This week’s post is dedicated to our Ma’amoul soaps, but more importantly to Pascale Brunet, longtime childhood friend of our founder, Hana. Our Ma’amoul soaps - newly available in our US shop - are perfect for gifting because, yes, they’re very whimsical and cute, but did you know that they take their inspiration from traditional Lebanese pastries? (And what could be better than delicious food and a perfect bath?) To get the full story on Pascale, the Senteurist talked with Brunet to hear about her growing up in Tokyo, her friendship with Hana, and her evolution with Senteurs d’Orient.
How did your multiracial background and having grown up in Tokyo influence or shape your idea of beauty?
Like you, Karina (Writer's note: I'm half Japanese, half Puerto Rican!), I have multiracial roots (Asian and European) and have grown up in different countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Multiple images, colours, perfumes, tastes and musics have left deep imprints in my brain. Japan certainly shaped my aesthetic choices more than any other country. Beauty and refinement are present at all levels of the Japanese art of living : not only in all academic arts, which I have tried to practice while I lived in Tokyo, but in every small detail of daily life ( food, tableware, wraps, slippers, omnipresent tidiness, etc etc )– that’s why living in Japan can be such a unique experience. It was part of my education, and I feel very lucky and privileged. Japan remains very dear to my heart, and whenever I come back I feel like I’m home again.
Sarah mentioned that you have known Hana since you were both very young, which is so amazing! How did your friendship evolve into your relationship with the Hana’s brand, Senteurs d’Orient?
Among the many privileges of my years in Japan was my encounter with Hana. We were both students at Sophia University and have remained friends since our college days. Hana was the most elegant, generous and successful girl I knew then. We were lucky to find our paths crossing in Paris, where we both got married and established ourselves. She has remained a faithful and dear friend during all these years, and when she decided to found the Senteurs d’Orient brand, she kindly asked for my opinion. It was very exciting to be part of the very first steps of the set up: logo, colour charts, general design and line.
I was particularly sensitive to the object itself of Senteurs d’Orient, because I consider the sense of smell quite prominent - no smell, no taste. Our cherished memories often depend on smells or scents, thus food : the smell of warm bread in the house, your mother’s scent when she kissed you, a baby’s skin smell, the evanescent perfume of orange blossoms, the particular incense in a temple…
As a child living in Africa, my best friend was Lebanese. We were brought up like sisters, and shared all our time together. Her house was my second home, and vice-versa. I therefore naturally grew up with Lebanese food and traditions in my background, and visited Lebanon during summer vacations.
The designs of all of the soaps, especially the Ma’amoul soaps - are so beautiful and delicate - tell us how you came up with the designs. What was your inspiration?
When Hana decided to name her brand ‘Senteurs d’Orient’ I had in mind the Middle East with its tradition of soap in Aleppo, and its particular scents of laurel, olive and orange blossoms. I thought we had to mark our difference from the Maghreb oriental fragrances.
I introduced my friend and designer Sophie Rozenberg to Hana, and talked her into my beloved childhood memories of Ma’amoul cakes, their wooden molds of different shapes, the mucharabiehs in Beirut (the first thing I noticed when I landed in Beirut airport in 1968). That screen, the warm and humid breeze of the sea. That’s how we came up with these designs - after the preliminary sketches seemed too conventional and banal to me. Hana was enthusiastic and decided to approve those.
Another reason why I sticked to the idea of Ma’amoul is that I love FOOD!! I love shopping for food, I love eating, I love cooking! And as you know it, Lebanese food is the best!
You currently live in Paris - where do you go to find the best Ma’amoul pastries? (Or can you make them yourself?)
I am certainly unable to make Ma’amouls myself, it takes a life time to learn how to press and stuff the delicate semolina dough. I have never tasted the exact rose water or orange blossom fragrance of my childhood again, but when I feel like having Ma’amouls in Paris I go either to Noura or to Fakhr el Dine (they have mini ones). I have also had them shipped from Tripoli by Abdul Rahman Hallab in the past, in their green metal boxes! When I need to check a recipe, I reach [for] my old book, “Rayess’ Art of Lebanese Cooking" - an oldie but a goodie.
You have to keep in mind that Hana’s brand has been widely copied, very shortly after she created these original soaps, with their elegant and simple boxes, their shapes (soaps in the shape of food have spread all over since), their pure compositions and high quality ingredients. Hana was a lead, always in advance in her time. Many have tried to compete and ‘surf on the wave’, but none has succeeded in attaining the level of quality and refinement of Senteurs d’Orient, this particular blend of two Orients, the Middle and the Far East, because they run our lives.
Photo: Courtesy of Pascale Brunet