Plagued by smells

 

Awoke on Sunday morning to the delightful sound and smell of soft refreshing purging rain. The baked-up fields and gardens need water like mad after this unnaturally dry spring: so does the air. Wherever I go, I meet folk afflicted by coughs, respiratory congestion, catarrh and choking fits. The atmosphere is thick with pollen, dust and a creeping pollution: eyes and noses are streaming. The wonky weather doesn’t help, lurching from the icy blast of a north wind to sultry closeness: and all within twenty-four hours. May – theoretically one of the most blushingly romantic of months – can be the very devil in practice. There is nothing crueller than a piercingly cold Bank Holiday afternoon: and all your winter wardrobe prematurely packed away. ‘Ne’er cast a clout’, indeed.

In our spanking new and surreal 21st century London – now rebuilt for perhaps the third time since 1945 –  we occasionally stumble into a jarring electric reminder of our origin of species. Something stimulates our animal senses. We are yanked back into a brief realised memory of how the capital once smelt. The yellow bronchial fogs have long gone; so has the smoke. The smell of hot horse and equine manure¤- once ubiquitous – is limited to the parades of Royal State occasions and early morning cavalry exercise in Rotten Row. It is years since I saw anyone relieve himself in the street.

Discarded food, however, lies about in profusion: this was something you used not to see. It would be snapped up by stray dogs and cats (now completely vanished) or by the totally destitute. The other morning I came across – and not for the first time – an entire abandoned meal laid out on a cafe terrasse. Smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee all complete – cooling yet still fragrant in the morning air. Abandoned, barely touched, like that last breakfast aboard the ‘Mary Celeste’. The poor customer’s heart must have failed him at the last. ‘Fain would I eat/ Yet fear I to fall.’ You imagine all sorts of scenarios: an anxious stomach in knots finally undone by the smell of the meal. Eggs with salmon are very potent – and the ashtray was brimming with butts.

For what you do still find everywhere in the capital – so you must pick your way through the streets – is evidence of weak stomachs. I saw someone being suddenly and terribly sick at a railway station the other day. The effluvia was fluorescently blue and purple. What can he have been eating or drinking? A diet of fake news and fake food.

And, of course, we now have vapes: gushing clouds of perfumed ghostly steam. I have just finished Daniel Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year, written in 1722, but describing the last visitation of bubonic plague to London 57 years before. Defoe lived through the Great Plague as a child in Cripplegate. I think the vapes would  seem kind of familiar to him though he might mistake their purpose. For he writes of terrified Londoners with sticks of rue rammed up their noses and herbs held in their mouths; citizens doused in vinegar fumes¤¤; ever-burning braziers of woods and oils to smoke out infection and disperse the miasma of plague.

“….in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew…”

Everyone rushes out of church, and when they again foregather the worshippers have taken precautions, filling their “..mouths with one preparation or another”.

In an age when sickness was thought – quite logically, really – to be spread by smell¤¤¤, “the whole church was like a smelling-bottle; in one corner it was all perfumes; in another, aromatics, balsamics and variety of drugs and herbs; in another, salts and spirits, as every one was furnished for their own preservation”.

Because the infection did not break out in the Fleet, it was naively believed by Londoners that the smells of the shipyards “would preserve them”. Therefore they built great fragrant bonfires in the street and smoked the interiors of their houses with burning sulphur, pitch, oil of turpentine, rosin, cedar and brimstone.

Some survived, many perished. The huge irony in retrospect was that the true finish of the plague did indeed lie in the purification by flames. For in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the old city and the warrens of rats’ nests where the infection bred. Plague never returned.  Defoe’s most haunting lines describe what might be seen when a victim of the sickness breathed “upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen…of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils..”

Try spritzing some perfume on the bathroom mirror!

¤ Jumentuous: of, relating to, or smelling like the urine of a horse, from Latin jumentum, meaning a beast of burden, or ‘yoke-beast’, from jugum, a yoke
¤¤ Defoe writes of shop-keepers handing out the change from coins kept in a pot of vinegar. Our fishmonger favours this homely method of disinfectant today.

¤¤¤ My great grandfather Francis Braley (1844-1923), Chief Inspector of Nuisances for Leicester, still believed in miasma theory to some extent. So did his daughter, my grandmother.

