What IS the matter with Mary Jane? She’s perfectly well and she hasn’t a pain..

Rice Pud

For R.C. who has it to perfection.

Rice pudding seems to be one of those totems of life which you either love or loathe – rather like Marmite, Christmas and David Walliams. Or the smell of rose geranium: which a friend of mine in the retail was never able to stomach after being told by a prostitute’s maid (who bought lots) that this the only scent that reliably masks the smell of sex. I suppose the main problem with rice pud is that because it’s cheap and filling it has become a staple of lazy loveless school, hospital and prison cooking: unappetising stodge but handy for keeping body and soul together. Easy to throw together and choke down but so dismal that you might be better off lying on the bed all day to conserve energy, with a bottle of milk for the day’s sustenance, as unemployed ballerinas used to do: that, or chew paper tissues.

Properly cooked rice pudding is an art and a delicacy. There used to be an area of the back streets of Leicester which at certain times of day smelled overpoweringly and warmly of rice pudding. I have no idea what caused it, there was no Ambrosia plant handy,no soup kitchens or restaurants but this glutinous sweet starchy odour would fill the car as one beetled through to school or dentist. It manifested regularly for a good 30 years then abruptly vanished without apparent reason. Then I met it again, in a Rigaud scented candle of all things. It’s the red one if you fancy trying it, Cythere. A name I love as it recollects the voyage of Capt Cook and Joseph Banks to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus (what a perfect unused name for a scent by the way) and the scents of la nouvelle Cythere wafting across the lagoon to the men of the Endeavour: coconut oil, tiare blossom, fresh water, sun-bursting bitter oranges and the appetising sizzle of sweet porky roasting flesh – wild pig or human?

And fragrant nutmeg, which is what makes the candle and the pudding so special. Nutmeg taken in quantity induces euphoria and hallucinations which is apparently one of the reasons why those huge Edwardian tea parties (“tea-fights”) were so uproarious with people drunk on food: chocolate, buttered muffins, spices, tea and masses of sugar. Afterwards came the Blue Hour (L’Heure Bleue, you see) when the guests paired off, and as Nancy Mitford put it lived together before dinner.

Nutmeg is the spice of life to a decent rice pudding so that the end result imbues the lucky eater with a sense of fully realised well-being, besides fragrancing the rice with that aromatic, sweet piercing aroma. Here’s how to make a perfect pudding which smells as good as it tastes. Like Jean Brodie, be generous.

Get yourself a shallow oven-proof dish and butter it lavishly. This imparts a delicious rich savour besides preventing sticking, and so makes the washing-up a breeze. Pour in 2 tablespoonfuls of pudding rice, a pint of milk, a tablespoonful of sugar and a pinch or two of fresh ground nutmeg. Cinnamon too, if you will. Give it 2 hours in a slow oven, while you sit there in a stupor of infantile Arcadian comfort as it cooks and exudes its delicious redolence. Not for nothing is the canned version named after the food of the gods. If you care to give it a stir from time to time it will enhance the creaminess; if you consider the golden-brown skin or mackintosh a delicacy, just let it alone to thicken and coat over. An added refinement and variation is Riz a l’Imperatrice, stirred very slowly continuously in a saucepan, with a drop of rosewater or orange flower essence. It takes hours, but is one of the most divine dishes imaginable: you can tart it up with fruit and whipped cream, turn it out in a mould even, but there’s no real need for such elaboration as you’ll be fine with just the basic simple version as above.

As a climactic topping many rice pudding fanciers recommend a spoonful of raspberry jam – it’s visually exciting: think of Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow or the striking complexion of Snow White. The senses of taste and smell are gratified by the contrast of crimson tartness with milky tranquillity; and there’s the textural excitement of the occasional grit of a raspberry seed complementing the slight graininess perfectly cooked rice.

If you’re still pursuing your olfactory dreams of old Otahiti, you might complete the picture with a spray of Sandrine Videault’s lushly feral Manoumalia, a memory of her youth in the South Seas – a serpent in Eden, exploding with tuberose, ylang ylang, frangipani, orange blossom and the darkest, swampiest vetiver. A perfume so intricate and dense that it might even have (initially) defied even Joseph Bank’s botanical classification.

‘ …and It’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!’

Image from creativeneesh.com

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Ask Your Dad!

