The Poisoned Chalice

 

A charming young person wrote to me recently to ask for my views on
Poison, that succès de scandale created  by Edouard Flechier¤ for Dior in 1985. How unorthodox was Poison really, in its own time? That was my student’s question.

Well, 32 years ago it was highly unusual. Half-crazed. Kind of running wild. Nowadays, however, Poison has no end of competition. Just think – for instance – of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques* with all its sour and sick bodily fluids. Even that has mellowed with the years, to the extent of sometimes being described as an aquatic floral, cool and fresh.

We have become hard to outrage. Schiaparelli’s Shocking wouldn’t cut much ice nowadays. And indeed Yves St Laurent’s provocative Opium (1977) had predated Poison by eight years. Now that perfume really did raise Cain, what with the concomitant controversial adverts and the insistent connotations of drugs and degradation. Before then, perfumes were given pretty names – or risque, naughty, sexy names. ‘Poison’ and ‘Opium’ were seen as very strange: as deliberately and offensively egregious. Of course that was the intention and the whole point. The subsequent publicity was immense. Like Giorgio, these were perfumes everyone TALKED about, at the water-cooler and elsewhere: perfumes it became the fashion to loathe.

No doubt the colours of the Poison packaging – the pantomime-evil green and purple – plus the name had a great deal to do with Dior’s runaway success. As I wrote back to my young friend: “You perhaps can’t imagine how shocked and baffled people were back then. We were still very innocent.”

Folk said wonderingly, “O! How could they call a perfume that? Poison, indeed! Perfume should be a beautiful thing…. And Dior, too, of all Houses, so chic and elegant! This scent must SMELL awful to be given a name so wicked.”

And they went on and on like this, whipping themselves up, and daring each other to sniff Poison; to try it, even.

The name was so diabolically clever. It preyed on all sorts of deep but rather dreadful ancient prejudices drawn from  legendary horrors, fairy tales and infamous crimes. Poison: always the coward’s weapon, the woman’s weapon. The tool of the foreigner, the outsider, the witch and the jealous rival. Medea, Snow White’s stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Agrippina, Livia, Madeleine Smith, Dr Pritchard, William Palmer,  Mme de Brinvilliers, Crippen. Horrible people who instead of calling out their adversaries for an honest fight doomed them to an agonising death: betraying their victims while feigning care and  nurture. “A buttered scone? Excuse fingers!” – remember Major Armstrong of Hay-on-Wye?

Yes. It was quite a scenario!

I thought in 1985 that Poison was horrible – too visceral, too dirty, a smell of rot. Now I still don’t like it but I can see that the formula is daring and venturesome and what we used to call “amusing” – that basic blend of tuberose (the eternal ancient florid aphrodisiac that has always had a reputation for boldness and sex) and red chilli pepper (ditto). Flagrant, if you like.

I do go back from time to time and try Poison. I’m much older – I still don’t like Poison but I can admire its nerve somewhat. It’s a small child in all of us who loves to shock. For to shock is to be getting all the attention.

But is Poison sexy? Is it voluptuous? Is it – as the judge said – fragrant? I think it misses, if only by a whisker. It tries too hard. It’s probably changed somewhat too – same as I have. Few perfumes stay exactly the same over 32 years.

Nowadays perfume is taken very seriously by the consumer – this was not so, back then. Allergies had not been invented; ingredients had not been purged by European committee; money went so much further. Scent came in small sizes, too, so you could buy all the time without being left short. If you fancied a fragrance – if it seemed fun – “amusingly vulgar, delightfully common” – you bought it, wore it, and chucked it. Scent was full-blooded, hot-blooded. It was much more heedless, more animal, more instinctive.

And yet….and yet…..Like those tiny mammals creeping around in the undergrowth while dinosaurs ruled the earth: even while Poison and its confreres were at their zenith the early niche/artisan/artistic scents were evolving. Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque were tunnelling like moles under the great Power Perfume edifice. Like so many great ancient empires, those magnificently unhinged power perfumes were rotting even at their apogee.

*currently on show at the exhibition Perfume at Somerset House

¤ we at Les Senteurs know Msr Flechier best for his two sublime creations for. FM – Une Rose and Lys Méditerranée.