Long Ago and Caraway…

 

Here we are again in the great season of asparagus, that timeless luscious
delicacy and supposed aphrodisiac. There was a big hoo-ha last month when the crop was blessed at Worcester Cathedral. A man was robed up in vegetable garb, and he pranced about as the Spirit of the Asparagus. For some this was much too pagan, with hints of The Green Man, the Great God Pan and Druidical nature worship. I’d imagine, too, that – in the subconscious at least – the carnal associations of the crop bothered some critics. I’m talking about the way asparagus supposedly promotes physical passion: its phallic symbolism; the role it played at Roman orgies; and the way it smells.

Jilly Cooper once remarked on how the unmistakable whiff of asparagus always hangs around the geography of great country houses at this time of year. It lingers in bodily fluids as strongly and evidently as beetroot or garlic. Indeed, the smell of older woodier asparagus has a definite similarity to that of the starry-flowered wild garlic: pungent, smoky, spicy, a suggestion of fried onions. That potent bruising highly-invasive odour is such a virile and piquant contrast to the faery-ferns of asparagus foliage. These are the delicate and feathery fronds that one used to see in wedding boutonnieres¤. The little Carr girls, if you’ll remember, used asparagus boughs to build an airy bower for the dreadful Imogen Clark in ‘What Katy Did’. And despite its luxurious reputation – and ludicrous prices in some fine-dining eateries – asparagus is not hard to grow. We had a great bed of it at home in the old days, laid down in the 1940’s if not before. My father chucked on a bit of manure; the cats sunbathed there; the crop came up year after year in full force. Pagan in its profusion!

So why not bless the sweet asparagus? The ceremony can do nothing but good. No doubt the heathen vegetable will benefit from some spiritual taming just as Edwardian hostesses tried to refine it at table by handling it with tongs.

Also on my larder shelf this week is a jar of caraway¤¤ seeds. When I was young every decent household seemed to have a caraway seed cake ‘on cut’. Cakes then were not the screechingly sweet sugar-goo mountains so ubiquitous today. ‘That’s not cake, duck: that’s gateau’, we were told in shops. You made seed cake with the old dry rub-in method. This largely went out when every cook demanded an electric mixer¤¤¤. Seed cake was generally rather dry and crumbly: it went well with very strong, very hot tea or – traditionally at a funeral – with a glass of sherry. Beatrix Potter and Charlotte Bronte both celebrated it. It smelled of caraway’s cousin, fragrant aniseed: the scent that supposedly drives dogs crackers – though growing up in a veterinary household I never saw evidence of this. And my father used to come home laden with seed cakes; his favourite thing at tea time. My aunt made a classic version; and there were fans baking cakes for him in every farmhouse kitchen

 

 

Pa would sometimes ask for dark marmalade to be stirred into the mixture; or he simply spread on his own Cooper’s Oxford at table. The unusually luxurious version of seed cake given in The Constance Spry Cook Book (1956) calls for five eggs, candied orange peel, freshly grated nutmeg¤¤¤¤, brandy and ‘a handful’ of sugared caraway comfits. Imagine the heavenly fragrance of that little beauty, cooling from the oven in shades of copper and amber and gold! The sort of cake that used to make old-fashioned tea parties so giggly.

Sixty years ago, old village ladies used impossibly vulgar nicknames for caraway seeds which will not be repeated here. But, culinary-wise, caraway is so versatile. The seeds perk up a boiled cabbage, go good with roast potatoes – and with spuds in their jackets. Let the potato bake almost through; cut it in half; dip the cut ends in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and caraway. Then return to oven until the crust is crisp. The aroma of caraway is improved and strengthened by soaking, baking or otherwise cooking. The seeds are good to chew, too. This was the invariable habit of the Baroness Lehzen, the young Queen Victoria’s gouvernante. For years Lehzen’s presence in the royal palaces would be heralded by a redolence of breath-sweetening caraway and a faint clicking noise, as of a canary or budgerigar pecking away. It was Prince Albert’s abomination of this habit, as much as his resentment at Lehzen’s influence on the Queen, that persuaded him to be rid of her once and for all.

Years ago, at the start of a Harrods Winter Sale, a beautiful Irish girl who looked like Ingrid Bergman said to me in the canteen:

“We have to EAT our way through this terrible time!”

