Reading International Solidarity Centre

I don’t often go to Reading these days, but whenever I do I like to visit the RISC world shop, which is a true emporium of products aimed at people who are eco-conscious, ethical shoppers and appreciate what the world’s diversity has to offer. I love browsing there, and we came home with some funky spice mixes (including one of Tutu’s Ethiopian cooking sauces – Tutu’s Ethiopian restaurant runs out of the RISC cafe next door), a couple of world music CDs and Ryan choose some Divine chocolate. When you first walk into the shop you’re struck by the colours and remarkable artistry which goes into fair trade products, but there’s also that smell. I’m sure you know that smell – it’s a sustainable/fair trade/hippy shop smell. You’ll also encounter it in much of Glastonbury…. I love that smell. I find it relaxing. For some odd reason it makes me feel at home.

I have never really been one for scents and smells. I don’t like air fresheners, and burning incense makes me cough. Scented candles are OK if they have a suitable fragrance that’s not too strong (a lot of the commercial ones are far too sickly and make me feel sick), but although I owned oil burners in my youth, I find them a bit of a faff. I think we got rid of our collection in the last clearout. The only smell I really remember from the house I grew up in is Jif (my mother is very fond of clean sinks).

I assumed that the shop smell was largely patchouli, a fragrance now indelibly linked to hippies, and so I ordered some tea lights scented with patchouli. They arrived yesterday, and while they smell lovely, they’re not pumping out much fragrance, just a mild waft as you walk past.

So I took to Twitter for some advice.

I got some lovely responses, including that Lush include patchouli in a lot of their toiletries, and at least one of their fragrances, so next time I’m near a Lush shop I will have to go in and do some sniffing. Lush also have an interesting article pondering Why patchouli is linked to hippies, which is worth a read if (like me!) you’re too young to have encountered real hippies in person. It’s also interesting to read the Telegraph’s take on the hippy ideals that outlasted the 1960s, which demonstrates that counter-culture movements can really affect mainstream views, if you give them a chance.

On Twitter, the conversation got around to reed diffusers, and essential oils, and it turns out that you can make your own reed diffusers.

Which homegrown twigs would do the trick remains a question for another day, but you can certainly buy the reeds for reed diffusers separately, and they’re not expensive. So I have ordered myself some from Neal’s Yard, along with some patchouli and lavender essential oils, and some almond oil for the base. Experiments will ensue, as soon as they arrive. I have set aside the perfect glass bottle (which used to contain a posh tonic water Ryan wanted to try!).

I have also ordered myself a bottle of Nag Chaga, to see if that hits the spot!

Wet Patchouli

The patchouli fragrance comes from the patchouli plant, Pogostemon cablin, which is a member of the mint family native to tropical Asia. The scent is extracted from dried leaves, and their use as a moth repellent is probably contributing quite a bit to the smell of fair trade shops, which tend to sell a lot of textiles that have been imported from India. I was fascinated to learn that it does have some edible uses. I wonder if it tastes the same as it smells?

The next question, of course, is whether you can grow it in this country. The answer is yes – as a houseplant. It’s too tender to survive a British winter outside. Getting your hands on a plant would be the trickiest thing, although Poyntzfield Herbs is one possible supplier. There are places that offer seeds, but there is some suggestion that they need to be fresh, so some more research would be needed if you wanted to go down that route.

So… there we have it. I set sail on a patchouli adventure, and washed up on a very fragrant shore! Are you a patchouli fan – or is it the Marmite of the natural fragrance world?