¤¤ Tuberose is wild, vegetal, animalic and unhinged enough already without mixing it with the sweet hot chilli succulence. Chilli seemed to many to be a spanking new innovative ingredient but in fact had been given a run-around in the early 1950’s by Caron, in the notorious Poivre.

Riders of the Purple Sage

 

Another strange week! These cheating winds. The blustery gusts of change, all right. Hands up anyone who reflected upon the Dutch Wind of 1688.
Or on Queen Elizabeth’s Armada medal – “God blew with His winds and they were scattered.”

When I Iast left you, I was walking down a long road, following the trail of a strange and lovely smell entwined in the elderflower hedgerows and the early summer grasses. The fragrance was sweet, fruity and faintly powdery. A dear friend has just returned from China after a spell in Guilin, ‘the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus’. Being always suggestible, I entertained the notion briefly that a Tree of Heaven had spontaneously rooted itself and flowered by a Leicester B-road.

It hadn’t, of course. I reached the ‘bus shelter and the odour was suddenly overpowering; and not quite as entrancing. There was a flash of chrome yellow and hyacinth blue on the pavement. But it wasn’t a macaw feather. It was a funny little tree, cut out of cardboard. Not a Money Tree, of which we have heard so much lately; but a Magic Tree, with a blue thread loop attached – a “Pina Colada” room fragrance. I hadn’t seen one of these Trees for years, not close up. I view them from afar though, hanging in cars. I suppose someone had flung the Tree from a passing vehicle, overwhelmed by the smell.

Because, from the look of it, the Tree had lain there for days in the wind and rain¤, but it was still belting out a mighty redolence of synthetic pineapple, rum and coconut together with an eerie hint of Parmesan cheese. I wrapped the novelty up in a plastic bag and took it home to wipe, wash and study: “I do it for you. For nobody else!” It’s now in the back passage, wildly scenting the utility room and usual offices. My word, it’s pungent and seemingly indestructible. I  don’t think I shall keep it for ever, but I am confident that it will keep pumping out perfume to the end of time. Remarkable what can now be achieved in the laboratory.

Well, then I had a letter from a friend who had been spiritually cleansing his house with sage. I was absolutely fascinated. Apparently this ritual removes all negative energies and generally refreshes and purifies your own sacred space. I looked up the whole business on Google: there are masses of ads for things called “smudge sticks”. These seem to be little bundles of dried herbs which you burn and wave about. (Lots of Health and Safety warnings regarding flushing them down the loo after use). I have no money to squander on smudge sticks but I was determined to have a go. There’s plenty of sage in the garden: I dried some leaves on the Aga overnight and kindled them while I brewed the morning tea.

They took light like tissue paper! I suddenly appreciated the Health & Safety advice. Dried sage burns very well and gives off plenty of smoke. I blew out the flame and waved my little charred bunch about. The budgie seemed to approve, as he does when he senses the approach of rain. I also ground some of the herbal ashes into a light paste with a little water and rubbed them into my skin. That seemed to work quite well. The smell is what you would expect – dark, aromatic, burnt, not especially exciting – but I felt well-exorcised and (up to a point) purged.

A colleague at work told me he was going to clean out his washing-machine with a cup of vinegar in the cycle. Vinegar is wonderful: it kills miasmas, but its own very strong aroma doesn’t hang around for long if diluted. So it’s great for wiping out the fridge or the sink.

I love these old natural hygiene tips – they are cheap, efficient and they smell good. Softer and subtler than the Magic Tree. I save all the old lemon and lime skins from the drinks trolley for scouring pots, pans and the sink. (Someone used to say that you should stick your bare elbow into a used lemon-half, for a spot of instant skin conditioning). Cleaning with food product leftovers inculcates a feeling of virtue and a wholesome spirit of responsibility. And it’s much more fun than relying on bleach – though that’s a cruel and savage smell which I sometimes enjoy. “If life hands you a lemon – then make a cleaning aid!”

¤ maudlin memories of Nancy Mitford’s “little homeless match”; Enid Blyton’s “poor little strawberry plants”; Hans Christian Andersen’s forgotten fir tree.

Summer days should be served hot..

 

Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

‘A Pocketful of Miracles’ : 30 Fragrance Tips You MUST Try!

 

A wee frivolity for The Glorious First Of June.

Possibly the professional question I am asked most frequently is –

‘Where may I spray my fragrance? How should I apply my parfum?’