Let’s eat and SMELL our way through the Election period! Caraways, asparagus and what you will.

¤ an unintended fertility symbol?

¤¤ isn’t ‘caraway’ a romantic word? Makes me think of Coramandel screens, Ronald Firbank characters, Edith Sitwell and her ‘Gold Coast Customs’.

¤¤¤ remember the tv ad with Maria Charles? ‘Don’t make yourself a slave, darling! Get him to buy you a mixer like your mother’s.’ Tempi passat.

¤¤¤¤ mildly mood-enhancing, as you know.

“…always with his nose in a book…”

 

Good news this week for the publishing trade. The sale of printed books is on the rise once more. I saw only one electronic ‘Kindle’-book up and running on the London/Leicester express last Friday night – and believe me I’d schlepped the length of the train hunting for a seat. Which I found.

I think it’s what we always knew. The redolence of print, new pages, different types of paper, glossy covers and wrappers is an integral part of the pleasure of reading. Then, as you get into a book, it absorbs your own natural oils and DNA molecules: it becomes a part of your persona. ‘L.W. – his book’ as the traditional proprietorial inscription used to read. The volume gradually is saturated with the scent of the reader: her perfume, his embrocation, her food, his hair gel. My mother’s paperbacks were semi-transparent with smears of Nivea and Ambre Solaire. The pages looked like so many medieval windows: sheets of paper soaked in oil. And remember Emily Bronte teaching herself German as she rolled out the pastry? With the grammar propped up against the flour crock and Keeper under the table, hoping for crumbs. The apocryphal tale of finding a dried rasher of bacon (sometimes a kipper) used as a bookmark is told by many librarians.

Like Jean Harlow, I was reading a book the other day¤. It’s the new biography¤¤ of the great Irish novelist Molly Keane, by her daughter Sally Phipps. Keane is probably best remembered for her late “comeback” novel ‘Good Behaviour’ (1981) which starts with an (intentionally) nauseating description of a dish of “quenelles in a cream sauce ……there was just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation”. In fact the baby rabbit mousse proves the finish of the bed-ridden old lady to whom it is force fed:

“The smell – I’m – ”

And that’s the end of Mrs St Clair.

The entire suite of Molly Keane’s novels from 1928 to 1989 are required reading – and more than once over.  The books are beautiful, acute, very funny indeed and sometimes horribly sad – you cry ALL the time for one reason or another. Keane is marvellous on food (she adored cooking, finding it not only mouth-watering but therapeutic and fulfilling); and she is unparalleled in her awareness of smells. The first sentence of ‘Good Behaviour’ is all about things olfactory – both emotional and culinary:

‘Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt…’

For the ‘miasma’ in that seaside Irish house is entirely sinister.

The books are suffused in sensory awareness; especially of colour and of smell. Flowers, clothes, the seasons, perfume, fur, pubs, horses, gardens, food, violet sachets, hair, smoke; the hunting field and the bedroom. Ms Phipps has inherited her mother’s nose – she writes of a butler’s pantry which “smelt rather deliciously of stale coffee grounds and pink silver powder”. She describes an aunt advising Molly before a hunt ball – ‘ “don’t accept presents of scent my darling and don’t talk to any strange men” ‘.

Of course then, back in the 1920’s, a girl who accepted a gift of anything wearable from a gentleman was hopelessly compromised. ‘The coat of shame’ wrote Lady Diana Cooper. And taking perfume from a man was tantamount to wearing
his engagement ring – or admitting you were his mistress. Hence the Mae West
riposte, which today sounds rather vague and harmless:

– “You always have such swell things! How do you do it on your salary?”

– “It’s a gift, honey. It’s a gift.”

I love it when you find one of your own tricks being practised in a book. Jasper throws “bay leaves onto the low ring of the Aga so that the smoke from their curling blackened leaves might quell other smells” ¤¤¤. When I first worked and cooked with an Aga I was fascinated by its secondary use as an altar to the Lares and Penates. Like Vesta’s Flame, it burned perpetually. One could immolate herbs and spices on it at any time, like Pamela Brown ladling the incense into the brazier in Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’. And the Lady of the Aga used to polish the stove with her own hand cream, lanolin-enriched, which of course lent a very heady redolence to the kitchen and back sculleries.