Guy Robert

When I was a boy there was no Father’s Day (at least in the UK) but now it’s a Big Thing which tries to bridge a great yawning gap in the shops between the window displays of Easter chicks and the ominous threats of “Back To School!”. Well now we’re stuck with this new festival and really, what’s not to like? Men need more celebration and spoiling. So why not make the most of it and treat your old dad to some scent? Though nowadays Dad is more likely to be a Colin Firth or David Beckham type than Wilfred Brambell or Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street. So much the better: the modern man is making up for lost time and enjoying the pleasure of fragrance that so many previous male generations have missed.

My last gift to my father on The Day was a biography of Rasputin (one of his hero-villains: he’d seen the Barrymores in “Rasputin and the Empress” as a child) which made him feel sick. I’d have done far better to have stuck with his regulation Grain de Plaisir, Gantier’s modern take on a eighteenth century rake’s love potion, full of reliable aphrodisiacs such as vanilla, celery and amber: woody, sexy with a dry spiciness and the sweetness of barley sugar. He adored this, preferring to splash it all over (in the phrase of the day) his bald head and face so that it clung to his hats and flannel scarves. He came late to the joys of scent, well into his sixties, but then developed a rapacious pleasure in it recalling the extravagant applications of much earlier generations.

For the whole culture of scent began with men: men as perpetuators of the  life-cycle in their role as incarnators and placators of the gods. The latin phrase per fumus – through the smoke – gives us the clue. The smoke of burnt offerings opening a visible scented path to the skies, pleasing the nostrils of Heaven and linking men with the Divine.The odours of the pyres developed into the sacred oils worn by the King-Priests and thus into secular use by the privileged laity and aristocracy. A leading example of  the old peacock theory – the male in full feather: gaudy, scented and resplendent to indicate readiness to mate and attract the healthiest and fairest of women to ensure the breeding and survival of the fittest. Perfume as an adjunct to divine procreation: the Pharoah fertilising the Nile sanitised in the Christian era into the ceremonies of the marriage of Venice with the sea, and the Russian Tsars blessing the waters of the Neva. An emblem too of the transfer of divine power – British monarchs right through to our present queen being anointed with holy chrism at their coronation.

It is only with modern history (beginning abruptly in 1714 according to the old text books) that the martial peacock alpha-male starts to fade, only to rise again, phoenix-like, some 150 years later. Brilliant colours and flamboyant dress go undercover as industrialisation, urbanisation, the first stirrings of female emancipation and the middle class work ethic transform Europe: perfume for men fades from fashion if not from use. Even Oliver Cromwell (“Lord protect us from Protectors”) had not disdained to anoint himself with unguents of rose and orange flower, but then a certain drabness creeps in as men are tamed and caged by a more sober society.

When Victorian males use scent it has to accentuate not fertile virility but a man’s prowess as earner, responsible worker and sober father. Male scents loose their heady and hedonistic floral and animal aspects and mirror what a man does with his respectably ordered life: he starts to smell of an idealised version of his environment,occupation and pastimes: leather, woods, herbs and citrus evoke agriculture, farming, gardening, travel and the outdoors. Hygiene is another factor: people start to wash their hair and bodies so that fragrance no longer needs to camouflage bad smells but au contraire emphasises freshness, health and a healthy mind in a healthy body. The Fata Morgana of the “natural” perfume is born.

Today, thanks to a succession of social scientific and sexual revolutions,perfume for men is more rich, varied, eccentric and eclectic than it has ever been. At Les Senteurs men account for a good third of our customers; and very eloquent, passionate and well-informed they are too. The taboos are broken, the barriers are down: modern men are realising there is only no such thing as a “correct” or appropriate male perfume. The only essential is that it should amplify, reflect and enhance the wearer, become part of his very essence and personality. Perfume does not make the man…but a man can certainly make the perfume, transmuting it through his own skin,hormonal balance and definition into a unique signature and statement.

