Tell them about the honey, Mummy

Noon,_rest_from_work_-_Van_Gogh

I did not glean all my experience of the magic of honey from its great late prophetess Barbara Cartland but I was always fortified and entranced by her views. She wrote of perfectly preserved honey found included in ancient Egyptian burials and painted the rooms of her own house pink and turquoise inspired by the lapiz and terracotta of the tombs, which colours she believed promoted eternal youth and vigour.

Honey is instant nursery nostalgia, a reward for good behaviour; a healthy food that is also delectable – sticky fingers, buttered soldiers, a lost Golden Age: “and is there honey still for tea?” Those old-fashioned jolly teas where a super-abundance of sucrose, caffeine and spices which had the eaters drunk and reeling on food. Like vanilla honey offers comfort and reassurance. Honey is toddling around the garden in infancy, talking to the bees and imagining a riot of colour and floral glory realised on the Sissinghurst scale from a single packet of gaudily packaged Woolworth seeds: and I’m still pottering and fantasising like this, pushing sixty. Honey’s the food of the old pagan gods, healing and nutritious, promising health and immortality – a land flowing with milk and honey. St John the Baptist lived on it in the wilderness; the carcass of Samson’s lion became a bees’ nest. Just like perfume, honey is a talisman, handily bottled and perfectly portable; magically symbolic and still eminently practical.

Honey is the product of a society akin to ours: the teeming world of the hive with its hierarchy and queen, its drones and workers. Napoleon took the bee, like the violet, as his imperial symbol: intended as emblems of industry and diligence the golden bees were depicted by cynics as his rapacious family swarming on the thrones and riches of Europe. Sceptics pointed out that reversing the old royalist fleur de lys on carpets and fabrics made a rough and ready stylised bee without undue expense.

Why have the flowers in a fragrance without the nectar? Beeswax and honey both add a depth and a pungent back note to perfume; old perfumers used honey to add sweetness to simple flower waters. Mixed with hay, beeswax contributes to the characteristic musky woody leatheriness at the base of such Caron classics as N’Aimez Que Moi where it warms and illuminates the fragrance. Lutens’ Miel de Bois manifests in a grassy greeny tobacco-like haze which reminds me of an old admiral I once knew whose pipe smelled like a carpet of spring flowers on the Greek islands. And then there’s Vohina, the Huitieme Art fragrance which sounds like a bee-queen Roman deity, maybe the sister of Melissa the honey-goddess.

Vohina is peach blossom, lavender honey and hay. The intense pink and mauve sugariness of the flowers and the crisp but cloying wax comb melt in aching sweetness on the tongue as well as in the nose before deepening into the aromatic depths of viscous honey from an sleepy August harvest field of summer herbs and grasses. The rosy gold of juicy fruit flesh alternates with the crushed stalks of lavender and the musty heady grainy odour of pollen and unrefined honey, still full of the natural detritus of the bee colony. It is this contrast of the hot stifling organic claustrophobia of the hive with pristine peachiness and the faint sweatiness of lavender oil which makes Vohina so mesmerising. Rather than pinned to a pyramid structure of notes, Vohina revolves in a kaleidoscope, like sun-dazzled eyes, flashing its different facets in dizzy rotation and exuding the scents of a rural heatwave. Too hot to sleep, lying the hay in a midday stupor, sense overwhelmed by sensuality.

Image from Wikimedia commons

A Study in Scarlet

popeleo

If you key “images Cardinal” into your search engine you will be visually bombarded by a beautiful barrage of scarlet, vermilion and crimson good enough to print, cut out and keep. Interestingly, pictures of cute American birds materialise first, seguing into a surreal juxtaposition of images avian and clerical. It’s the venerable Princes of the Church that intrigue me more: that magnificent title which combines the temporal and spiritual and which evokes the promise of a world of immense exoticism and arcane power. Also, being synaesthetic, I find just pronouncing the word of power is both satisfying and fun – “cardinal” conjures up a great blood red splash of rustling crackling coruscating satin and silk.

Wonderful names, too: the historic Cardinals Fleury (a great lover of cats); and Mazarin, the uncle – or maybe father – of the beautiful “Mazarinettes” who so entranced the young Sun King. Was Mazarin the lover of Louis XIV’s mother, as once widely rumoured? We remember Cardinal Richelieu, familiar to readers of “The Three Musketeers”; Cardinal Spellman, intimate of the Kennedy’s; and Cardinal Rohan who longed for the favour of Marie Antoinette and precipitated the Diamond Necklace Scandal which did so much to undermine the French monarchy and hasten the Revolution. Rohan’s arrest in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles while robed incarnadine for Mass, is one of the great images of eighteenth century France. The saintly English prelates Newman (author of the so-called Fragrance Prayer) and Manning altered the face of the Victorian Church; Thomas Barham set the Cardinal Archbishop to rhyme in The Jackdaw of Rheims; while in our own time we have seen the media resound to the evocative and beguiling names of their eminences Biffi, Casserole, Martini and Sin.