I was fascinated by Molly Keane’s biography and it is beautifully done. However, it upset me in the way that only biography sometimes can; in this case, I can’t tell quite why. Brian Master’s book about Marie Corelli had the same effect on me, decades ago.  Mrs Keane lost her husband early in very tragic circumstances; but she led a long and in many ways blessed life. She was a perfectionist and that is a state that always frets me because I guess I am one myself. However, I’m so despairing of achieving any sort of perfection that I often give up before I try. Maybe the strong sense of smell that dominates Ms Phipps’s book panics me in some primeval animal way, as I am an individual who also lives through scents and odours and the complicated sensations they arouse. Could that be so? Having worked so long with perfume, I am fully aware of its strange and uncanny powers. However, I’m still prepared to be surprised and shocked by their manifestations!

¤ “reading a book?” gasps Marie Dressler, doing the double-take to end all: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).

¤¤ ‘Molly Keane: a life’ by Sally Phipps, 2017

¤¤¤ ‘Time after Time’ 1983

The Pyjama Game

 

Maybe you enjoyed a “pyjama day” over the recent Bank Holiday or even last weekend? There’s been a lot of talk recently about parents in pyjamas picking up their children from school; or even shopping in jim-jams. In my innocence (as Mrs Mary Whitehouse used to say) I imagined pyjama days to be marked by an immaculate cleanliness. I had thought you showered and bathed upon arising; then slipped into a fresh suit of night attire in which to lounge all day, free of all belts, ties, stays and restraining fastenings. But according to a recent piece in The Times, this is not so. You simply wake up, hop out of bed and start living – in what Carol Midgley calls your “bed-stink”. In effect, your own filth.

It’s a nasty brutish expression, one that as a child I’d have been very much discouraged from using. But there you are. Now I begin to understand why headmasters and supermarket managers are not so keen on pyjama culture. It’s all a far cry from those beds of roses & spices we discussed on this page a while back. However, unless you are one of those persons – about a sixth of the population we regularly told – who change their bed sheets (and/or jim-jams) only quarterly, I can’t really see why there should be any disagreeable smell at all. A slight warm fug, maybe. Surely nothing more. Anyway, this week we were again warned of the obvious by the medical faculty: that lolling about is bad for you. It weakens your muscles, your mind and all that. “Wake up – dress up – and live!” – as Alice Faye used to sing: kind of.

Shall we move on? It’s not an especially pretty topic.

We had fine company to luncheon last week. The kitchen was filled with the delicious smells of home-made kedgeree, tarte au citron¤, parsley, cardamon, coriander, basil and ripe tomatoes. I can say this with modesty as it was my gifted brother who cooked it all for our dear cousin. She said, “I adore kedgeree but never make it as I cannot get the smell out of the house.” And this is true. You must fall back on the old trick – geography of the house permitting – of opening back and front doors simultaneously and letting the air rush through, as fresh water gushed through the stench of the Augean stables.

On the table I placed a blue pot of cream freesias. Freesias have changed – or I have. Probably both. They look the same; the colours – white, saffron, mauve, plum – remain constant. But the scent is far less penetrating. When my brother was born in 1960 my mother’s maternity bower was crammed with them – the month was March. The hospital room was as heavily perfumed as Audrey Hepburn’s gloriously floral railway compartment¤¤ in The Nun’s Story. Consequently my mother was never able to look another freesia in the eye – nor to abide their scent – for the next half century.

Today the odour is – it seems to me – far more subtle. Airier, faintly spicy, much less honeyed. The Easter freesias smelled faintly reminiscent of the famous JASMIN ET CIGARETTES: I detected a whiff of very dry papery tobacco, a trace of pepper. None of that suffocating fruity-floral cushiony sweetness and opulence of yore. I should of course have taken note of Country of Origin on the wrapping. The last truly pungent freesias I remember came from Guernsey: I fetched them back myself about 12 years ago.

The irony is, the blooms we smell today are much more like the ‘freesia accord’ we inhale from so many modern perfumes. Ergo, an impressionistic appreciation of the plant, not an extraction or a reproduction. Life once more continues to imitate art.

