My Longings for Ylang

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Ice cream weather, my mother used to call it. We often get it in September and October: fresh autumn nights followed by limpid blue days full of fruit-scented sunshine still strong enough to melt your bones and dissolve inner tensions but which goes off at tea-time to reveal the chill beneath. If you’re lucky, a sharp frost overnight: vanilla ice cream partially covered in hot chocolate sauce. The air feels soft and silky and the breeze laps around your arms and legs like warm water. “Languorous” begins to describe it, and it absolutely befits a perfume such as the divine ylang ylang.

Before I came into the perfume business I’d never heard this melodious word but the flower, yellow and etiolated like a starfish stranded in the arboreal canopy, has been around for a long time. Ylang ylang oil was first widely used in the West to fragrance macassar oil, that ubiquitous Victorian toiletry. Thick and unctuous, macassar purported to come from the Dutch East Indies and with hindsight is primarily associated with men’s grooming. It was smoothed onto capital and facial hair – mutton chop whiskers, Piccadilly weepers, Dundrearies and Imperial beards – to improve sheen, texture and condition. The nineteenth century male was as much preoccupied with his hair as are his modern descendants. the young Dickens, Tennyson and Swinburne all boasted magnificent manes. Disraeli’s dyed jet ringlets were as much of a trademark as his jewels and primrose boutonnieres, while the Prince Consort’s dark curls were soon replaced by a wig which Albert apparently wore for reasons of warmth rather than vanity. Now this macassar had the unfortunate effect of staining the backs of chairs and sofas on which the wearer sat; which demonstrates that young men evidently did not sit as straight as we are told their young ladies were taught to do. (My own great aunts Florence and Maud were brought up at Huddersfield with backboards and sprigs of holly pinned beneath the chin). So one of the most despised dainties of interior design was invented: the washable anti-macassar, to be draped protectively over the upholstery.

As a child I was fascinated by Mrs Edie Exley’s dreadful story: she’d been in service with her sister in the 1930’s . Lily and Edie took advantage of their employer’s temporary absence to have their boyfriends in, and one follower’s hair left dark ineradicable stains on an armchair. To take their minds off this catastrophe they all went off to watch Fred and Ginger on the films, but as Edie said 30 years later, “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” sounded only ominous and hollow , gloomily prescient of the appalling rows to come.

Ylang ylang’s heady scent – said to be an aphrodisiac and, like the sun, great for relieving tension and palpitations – lingered long in smart salons, permeated the furniture and covered up any olfactory imperfections within the macassar oil or in similar preparations based on bear or hog fat. How interesting that modern research indicates that ylang may well stimulate hair growth. The smell of ylang ylang has been likened to that of rubber, jasmine, banana and even custard – and indeed the plant turns out to be related to the custard apple tree, bearer of succulent fruits. I tend to the rubber metaphor – soft pink rubber – in the same way that Shalimar was once described to me as the Marigold glove perfume. Ylang ylang is also creamy, waxy, faintly gassy, clinging, addictive, mesmerising and – because it naturally goes good with vanilla – it also smells of top dollar ice cream.

Which brings me to my current rave, my pash: Caron’s My Ylang, a new perfume from an old House. It has all the excess and exuberance of vintage Caron with a new vitality and a lighter but just as bewitching base. The fresh upper notes of rose, muguet, cassis and mandarin put me in mind of the riotous singing florals of Arden’s uniquely ostentatious Red Door, a favourite of 20 years ago. My Ylang has the same amusingly showy quality, a fragrance that’s fun to wear, a scent with joie de vivre and coquettish abandon. It simmers down to a wonderful warm meringue of green vanilla orchid and musk, a classic coupe garnished with candied ylang ylang blossoms and whipped cream. Rush to table and served immediately.

Image: farm1.staticflickr.com

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