Les Senteurs would like to dedicate this blog to the life and memory of a wonderful man and inspired perfumer, the late Guy Robert who died on 28 May. Guy was the grandson, nephew and son of perfumers and of course the father of our dear friend and colleague Francois Robert. One of the greatest creators of the second half of the 20th century, Guy leaves a legacy of superlative richness, elegance and variety. Caleche dominated the 1960’s, to be followed by L’Equipage, two great classic beauties for Hermes. Guy made the original and unsurpassed Amouage, the sublime Mme Rochas and a treasury of exquisite scents which place him among the Immortals of the art of perfumery. Irreplaceable as a great gentleman and individual, Guy Robert will live forever in his galaxy of classic and unforgettable creations.

Image from 1000fragrances.blogspot.co.uk

… A Damp Bed

Vile Bodies

I have written before about cruel bitter winter cold and the scent of snow but now I am going to examine another sort of cold, not peculiar to winter and infinitely more sinister and enervating: the damp cold that has the chill of the grave about it. A cold with no zest nor vigour, no promise of growth or sense of imminent germination but the musty desolate dismal smell of an unaired bed, a disused church or an empty house. A cold that freezes you in any season, a void of gloom, nausea and despair. In Vile Bodies (a novel that is very perceptive about smells) Evelyn Waugh has poor Agatha Runcible spending the night in a pub en route for the motor races. Next morning she comes to the hero’s room:

“Darling,” she said, “there’s no looking-glass in my room and no bath anywhere, and I trod on someone soft and cold asleep in the passage,and I’ve been awake all night killing bugs with drops of face lotion,and everything smells, and I feel so low I could die.”

This passage impressed me so much in my teens that I wrote it at the head of every page of that year’s calendar. It seemed then a remarkably acute summation of my adolescence.
Agatha was dead right: everything smells sad and bad in such weather.

My grandfather’s house in Soar Street was idyllic in its way, with French windows from all the reception rooms opening onto a rose garden, orchard and meadows but it was a house designed more for a Greek island or Tangiers rather than the climate of the East Midlands. All the books were foxed and the leather bindings damply pungent (the smell has only intensified over the intervening years); and in the annexe across the yard poorly cured badger skins,dried hard and curling, served as bedside mats. Even today I think of musty damp as the Soar Street Smell, and a disconcerting hint of it lurks in Pierre Guillaume‘s Psychotrope, a perfume based on accords of leather and iris, leading to thoughts of St Margaret’s jewelled manuscript Bible lying in the river, the illuminations glowing like exotic water weeds in the current.

Certain holidays stand out in my memory and define this phenomenon. Venice in February, staying in a budget out of season hotel on the abandoned Lido and having to bribe the reluctant maid for gritty dusty horse blankets – then while we were out during the day she’d whip them back to her store cupboard. She also stole my nightshirt, a wonderful shroud-like garment bought years before in Luxor. I felt so sick with cold amid the streaming stones of St Mark’s Square that nothing would do but to stop for another pungent Negroni to settle my stomach and get the blood coursing. There was none of the legendary canal stench, just a dark and infinitely sad whiff of icy water like bitter bottle-green ink, which oozed from the rodent decay of ancient plaster the colour of sugared almonds splotched with mould. And in the great churches, the hangover of stale cold incense embedded in dank stone for 1000 years; a scent that was uncannily recreated in Etro’s Messe de Minuit, a fragrance that had a certain vogue a few years ago: too chilly and forbidding by half for me, though it bewitched many.

And so to Berlin on the marshy Prussian plain, packing a new bottle of Chanel 19 which proved a vexing frustration since my flesh was too chilled to animate it. We schlepped out to Potsdam to see the old Imperial palaces: the summery idyll of the Shell Grotto seemed to mock our dumb damp freeze as the guide trailed us from one royal Sterbzimmer to the next: “here the daughter of your Queen Victoria suffered torments; now we see the very bed in which where the Emperor choked to death..” And afterwards, in the rail station forecourt, gluhwein, the spicy reek of currywurst, fried onions and popcorn permeated our mildewed coats as thoroughly as food odours can in only this sort of weather.
(Think of those leather jackets in the Tube, radiating a thousand and one kebabs).

Back in England, I remember icy rain coming down in stair-rods on June Speech Days, drenching unsuitable clothes; huddled in a steamed up car smelling powerfully of soaked cotton dresses and wool suits, hair, dog and doubly damp cucumber sandwiches. And a stay in a seaside Cornish guest-house where as the April sky was blue and the sun blazing on the spotless windows, the landlady had decided to turn off all heat and hot water. The clammy cold sheets stuck to our legs; the rugs in the breakfast room were slimy with damp, as in Mr Jeremy Fisher’s house – “all slippy-sloppy in the back passage” – and there was a terrible scene when a guest asked for a boiled egg. “Hot food not served”. Women’s hairspray hung in droplets, like lacquered sea mist.