And talking of which: I don’t know whether this is an example of the synaesthesic mind or just fanciful reverie but, this ‘Snap Election’, now. The mental image the phrase conjures up is that of a fragrant dish of sugar-snap peas, just shown a pan of boiling water: steamed, buttered, minted and brought to table. Brilliantly fluorescently emerald; smelling divinely of crisp greenery, goodness and springtime.

Will it really be like that?

Finally, as I finish this, my Tube train pulls into Kings Cross and there’s a funny poster pasted up in the tunnel:

“Sushi tastes even better in your pyjamas.”

Which is where we came in.

¤ 4 unwaxed lemons are called for.

¤¤ Brussels-bound from the pre-War Congo.

EASTER EGGS

 

Wishing You All a Happy and Radiant Eastertide! Don’t rush to brush off the season along with the melting chocolate crumbs; don’t start darting off in the direction of far-off Father’s Day. Savour the feast of Easter like a rare wine or indeed your favourite perfume: it lasts a full fifty days.

I hope you enjoyed your eggs? We had ours in the form of an omelette, garnished with the fine herbs which are just beginning to shoot and scent the garden. When I am quite alone and relaxed, I want to try the experiment of making burnt Passover eggs. These should be hard-boiled and then the shells scorched¤ under the grill, or ( I guess ) passed quickly through a hot oven. Maybe you could even use a blow torch as Mary Berry did with her Easter Simnel Cake. The eggs symbolise the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and I want to experience their taste  – and their smell.

And of course, meditating on these burnt eggs, it is evident that it is the ancient Jewish tradition that has developed into our modern Easter custom. This probably has nothing to do with the reputed Celtic fertility goddess Oestre and her old sacred hares¤¤. The chocolate version is a relatively recent top-dressing. The blowing¤¤¤, painting, dyeing and otherwise decorating of poultry eggs still continues in more thoughtful schools and patient households. There is no end to the rich symbolism of eggs. The concept of the Cosmic Egg, hatched upon the primeval waters to give life to the Universe, is so ubiquitous in the lore of all ancient cultures that you wonder if it might actually be true. Like the story of Adam and Eve it often seems easier to believe than the intricacies of Darwin (much as I love him and his beetles and his always-poorly-stomach).

I wrote here some years ago about the ambiguous, somewhat sulphurous, smell of egg sandwiches. That aroma was compounded of the additional bread, butter, spices and mayonnaise. Before my brother sautee’d that omelette the other night, he said to me, “now, take the clean laundry out of the room. Omelettes have a Strong Smell!”

Certainly they do, and it’s not just from the hot sizzling butter. When the New  Wave of the early aquatic fragrances hit the perfume market some 25 years ago many of them then struck me as very fried-eggy in tone; something about the way the calone molecule hit my nose, back then. Omelettes have a papery dryness to them – I speak olfactorily. Fresh raw eggs smell … oh, I don’t know quite. Well, something a bit like a very new baby being sick. The albumen has a faintly queasy sweetness, a gelatinous coolth that sometimes verges on the repellent.

Some of my older readers may recall a once-notorious newspaper interview with the late Mrs Indira Gandhi. During the conversation she had cooked – for whatever reason – a dish of scrambled eggs for her son Sanjay. He refused to eat them, saying they tasted too oily. Since reading this piece I have often used olive oil to scramble and it works fine, but it can be just the least bit nauseous. Which butter never is. Nevertheless, eggs do have an inherent greasy quality of which you need to be wary. After all, we class them as ‘dairy’.

I’ll wind up with reporting a moment in legal history. The Italian Supreme Court has just this month banned the invasive smell of frying: it constitutes a new crime of “olfactory molestation”. Offenders who pollute their neighbours’ space will be savagely fined. I found this so ridiculous that I wondered if it was a newspaper April Fool: but then much of our current news is now so weird that the whiffy old ‘poisson d’avril’ has become – in our time – redundant.

Once again, Happy Easter!

¤ “to the colour of mahogany bruises”, writes a dear friend and culinary maven.

¤¤ “Oestre may never have existed!” – new and amazing claim. They seem to think now that the goddess is a cranky Victorian academic factoid.

¤¤¤ though the use of a straw is now recommended for reasons of hygiene.

