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.
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