Behind the ears, upon the throat – and always with pleasure. But you can cast your net so much wider than this. Be always open-minded to experiment and adventure.

Accept this nosegay of handy hints to help you enhance your aura and exaggerate your ambience. Be remembered and well-beloved for the fragrance and harmony in your wake.

“I did but inhale her passing by:
And yet I love her till I die” ¤

Here we go.

* They say the canny Parisienne – “pas folle, la guepe!” – applies scent behind each KNEE. A hangover from the 1920’s, when the female knee was exposed and fetishised for the first time in history. Knees were not only perfumed, but rouged and powdered. And before the knee, the ANKLE. Hot air rises so the wearer – and those very close to her – should appreciate her own delicious odour all the more. By the same token, perfume on dress (and trouser) HEMS works well, too.

* Newly-washed porous HAIR¤¤ is a great conductor of scent for both sexes. Some  old roues and voluptuaries might  recommend that the EYEBROWS should also be anointed with a discreet dab. We are told that Assyrian ladies & gents daubed their LASHES too – but I wouldn’t try that. Follically-challenged males should apply their cologne to the SCALP – and/or to the inside of their CAPS and HATS. On a lady’s elaborate chapeau it’s amusing to perfume artificial flowers, feathers and veiling.

* Team your TRIMMINGS & ACCESSORIES with your own signature scent. Use fragranced artificial flowers for a home-made tropical LEI – or weave a fresh garland of real flowers. Marigolds and jasmine are traditional – and the marigolds¤ will also repel noxious insects in a healthier way than CIGARETTES. (You CAN dip the tips of your 20 Players in fragrance though – as did all those depraved Noel Coward characters, aeons ago).

* Mary Queen of Scots went to the scaffold wearing hollow golden rosary BEADS stuffed with ambergris. Avid rummagers in bric-a-brac shops still  occasionally discover beads that be filled – or soaked – with perfume. Amateur potters can make their own and string them as bracelets and necklaces. Or simply scent lengths of RIBBON to adorn a well-turned wrist and swan-like neck.

* FANS – as long predicted in this column – are now madly back in fashion. Make up a perfumed collection to cool and seduce on the Tube, the street or in the ballroom. Fans look so glamorous when held in beautiful GLOVES. The trend for scented Spanish leather gloves and gauntlets goes back to Tudor and Jacobean times. Back then, the raw material – tanned in human excrement – needed to be sweetened a little. Now you can afford to be more sophisticated.

* And inside the glove, do spray your not only your WRIST but also your PALM. You’ll leave your mark on everyone you touch. I noted that Marlene Dietrich had perfected this trick when I got to kiss her little hand back in ’72. Her perfume was mine for the night.

* With your redolent hand, now write a billet-doux on perfumed PAPER with scented INK. The first, you can prepare yourself. The ink you may have to search for, but quite a variety are still available. Put your flaming heart on paper in notes of lily, lilac and leather.

* Of course, before you dress, you’ll have added a few drops of essence or extrait to your BATH; and blended some more into a neutral skin CREAM. That’s if your favourite fragrance House does not supply bath and body products. Layering is the way forward for richness, tenacity and depth.

* Washable natural-fibre CLOTHING can be sprayed with most fragrances once you’ve done a discreet patch test. FUR is a delicate and controversial issue but – like hair, of course – it does carry superbly. A whole race of long-ago perfumes were created especially to be worn on and with pelts. Your great great grandparents’ preference for scented HANDKERCHIEFS should also be noted. Spray a hanky liberally and make great play with it or let it trail from your pocket.

* If you have your own long-term favourite CUSHION or PILLOW and can’t face breaking in a new one to fit the exact angle of your sleepy head, then you’ll need to freshen the inner pads. Air them in hot sunshine, toss them up to make the feathers fly; then spritz with your favourite scent.

* Dining at home? A quick dab on CURTAIN linings and under the RUGS works wonders. Then, make like the ancient Greeks, and rub your wooden kitchen FURNITURE with a bunch of fresh mint, parsley, marjoram or thyme. The aroma of bruised herbs will sweeten the air, stimulate the appetite and appease the household spirits.

