Lion’s Maid

Mekhmet

Don’t know about you but this recent heat has been all too much for me; far too much, desiccating Lemon Wedge to a piece of shrivelled if still sweet candied peel. Can’t sleep, can’t think clearly, pacing about like a mad dog. And why do I crave sugar (“Pure, White and Deadly”) during hot weather? Extra salt as we know is a sound precaution but why the sucrose? When many years ago I spent a boiling summer on the buses all my breaks were spent in the cool crypt cafe of St Martin-in-the-Fields eating iced Chelsea buns and drinking pots of scalding syrupy tea: it was all I could fancy and it pulled me through. Boosts your energy level, I suppose: I always remember H Rider Haggard recommending cold tea as the most refreshing drink in the world. Served hot it has a peculiarly attractive smell on a broiling day – maybe fighting like with like, in a homeopathic manner. The slightly bitter leaf infusion, the hot china or (even better) the metal of the pot: flip up the lid to inspect the brew and your face is steamed in fragrance. The body, heated up by the liquid, steps up its own cooling mechanism: that’s why it’s best to avoid cold baths which tell the good body that it’s in danger of becoming chilled and needs to turn up the inner thermostat.

The ancient Egyptians, baked on the banks of the Nile, personified the sun as a whole galaxy of deities each with different characteristics and properties. Sekhmet is my favourite: the Divine Lioness Lady who represents the destroying power of her father the sun, and who in that capacity also burns out disease and plague and incinerates the enemies of Pharoah. In one of those bewildering theological complexities of the Egyptians, Sekhmet also assumes the aspect of the goddess Hathor and has to be turned aside from murdering mankind by being made drunk on red barley beer, which she laps believing it to be human blood.

Yet her images and statues are lovely to look upon. In the British Museum (if you journey no further) there is a gallery of Sekhmets carved from black basalt, a beautiful female form with the head of a handsome and serene lioness. When I spent a week in Luxor I used to go up to the temple complex at Karnak most evenings (always smelling of dried herbs, woodsmoke, dried horse dung and a million cigarettes) and inspect the guardian lionesses there. Rather beyond the ruins spread a whole field of Sekhmets, lopsided and leaning among reeds and grasses: very picturesque but said to be blessed with their own guardians – nests of cobras ( Cleopatra’s holy asp) – so I kept my distance.

But I combed the bazaars and curio shops for my own image of the goddess who had taken my fancy and in the end I found one, about a foot high and made I suppose of painted plaster. Not expensive, and I took her back to the hotel ignominiously wrapped in old newspaper. But it’s a curious thing: that statue began to prey on my mind and over the next couple of days it began to assume the properties of a demon. Its face appeared to change from benevolently feline to malevolently diabolical and in the terrific Luxor heat (it was over 120) I persuaded myself that carrying it on the flight home would cause the plane to crash. Sekhmet had to be jettisoned. As perhaps you know, it is very difficult to lose things on purpose – they keep being returned by kindly people. (As I had once found with a redundant copy of Moby Dick in Tunis ). But in the end, once again swaddled in layers of old paper, She of The Chamber of Flames was successfully buried and abandoned beneath the cushions of a banquette in the hotel main lobby. Even then I worried that the outraged lioness might burn out the Luxor Imperial during the night. Of course, had the weather been cooler and I saner, I should have just smashed the thing on the bathroom floor and binned the pieces.

Heat has its own smell but it is very difficult to tell it from the appurtenances of heat: the cigarettes which taste toastier and nuttier, the panicky deodorant, the dry pavements, sticky tarmac. Panting dogs and ice cream vans reeking pleasantly of vegetable fat, frosted vanillin, saccharine and petrol; a stuffiness as though of a huge feather pillow over the face. Heat accentuates every odour – doesn’t cooking smell brazen in a hot spell? Aren’t barbecues aggressive? For me all sorts of perfume, liberally applied, go good in a heat wave. I have a pet theory that the heavier and more exotic the better: applying a blast of amber, incense, waterlily, ylang ylang or jasmine seems to return those oils to their native element and the extreme climates that bred them.  In the freakish British summer they once more bloom again in all their florid magnificence on the sticky air, turning heads in more ways than one. A bit like Marilyn – “She started this heat wave / By making her seat wave”. Go wild: the dog days are upon us.

