of the jasmine scented truffles. I took a deep sniff and I thanked the muses for the generous gift of my dear friend. Hers is a world where the art imitates her life..it is definitely not the other way around. Everything about Laurie Stern is authentic and that is why her perfumes make so much sense because she's created a home for herself and her craft that inspires her everyday. If you want to give yourself a magnificent treat, gift yourself with one of her Purrfumery adventures. Regardless of what you know about scent, you will never again look at fragrance in the same way that you did before you stumbled into her magical, sensual world.