But not everyone finds these conditions a mere sodden misery; for some they arouse gothic and romantic sensations, smacking of Jane Eyre, The Woman in White and the works of Bram Stoker. Or the grim exhilaration of Damia’s song, Pluie, as the singer contemplates the soaked and rotted garden that reflects her life. For these connoisseurs of tristesse, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier created Route du Vetiver. Maybe nowadays it is somewhat less dramatic, having perhaps frightened itself; but at its peak it was a wonderful wallow in vaults, cellars, crypts and abandoned Anderson shelters drawing its power from an extreme use of the earthy damp roots of vetiver grass that seemed to shake off soil and grit into the very bottle.

Image from wikimediacommons

Fish + Chips

Fish and Chips in Newspaper advert

A breezy June on the Suffolk coast is one of the intense and stimulating of scented experiences: even the most jaded and constipated of London brains open and expand under that huge empty airy sky reflected in a sea that is usually the colour of old pewter but shows up bands of sapphire, salmon pink, caramel, jade and lavender as the capricious and dramatic light leaps across the bay. Unlimited air and light seem to cleanse you from inside out, relaxing the mind, eyes and nose as they do the body: you are scrubbed, pummelled and hung out to dry like a line of laundry – it’s a fortnight of “washing the blues from my soul”, like Sophie Tucker used to sing.

Go and sit on the pier and have a plate of fish and chips. Its all been tarted up a bit and the newspaper wrappings may have been outlawed but the colour and the smell are still intact: and intensified by eating out of doors, 100 yards out into the North Sea. Snowy flakes of haddock, steaming hot in a great armour of crunchy crisp batter the colour of wet sand, are seasoned not only by salt and vinegar but by the scents of sea, shore and town. The scalding aggressive smell of a well-heated clean white plate and the acid bite of lemon; a glass of beer, full of cereals, barley and the almost-garlicky reek of hops; the faint fresh fishy whiff not from your meal but coming up through the slats beneath your feet.

I mean that heart of darkness right under the pier; that dangerous smelly place where grandmother always warned you never to go. “Never go behind a television set or under the pier!” A place where unwanted babies were conceived and unwary children swept away by the powerful undertow or crushed by falling timbers. A sordid al fresco lavatory where strange mutterers lurked and bladderwrack, dead fish and the occasional beached seal mulched into a nice rich compost for dogs to roll in. All sanitised and safe nowadays: families take their picnics under the shade of the green-slimed struts and the strongest smell is from the bacon fat tied to the lines of the crab fishers.

A dark smoky odour of tar from nets and boats (“don’t get it on your shoes!”) may still spice up your chips (never fried here in that beef dripping which invariably talks back) and adds a tang to the green-cardboard-smelling mushy peas. Sweet sun-tan lotion blends with ice cream, women’s perfume and the scent of roses which floats out from the town gardens: great big roses here, thriving on salty sea air and tough winters, smelling of China tea, the finest verbena soap and canned peaches. More sweetness oozes from popcorn; the “natural toiletries” and packets of pot pourri in the pier gift shops, as well as the odd rakish glass of Bailey’s with some daring tripper’s coffee.

The dry wood of the pier flooring; the Brasso on the rails and fittings; saltiness on lips and fingers from your plate, the sea, the air. Occasionally a school party screeches and scrambles along the boarding, clutching clip-boards and pens for some inane but high-spirited survey: the children give off an aura of hair and clothes that is not exactly dirty but could do with a wash, an airing,or a dip in the briny. Funny – babies and infants always smell good, but suddenly around school age all too often there’s a waft of the world, as though Adam and Eve have once more been herded out of Eden. Rather like a kitchen after a morning’s baking. Not in itself unpleasant, but a window really should be opened.

In this case, a window on the world: very cosmopolitan is the good Suffolk air, pouring in from Holland, the Baltic and Russia: a refreshing air bath for body and soul.