Open to the navel: the Virgin Queen

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“She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson…lined with red taffeta. She kept the front of her dress open, and you could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of her dress with her hands, as if she were too hot…”

This is Elizabeth Tudor in her sixties, exposing her flushed yet withal “white and delicate” flesh like a pagan goddess to the French ambassador, de Maisse. Was the Queen’s stomach painted like her face with white lead and egg whites? Was this apparent revelation all a titillating illusion like Dietrich’s nude souffle stage dresses and Mme Recamier’s damped muslins and flesh-coloured tights? Other visitors to the English court in the 1590’s confirm this ritualised exhibitionism and, after a second audience, de Maisse writes of Elizabeth’s gown being plucked “open even to the navel”. It conjures the most bizarre image and what are we to make of these reports, so much at odds with the image of the Queen received from her portraits in old age? These show her in gowns which are low cut (as an unmarried woman she was entitled to a certain decolletage) but of decent and immense stiffness, bejewelled rigidity, built on corseted foundations of wood and iron. Sometimes she has a fresh rose pinned to her dress, a flower which seems frail, inappropriate and out of place amidst such geometric splendour as coruscating and hard as a Byzantine mosaic. The simplicity of the rose is almost perverse and unnatural by contrast.

Elizabeth’s portraits were intentionally stylised and her image defined and controlled by law. Therefore they can be taken at face value by neither the biographer nor the costume historian. I well remember that the designers for Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the early 1970’s – “I had to learn to breathe through my back” – found that certain apparel was impossible to reconstruct. The ruffs flopped, the airy jewelled butterfly collars and veils would and could not support themselves, the farthingales would not hang right. Tudor painters, it was concluded, had constructed on canvas what was impossible to create from fabric. Moreover for the sake of both comfort and economy rich Elizabethans (especially the women) spent a great deal of their time en neglige, informally dressed in the equivalent of dressing gowns and housecoats. The torturing discomfort of formal dress was only for portraits, visits to Court and other great occasions. There was a certain vogue for being painted in bed, or even the bath. Both Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More went to the scaffold in loose bedgowns whilst the awe aroused by the appearance of Marie Stuart at her execution was in part due to the magnificence and drama of her attire – “dressed as for a festival”.

Elizabeth defined her own appearance and became defined in turn by her clothes. As a teenager she had a black velvet gown cut to pieces on her body while her step-mother Katherine Parr held her and Parr’s husband wielded a dagger, the three of them torn between tears and laughter. This “romp” (in my day an amusing anecdote of children’s history books) is now most uncomfortable to read about and sounds horribly like the symbolic rape of a minor. And it has a pendant episode 50 years later in the spiritual ravishment of the aged Queen by the young Earl of Essex bursting unannounced into her bedroom to find her undressed and “her hair about her ears”. Unarmoured, unprepared: clothes made the woman, maybe even the monarch. Essex had found her out. She never forgave him, and maybe he too felt the betrayed resentment of a film-fan who meets his Star at last only to be horrified and disillusioned by the egregious wig, the Pawnee make-up, the tiny stature. Some of the nastiest talk I’ve ever heard has been among the “loyal fans” at stage doors. “Putting more make-up on, I suppose”; and, from a group of English ladies (all clones of their heroine) waiting to see Liz Taylor,”if she doesn’t sign for us we’ll kill her.”

And what did Essex tell his friends of Elizabeth. Words to the effect that “her mind is as crooked as her carcase”. He lost his head – in both senses – and two years later the Queen herself died. We are told that 300 gowns were found in her wardrobe and the new queen consort, the buxom blonde Anne of Denmark, chopped them all to pieces for masques and plays: the illusion of majesty feeding the fantasy of the stage. Art imitating life, and how.
Had the exhibitionism of Elizabeth been the reverse? A homage to the nudity of classical statues, to the celestial virgins Diana and Artemis upon whom she modelled herself? A depressed lonely and “intrinsically disordered” old woman’s fantasy of herself as Eve before the Fall: pure, fertile but undefiled? Or a sad and senile attempt at seduction?

What do we really know of our sartorial past? It has been suggested that the graceful folds shown in frescos of gauzy Egyptian draperies may be in fact a primitive artist’s attempt to show a crumpled creased bundle of coarse linen. For decades now it has become a lazy shorthand for 1920’s chic to stick a bandeau’d feather, Red Indian-style, on a girl’s head, a fashion that had by then long gone by as I heard from a woman who’d lived the period – “that was the 1912 look for Heaven’s sake”. (And she’d been in the Ziegfeld Follies, as a matter of fact: she knew whereof she spoke). I defy anyone to find me a contemporary picture of this “flapper” (sic) look. But there, it’s become a factoid, indestructible misinformation.