Coming from Leicester I grew up with the story of Cardinal Wolsey’s demise in that fair city – “Father Abbot I come to lay my bones among you”. He died here providentially and peacefully before he could reach London and a hanging trial for treason. (A butcher’s son from Ipswich he had set himself up as richer and mightier than the King, and was once said to have infected Henry VIII with syphilis by whispering in his ear). He lies in what is now Abbey Park in the shadow of the old knitwear factory, the Wolsey Works, from which he still stares forth, portrayed on a magnificent plaque. His scarlet biretta’d head looks over the roofs towards his tombstone among the old abbey ruins, the ducks and boating lake. When I was 8 or 9 he was my favourite figure in games of “dressing up” – simple enough to do in an old red dressing gown and hat cut down from a fez. I carried in my hands (gloved and bejewelled) an orange stuck with cloves which my mother assured me was the very essence of the man.

Today I should recommend a bottle of Heeley’s fragrance Cardinal to complete the picture. Many perfumers have experimented with incense, but James Heeley subtly portrays the man enveloped in the fragrance, a warm breathing human presence in red soutane and blue smoke, rather than an impersonal and impassive cathedral interior. So Cardinal is fresh and warm, rather than redolent of candles, woodwork and venerable cold stone. Cardinal has the delicacy and crispness of rochet lace and fine clean linen, pristine watered silk and taffeta scented with fumes of finest frankincense. Aldehydes and orange exult and exalt in the top notes, surging into woody, spicy resinous folds. Cardinal is the odour of sanctity, suave and uplifting: but, suitably for the 21st century, it welcomes women into the Church too, and the accent is on youthful fervour and exuberance rather than sombre venerability.

Image from famous-artists.net

“Every flower her son / And every tree her daughter”

Waterhouse Gathering Almond Blossoms

“The horrid news upset us dreadfully.” This is Queen Victoria writing to her eldest daughter, having been told by the happy teenage Princess of her first pregnancy. The Queen goes on to forbid the expectant mother to pass on this “disgusting” news to her siblings. A curious reaction from the Mother of her Peoples if you are not familiar with Victoria’s hyper-complex and fascinating personality; she had a horror of pregnancy, babies (“terrible frog-like action”) and infants (“children both very well but poor little Louise very ugly”) but like many reluctant mothers later made a devoted, relaxed and sympathetic grandmother.

This coming Sunday (the 4th in Lent) we celebrate Mothering Sunday which in recent years has become wrongly but inextricably confused and amalgamated with the American institution of Mother’s Day. Mothering Sunday is a medieval concept which celebrated the Mother Church and gave rise to the tradition of allowing servants a day off to visit their mother parishes and their own parents. Maids took with them a yellow Simnel cake, surreptitiously baked in their employers’ ovens, which in its turn became absorbed into the regalia of Easter confectionery.

The classic ingredient of Simnel cake is ground almond, marzipan paste. Almonds (incidentally, do you say AH-mond or ALL-mond?) appeared in Europe over two millenia ago, imported by Greek travellers from Asia. With its delicate pink and white blossoms, green velvety nut shells and delicious fruit the almond tree became a symbol of longevity, prosperity, fertility and hope: hence the gift of gilded or sugared almonds as wedding favours. A propos longevity, one of my great aunts lived very well on a diet of sweet almonds, cream horns and cigarettes to the age of 90.

Thanks to early Christian wordplay on the mention of almonds in the Old Testament the fruit became a symbol of the purity of the Virgin Mary, and hence of ideal motherhood. The Italian word for almond – “mandorla” – gave its name to the aura of Divine Light that surrounds holy figures in iconic art. You do see don’t you, how a little learning is guiding you towards a unique intellectual olfactory treat to offer on March 10th?

Consider L’Amandiere and Tonkamande, two beautiful perfumes which play with an almond theme and content. James Heeley’s L’Amandiere is all spring delicacy and colour – pale washed blue sky, sun-warmed fresh air, jade-green and silver buds, bluebells like shattered lapis and translucent glowing almond blossom. Innocent but not naïve; floral without being flowery. Tonkamande is more calculatedly exotic: sweet and aldehydic it liquifies into a milky, toasty sweet almond elixir that lightly touches on a patisserie theme but avoids gross gourmanderie. A waft from the almond trees, a hint from the oven. Purity, bounty, abundance, generosity, nourishment: how perfectly apt for a maternal offering!”

Image from jwwaterhouse.com