A Quiet Lie-Down

 

” I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes* and cinnamon….” – Proverbs 7:17

I thought of this when I found a buxom queen wasp emerging from a kitchen curtain, awoken by the brilliant sunshine and the scent of spring. I ushered her out of the window, in the manner of an obsequious Court Chamberlain. Off she flew to build a vast and multi-celled fragrant waxen palace in which to raise a summer tribe¤.

I love to see these creatures about their business. My favourite reassuring sight just now is the blue tit pair, popping in and out of their nesting box like cuckoo clock machinery. They are single minded in their occupation, completely absorbed in the job of propagating the species. In the heat wave of last weekend they both took advantage of the water pans in the yard to have a good bathe. I should think that tit box is more than a little stuffy. Cosily lined with moss, wool and green budgerigar feathers it is probably also crawling with mites. Birds seem not to have much of a sense of smell; but I bet that bath felt so good to itchy little bodies. I replaced the water after the tits had finished, I need hardly remark… it was so warm from the sun.

Perfumed beds remind me also of a client I had many years ago in the big stores. She was an avid collector of scented talcum powder. She bought so prodigally that it was inevitable that a sales assistant would eventually ask what she did with it all.

The lady said, ” I put it down the bed!”

Today you can do the job far more elegantly and efficiently with a flacon of Frederic Malle’s heavenly pillow and linen spray Dans Mon Lit. Richly, intensely yet delicately rosy this wonderfully romantic preparation perfumes your sheets to smell like the bedding of Titania’s bower. Its name reminds me of those saucily crafted movie titles of the early 1930’s, designed to titillate. So the posters might read:

‘Constance Bennett
In
BED OF ROSES
With
Joel McCrea’

That sort of thing.

Incidentally, I must tell you. Remember last week I was describing the chickeny-smells that led to my vegetarian phase? So, I had to smile when on Friday I went into my fabulous award-winning butcher’s – which always smells as sweet as a nut. A diffident customer was in there “looking for ideas for the weekend menu”. Then she announced that she was a vegetarian. I thought this was adorable, if slightly daffy. But spring-fever sends us a little crazy. It expects too much of us. It keeps the nerves at full stretch.

For instance, at this time in Japan folk go breaking their hearts over cherry-blossom-viewing. A regular participant was explaining the bitter-sweet brevity of the festival. One week of buds, one week of full flower, one week of fading and falling¤¤. But this pattern is not peculiar to the cherry. We experience it here in Britain just as poignantly and exquisitely. Since I became a (coarse) gardener I have noticed that few flowers last longer than three weeks. My neighbour has a magnolia tree with huge blooms like pink chiffon dusters, as though specially grown for the set of ‘Madama Butterfly’ or ‘The Mikado’. So spectacular but agonisingly fragile and short-lived: sometimes you can hardly bear to look.

Sprouting, flourishing, dying. All in three’s. That sacred mystic number since the beginning of human civilisation. It gets in everywhere, like King Charles’s head. It began maybe as a symbol of generation when we first started to climb up off all fours: father, mother, child. This was refined into the theology of the divine triads (Osiris, Isis, Horus) and finally degenerated into such petty superstitions as ‘three on a match’¤¤¤.

And think, of course, of perfume. A scent is generally described as having a three-tier pyramid structure of top, heart and base notes. Delicate sparkling accords to attract; full-blown epanouissement; and – with luck and skill – an enduring slow-burning afterglow. We all know about the inextricable meshings of scent and memory. Perfume is the ghost of a hundred springtimes.

* some scholars now read ‘oud’ for ‘aloes’. But then there are bitter aloes, once used to deter nail-biting.

¤ “I look like an elderly wasp in an interesting condition” – Mrs Patrick Campbell, when complimented on a black and yellow stage costume.

¤¤ not for nothing was the cherry blossom a favourite symbol of the kamikaze pilots. And remember Diana Dors reciting ‘A Shropshire Lad’ from the condemned cell in ‘Yield To The Night’?

¤¤¤ a belief supposedly manufactured by the great match companies at the time of the Great War. See the eponymous movie with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak.