And we see something of the same in romantic histories of scent. There is much raving over the lost treasures of Cleopatra’s toilet under the waters off Alexandria. Of Mme de Pompadour’s bank of hyacinth perfumes; of Greek courtesans perfuming each limb with a different fragrance. Of Marie Antoinette betrayed in the act of escape by her luscious perfume. Speculative scents which have long evaporated, dried up and gone. From what we know of perfumes prior to the 1880’s I can’t imagine any of them actually amounted to much – clunky masses of expressed oils suspended in primitive alcohol spirits or animal fats with no structure, consistency or expansion. Elizabeth Tudor had a keen nose and maybe her preference for fresh herbs, roses and meadowsweet tells us something about the horrid perfumes of her time, all too often used to disguise a worse odour. The glamour of the wearers, burnished by the centuries, imbues their unknown scents with a spurious sheen. We must not rewrite the past (as my brother always says as funerals) but we may admit that it is an entirely unknown quantity…and quality.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Fanny Cradock: The pleasure of cooking is listening and looking…

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Much derided and mocked for years, Fanny Cradock continues to enjoy a certain notoriety: her spidery eyelashes and gash of a mouth have quite a following on YouTube. She has also garnered a grudging admiration. Rude, hectoring and often offensive Fanny certainly is; but her brash and breezy confidence is stimulating and there is something very appealing in the way she has evidently no fear of food and will stand for none from her audience as she barks out orders in that husky actressy voice.

Dated and repellent some of her recipes may be – the green fish, blue mashed potato and morsels of buttered stale cake dolled up (Daniel Farson’s phrase) to look like roses – but she bashes her materials around with bravura. There is none of the fear that is used as a weapon by many modern cookery exemplars: chefs justifying their status by stressing the perils of cuisine. Beating up her liberal requirements of cream, eggs and butter – “softened – which I hope this is…” – you cannot imagine Fanny having truck with allergies, eating disorders or diets.

Watching these ancient morsels of film (many of them recorded “live”) you can sometimes detect signs of an inner tension but this is more, I think, a surge of adrenalin, a determination to beat the clock, the rage of a winner than any doubt of her talent. Sometimes, as with Julia Child, you suspect she’s had a couple before going on, but it’s more probable she is only high on her own personality and sense of style. A rich sillage of Femme, Miss Dior, Joy – not to mention Elnett hair spray – is almost visibly coming off her in waves as she vigorously beats her roux – “think about that woman next door who you’ve never really liked…”.

Like Mildred Pierce, Fanny Cradock puts her pies in the oven by the clock, and takes them out by the clock. What cake would defy her? I don’t think she had much actual liking for food: she seems herself to have eaten for necessity rather than pleasure. Food she dished up as a status symbol: as she once explained, she liked to have it do her Regency dining room justice. I have done a certain amount of cooking all my life, privately and professionally and like Fanny I like to have a tip up my sleeve if ever asked for advice – something to say if the cameras ever come round.

And here it is for what it’s worth. When you cook, use all your senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing all count as much as taste. Any or all five will let you know when a dish is ready for table. Listen for the cake whistle like a dying lobster as it rises; and hear the roll of the water as it boils. Watch for the pasta and fish become opaque, the onions transparent and the cabbage change from churlish green to a lime emerald like dry seaweed returned to ocean; or the mushrooms become slippery black like black pearls. Feel the cream, choux pastry or scrambled egg thicken under your touch; or judge the heat of the oven with your hand to size it up for slow-cook meringues, lightning souffles and medium roasts. Ice cold hands do not merely indicate a warm heart. They also raise the best pastry.

One might say the sense of smell was invented by the Good Lord primarily to keep us away from danger. However complex and elusive some of us may find perfume, nearly everyone is quick to smell burning, smoke, gas, rotten eggs or that piece of meat that’s been too long at the back of the fridge. But learn to develop the nose in a more positive way – can you smell when a jacket potato is baked or a fowl is roasted without opening the oven door? All it takes is a little practice and observation; as with choosing a fragrance, just relax and be guided by instinct. Meanwhile, at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, officially voted finest restaurant in the world, you may delight your senses with an edible interpretation of Guerlain’s Shalimar – blood orange, roses, vanilla, mango and cream. A charming nod to the days when colognes were taken internally and the prevalence of the belief that what smells good must do you good. Bouffe bien!”