* Gather ye rosebuds and other edible FLOWERS while ye may, to garnish the FOOD. Orange flower or rose water is wonderfully luxurious when discreetly added to your cooking. Try delicately perfuming your creams, jellies, custards and rice dishes.  Kindle your scented beeswax CANDLES, add a sprig of lavender to the mint sauce and you’re ready for anything. Hand rose, violet and geranium chocolates separately. Go so far as to taste your own scent on the TONGUE as recommended by Pierre Guillaume of Parfumerie Generale; or lightly touch your GUMS. You’ll remember, too, Scarlett O’Hara lurching downstairs to the parlour after gargling eau de Cologne – and brandy.

Tomorrow IS another day – and another perfume!

¤ Thomas Ford 1580-1648 (arr. LW)

¤¤ Editor’s note: we have just heard that the Maison Francis Kurkdjian hair mists will be arriving from the city of light in June

How Hyssop Healed My Hand

 

There I was last week, grizzling on about the drought; and then, look at the rain! “Talking about it brings it on”, as Alan Bennett used to say. When I was eleven or twelve years old, a boy at school taught me a supposed Native American rain dance. As I loathed sport – laid on for us daily – I did a lot of dancing in the hope of water-logged pitches. The creepy thing was, the ritual usually worked.

I soon took fright and abandoned it.

The torrential May rains have released the most sumptuous scents, especially on muggier days. The combined odours of may blossom, lilac and lacy cow parsley outdo for loveliness anything you’ll smell on the place Vendome or the rue de la Paix. Heady, heavy, floral-animalic, damply powdery, sweet with honey and musk. Imagine a Caron boutique of a century ago, relocated in a country lane or a roundabout on the ring road.

Charged up with a false and flower-intoxicated energy, I overdid it sadly in the back yard. Fellow gardeners will know what I mean. You don’t notice at the time, but you tug at a stubborn root too vigorously; or pull a weed from the wrong angle. Twenty four hours later you’re in agony. This time it was the second finger of my left hand. Blew up like a pound of sausages. Couldn’t move it. Throbbing in the night. Every colour of the rainbow. Because I was traumatised decades ago by Daniel Day Lewis dying abruptly of tetanus in ‘My Brother Jonathan’ on the TV, I always jump to the worst conclusions. Once I’d calmed down I had a rummage in the bathroom cupboard. With my right hand.

I found the oil of hyssop: the magic purgative plant; the holy healing herb of the ancients. The late great Angela Flanders used to keep my mother supplied with it, for her arthritis. Of course, I should have greatly diluted the hyssop: Angela’s strict instructions are still written on the bottle. However I was reckless with pain, so I rubbed the oil in neat for three days. It made my skin peel like a sloughing python, but – combined with ice baths – it brought out the bruising, reduced the swelling in short order, and worked a miracle within 72 hours.

Hyssop is much mentioned in the Old Testament – “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be white as snow” ¤. On account of the endless translations and re-translations of the ancient texts we do not know whether the plant named as hyssop in the Bible is the same mauve or electric blue flowered herb that we recognise today. Scientific botanical classification is less than 300 years old¤¤. Distilled hyssop smells exceedingly lemon-like; green, dark and medicinal. The fragrance is pure, still and calming. Hyssop is integral to the brewing of Chartreuse; and is associated with the bitter herbs of the first Passover. The Pentateuch mentions it in connection with its use as a sprinkler of blood or water or perfume. Long before we sprayed, we sprinkled.

So, always anxious to investigate on your behalf, I went down to consult with my local herb man. Regular readers will remember that this was the fascinating fellow who last year told me all about feverfew, to which he is violently allergic.

I rang the bell.

He said he’d not seen hyssop for years. As I had thought, it seems to be out of style. But he gave me a pot of flagrantly strong, smoky – even slightly minty –  hot Greek oregano. Which was very apt because many modern horticulturalists think it probable that the old Biblical hyssop was the herb we now know as Syrian oregano. I could see at once that a bunch of densely leaved, slightly furry oregano would make an ideal natural aspergillum. If only to bless a tomato salad with the good olive oil.

Which I duly did. And two hours later the wonderful aroma of the oregano still hung in the afternoon kitchen air.

Mahlzeit!

¤ Psalm 5, verse 7

¤¤ spikenard is another example of these ancient & modern botantical confusions. And look at the harebell – “the bluebell of Scotland”. Not to mention geraniums and pelargoniums.

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.