The Pot Pourri of Life and Death

Anna Atkins, Poppy, 1852

 

Wasn’t it funny when Ms Sturgeon “channelled Kellyanne Conway” (BBC R4) but nonetheless kicked off her shoes before sitting on that now famous sofa? Maybe she’d read our chat on this page the other week about going barefoot in the house. I’m so glad this theme has gone viral: it’s a social etiquette that needs defining in Britain once and for all. As a dear regular correspondent observes regarding the removal of shoes:

“… it is of course de rigueur in many Asian countries. Moreover, I do not lose my poise or posture: should I find it difficult to bend down there is usually someone around to undo my shoe laces…”

Now, there’s a class act!

Just now I am bombarded with divine spring smells. All weekend the sun has shone, drawing out the perfume of the narcissi and hyacinths in the garden. Indoors there is a wonderful blend of delicate scents opening and flowering in the new April warmth and light. A phial of the new Frederic Malle triumph SUPERSTITIOUS, gleaming with glass-green aldehydes, is the star performer. Its sophisticated glossy authority enhances the soft creamy sweetness exuding from my lovely stephanotis, Coty’s gift without parallel. And then I was given a tin of Kusmi tea from Paris: aren’t I spoiled? Kusmi is ‘Le thé des tsars’¤, brought from the Champs-Elysees. My present is the new ‘Euphoria’ blend – there are many others.

‘Euphoria’ is well named. When you open the tangerine & gold tin you may think that there’s been a muddle in the shop. You seem to be looking at a bouquet of the most exceptional pot pourri. Pieces of fragrant orange peel – generous chunks! – rub shoulders with cacao and roasted mate. That’s the official party line but I can see, smell and taste other things in there: jasmine? vanilla?  I mashed two large pots of this blissful blend yesterday and the exquisite aroma filled the house. Should you be lucky enough to be gifted by Kusmi my tip would be, don’t be in a hurry to throw out the dregs: let them sit and perfume your sacred space. And the tea also tastes delicious served cold, on a hot afternoon of transplanting, digging and weeding.

I keep thinking about St Martha¤¤ and the holy house at Bethany, also filled with odours. Martha’s cookery; her sister Mary’s precious ointment of spikenard; the smell of their brother Lazarus’s sudden illness and death. Yesterday’s deeply disturbing – and lengthy¤¤¤ – Gospel reading was the story of Lazarus’s rising from the tomb. His sister Martha is appalled – as we should all be – as the listener is – by the prospect of the opening of his grave: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days”. The smell of death is truly terrifying: so final, so uncompromising. You can fool yourself no longer. No wonder certain highly-scented flowers give people the horrors – it is not so much the perfume of the blooms but the grim knowledge of what the fragrance is intended to conceal.

Lazarus, however, walks forth from his cave in the rock. He is sound and sweet and presumably redolent of burial oils and spices, though still terrifyingly wrapped with cere cloths. “…And his face was bound about with a napkin”. What dread there must have have been when that napkin was removed. Yet – and here was the miracle – all was well. Lazarus was alive and whole again;  later he is said to sailed with his sisters to evangelise Provence and the pagan Gauls. But, as Our Vicar said, he knew he must die – and rise – a second time.

From my long-ago cooking days in a City restaurant, I remember a terrible crisis one morning. The butcher never turned up with the poultry – but the boss refused to alter the menu and remove the featured Chicken Dish of the Day: he really did have a death wish, that one. This was the great occasion on which St Martha – urgently solicited – worked a true miracle. For – see! – the long-delayed chicken finally went into the oven well after noon: and not a soul thought to order The Dish of of Day until the chooky-chook was beautifully cooked and wondrously savoury. Although we were very crowded that lunchtime, everyone mysteriously preferred to choose cold quiche.

However, this episode marked for me the beginning of five years of vegetarianism. I had cooked enough chickens¤¤¤¤. The sight of all those pallid-pink joints and their post-feathery chilly smell nauseated me. Chicken in the raw. I was like King Lear with his hand:

“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

And after that things were really never quite the same again.

¤ though I think that most of the Tsars of the Kusmi era ( the firm was founded in St Petersburg in 1867) had an anglophile preference for imported Liptons and Twinings.

¤¤ the name Martha and the word ‘myrrh’ probably have the same semantic origins. Once again, the motif of smell.

¤¤¤ permission given to sit, if necessitated by bodily frailty.

¤¤¤¤ remember Garbo on being asked why she retired at age 36? “I had made enough faces”.