A Gentle Glow

Camille Clifford

There’s been more sales of these endless pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers lately. Can her dimensions really have been so vast, even grotesque? From her underclothes her bust has been reckoned in old age at 66″ inches which means it was considerably greater than her height. Her waist comes in at 50″; I don’t know whether this is with the drawstring of her panties drawn tight or left slack. Her own doctor wrote that she was not a pretty sight undressed – barrel-like – but it seems a terrible thing, even now, to parade all this to her shame in tabloids and on websites. However it must be said that Victoria was more robust about the human form and its functions than is popularly thought, writing admiringly as a young woman of the magnificence of Albert in his cashmere breeches “with nothing underneath”. And the strangest thing is, that her youngest daughter Beatrice who prepared her mother’s journals for posthumous publication after the most stringent bowdlerisation let this particular passage stand.

Of course, the dimensions of these voluminous underclothes of the past had a secondary purpose. Up until the 1920’s any decent woman of any class was rigidly corseted in stays. These were tightly laced over chemises cut very generously to protect the skin from chafing by buckram and whalebone, and also to soak up the abundant perspiration concomitant on all this restriction and compression of the flesh. My Victorian grandmother and her contemporaries used to hold forth on the unending efforts of their youth to keep clean: the home-made borax deodorants, the sewn-in underarm sweat pads, the dust braid tacked on to skirt hems, the endless brushing and laundering of petticoats. Anyone wishing for a very full and frank evocation of domestic middle class hygiene in the 1890’s should study the Lizzie Borden murder case: the fly -blown mutton soup served up five days running in a Fall River heat wave; the unmentionables soaking in buckets in the scullery.

In my department store days I used to work with a little lady who kept her black uniform in her locker and change into her own clothes to go home. She said that uniform had never been washed in over 20 years – “it doesn’t require it”. In her wonderful novel “The Women In Black” Madeleine St John pin points the quintessential store sartorial smell of talcum powder and sweat; to which I would add the odour of old  perfume embedded in repetitively dry-cleaned fabric. None of this is exactly unpleasant: fresh sweat in itself is not offensive, the problems set in as it ages and reacts with bacteria. And even that niff has its fans: we all know the story of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine to the effect that he is starting home from Italy and inviting her not to wash. Which must have been a peculiar ordeal for Josephine, one of the cleanest individuals in history, always in the bath, washing her hair (a new fashion) and changing her lingerie four times daily.

More of us that might care to admit are aroused by apparently offensive smells. A fascinating note in the Telegraph last month revealed that my favourite hawthorn blossom emits the scent of sex and secretes triethylamine besides, a chemical also produced by decaying human corpses. For millenia, perfumers used matter from the digestive and reproductive systems of animals to add tenacity and punch to their products. And this summer there is a chic new fad of not washing overmuch, of cultivating a piquant tang of bouquet de corsage; maybe to show in this time of recession and fear that one is with the people, that “we’re all in this together” as someone said. No time to bathe, no time to launder: there’s a big job to do, though no one is sure quite what it might be. It’s reminiscent of French duchesses during the Revolution having greasy red caps of Liberty incorporated into their powdered coiffures, and perhaps this summer’s damp coolth has given the bon-ton the courage to join this grubby trend. It’s certainly delightfully apparent on the light luncheon and dinner-dance circuit.

But if you haven’t quite the nerve to go out without a preliminary dab wash and application of Sure you can fake it much more happily with perfume on immaculately clean skin. There are fresh crisp scents straight out the shower scents, quite devoid of erotic appeal; and then there are the sexy voluptuous fragrances with just a hint of smuts, of unbuttoned come-hither negligence. Perfumes that smell within half an hour or so as though you’ve worn them all day while living life to the full. Rich dark orientals that have moistened under a hot sun; petal-dropping waxy white florals with a musky worm i’ the bud; earthy chypres with a hint of luscious fruit on the edge of rot. Charogne by Etat Libre d’Orange takes this idea to the limit; Editions des Parfums Musc Ravageur is a legend of the genre. But do try also Kilian‘s best-sellers Good Girl Gone Bad – the clue’s in the title – and In The City of Sin. Good Girl is a stupendous white bouquet of jasmine, osmanthus, tuberose and narcissus which suddenly plunges into a honey trap of woody amber. City of Sin has a delicate creamy spiciness that reminds me of those large and now rare white pinks, a scent that recently wafted from a garden, stopped me dead in my tracks in the lane. Recently our dear friend the perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek gave a masterclass in up-to-the-minute ingredients at Les Senteurs and put a name to so many of the smells we recognise but cannot always identify. It was the amber variant, tresamber, which hit the nail for me. I seem to detect its magic in both of these Kilian show-stoppers. It’s right down there at the sultry base beneath the warm, soft slightly fruity odour which I visualise as the colour of the Duchess of Malfi’s apricots (the fruits of City of Sin, mixed with rose and plum). A dusky gold, ripened in sun and humus on the walls of a stable. Sweetish, faintly fleshy, definitely animalic, disturbing in the best sense and very very sexy.