Image from adsoftheworld.com

60 Glorious Years!

Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation

Les Senteurs salutes Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee: 60 glorious years in the style of her great great grandmother Victoria, just the two of them having achieved this feat in the thousand years since the Conquest. Only the reigns of George III and Henry III come close: 10 years ago, Her Majesty said she thought she could give the latter a run for his money, and this she has done with elan. George III has been pipped by a matter of weeks. Long Live the Queen!

Let’s have a look at some suitably queenly scents for the occasion. Creed has been a supplier of couture and perfume to royalty for 250 years so we might start with Fleurs de Bulgarie, a blood-red Bulgarian rose fragrance based on a formula offered to Queen Victoria in the days when she was herself young, passionate and rosy. Madly in love with the beautiful Albert (who she noted wore nothing beneath his cashmere breeches) Victoria adored brilliant colours, jewels, musky perfumes and eye-popping dresses – once turning up on a State Visit to Paris in an outfit trimmed with geraniums and clutching a large bag crotcheted with a bold poodle motif. Fleurs de Bulgarie is magnificently opulent and intense; roses all the way blended with sandalwood, musk and ambergris. It sits like the Black Prince’s ruby in the Crown Imperial – glowing and exotic.

Creed owe a huge debt to Napoleon III’s Empress, the Spanish beauty Eugenie de Montijo, for their establishment in France in the 1850’s. With her abundant red-gold hair, quizzical butterfly eyebrows and huge violet eyes Eugenie followed in the steps of her idol Marie Antoinette by making Paris the fashion capital of the world. The couturier Worth was brought over from Lincoln to design the Empress’s vast crinolines; and as the Empire faded and the crinoline began to evolve into the bustle, Creed presented their prototype for what is now Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie – a sumptuous powdery oriental, with a palpitating heart of jasmine on a creamy base of iris,vanilla and musk. It has the gift of evoking the fabrics and style of the era – taffeta, velvet, organdie, bombazine, crepe, brocade, satin – and in the mind’s eye reflects their colour: violet, the newly invented magenta, snowy ermine and glossy black sables, the parure of imperial amethysts you can see today in the Louvre.

Still on the Creed shelf there’s Fleurissimo, that white and green hyper-floral which captures the frosted magnolia beauty of Princess Grace; and Millesime Imperial, launched in 1994 to celebrate 140 years of service by Creed to the Imperial Courts of Europe. Fleurissimo is one of those exquisitely thought-out fragrances which perfectly evokes the woman to whom it pays homage: cool, beautiful, elegant, a little reserved but magnificently sensuous. Spray a little and you see the likeness of Her Serene Highness shimmer before you.

The scents and creams of E.Coudray, all got up in pink, ivory and gilded packaging, make wonderful Jubilee gifts, either for oneself or for a dear one: this House has been in business since the 1820’s and once shipped toiletries and perfumes out to the Emperor of Brazil and the Tsars of Russia. Victoria, too, was a loyal client: what we tend to forget is that 120 years ago, this tiny old lady in black was the centre of the world – she was on the list of every tradesman on the planet, from Windsor to Kabul.

Grossmith of London made the sparkling floral Betrothal for the wedding of Victoria’s grandson, the future George V, to Princess May of Teck. May became Queen Mary, the lady who famously advised, “never miss an opportunity to use a lavatory”; and who was so intrigued by the harvest fields of Badminton during World War Two – “so, THIS is hay…!” A blonde Gemini subject, the sophisticated champagne floweriness of this gorgeous green scent was perfectly suited to the wearer. Detractors of Mary – and of Victoria – tend to forget they were both Geminians: interested in everything, intensely feminine, fascinated by the the realm of the senses. And of course also blessed with the concomitant shortcomings…

Now our own dear Queen is a stolid faithful Taurus, loyal and true. It would be vain and impudent to speculate on her choice of scent, but the Taurean generally avoids anything too heavy, too cloying or sweet and that seems to fit the Royal profile. Something lightly crisply floral I would imagine is her personal preference.

May she wear it in Good Health and Joy this Jubilee Year!

We remember Victoria’s superb reply to one of her many grandchildren (I think it was Princess Marie Louise) who said after the Diamond Jubilee drive to St Paul’s amid the cheering masses, “O! Grandmama! How proud you must feel!”

“No, dear child: very humble…”

I feel that our Queen would echo this.