Cake or Pastry?

From ilovemuffins.es

“If the people have no bread then let them eat cake”. How that apocryphal royal recommendation dominated my childhood. My grandmother thought that Marie Antoinette had come out with it completely straight-faced, dumb blonde style: a Rococo Marilyn Monroe trying to be helpful. The diminutive droll, Charlie Drake (big on ’60’s tv), took it up as his catchphrase, even making a little song of it, as perhaps my older readers may remember. How mad was that? We know the Queen never actually said it, yet – strange but true – Marie Antoinette’s nutty advice now has a new resonance: if you look at the supermarket shelves you’ll see that cake is often the cheaper these days. Slabs of Battenberg, railway fruit loaf, angel cake and boxes of garish fondants come in at well under the price of a large sliced loaf.

Now why? Cake has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. It once used to be rather common, a dish to treat servants and the lower middle classes, eschewed by ladies and served stale to children when some of the richness was thought to have burned off (as calories are said to fall out of broken biscuits). Regency slang for “daft”, it later became the Mitford nickname for the late Queen Mother, apparently on account of that great lady’s enthusiasm for wedding cake. Rasputin’s assassins tried to poison him with tiny cream cakes, playing on greed like that of a mad dog. Today cake is the order of the day: cook books, tv shows, coffee shops all breast the recession with the cult of cooking – and more importantly, eating – Cake.

Cake is comforting and it satisfies with fats and sucrose; I have a sweet tooth myself but the modern store-boughten gateau is often quite overpoweringly inedibly sweet. Is this an act of infantilised defiance in an austerity society where health and health-foods are constantly preached? Baking is  a miniature act of creation and much emphasis is placed on the “look”; often there seems more emphasis on the filling, icing, colour and decoration than on the cake itself.  All the goods in the shop-window, as it were. One might theoretically get just as much of a kick (and more nutrition) from bread-making, but this is a less showy art. One cook I spoke to thinks we’re seeing a deeply guilty pleasure dressed up and disguised as an art form: animal greed masked by deft decoration. A sociologist might regard the phenonemon as ritualised obsessive self-loathing; compulsive baking, prettifying and eating of something which does the body no good and which can only lead to the most despised and dreaded affliction of the neurotic Western world: weight gain. Hence the obsession with “soggy bottoms” I guess.

It’s hardly coincidental that gourmand perfumes are booming again: ice creams, fruits, citrus coupes and above all patisserie. This is a trend in scent that goes right back to that black cherry and almond mood at the back of L’Heure Bleue a century ago, and the Guerlains’ love of vanilla. Sometimes the foodie note appears almost accidentally, not evident to every nose: I’m thinking for instance of the smell of lemon drizzle cake in Songes, Goutal’s cornucopia of tropical flowers. Or the ginger biscuits at the heart of Love in Black, the powdered icing sugar of Teint de Neige, the candied pineapple in Une Crime Exotique. Cakey perfumes which appear comforting and innocent are by definition deeply sexy in intention: the wearer is proposing herself as a dainty dish to devour, despoiled and wolfed down with the fragile raspberry meringue of Brulure de Rose or the dripping melted butter (so sticky and tactile) of Jeux de Peau. And gourmand scents are increasingly accessible to men; the feral tiger’s tea in Fougere Bengale, the sacrasol and Flemish pastries of the latest Malle, Dries Van Noten, and the smoky toffee bonfire of Aomassai. All reminiscent of that ultimate compliment paid to a bonny baby,”I could eat him!”

Talk about having your cake and eating it…No danger of piling on the pounds with these, just the teasing of the senses and the flirting with naughty urges promoted by that close relationship between memory, nose and tongue.  Some gourmand fanciers even claim that these fragrances satisfy forbidden appetites; others find they stimulate the desire for sugar melting on the lips, and not only vicariously on the skin. Maybe the scents are more fully satisfying than the cakes: they certainly last longer and leave nothing on the hips. All in the mind: and this where we came in – a fantasy world of cakie-baking, as at Marie Antoinette’s toy hamlet at Trianon. Playing at shepherdess and poultrymaid in couture gauze; patting out cheeses and butter in a Sevres china dairy. All the beguiling accoutrements and a great appearance of productive activity but finally just a delicious illusion.”

Picture from: ilovemuffins.es