Lavender’s Blue

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Lavender is one of the first benevolent plants we meet as tiny children. It’s non-poisonous, tough, grows more or less like a weed and smells delicious. Most gardens and patios have a bush somewhere. Lavender is one of the relatively floral smells we all know from infancy. It thrives on dry poor soil and is cheap, or used to be. This year however it was going for £10 a pot at the local hardware store on Mothering Sunday which I thought a bit saucy. You can dry it and make sachets or pot pourris to scent the laundry and deter the moth, at least up to a point. I lost some of my faith in that last quality when a favourite cardigan embalmed in lavender was completely devoured by moths, the worst damage being in the region of the pockets which I’d packed with the stuff.

I love lavender and resent the way it is too much associated with faded maiden ladies, an image perpetuated even in the 21st century by the eponymous Maggie Smith/ Judi Dench movie. Miss Marple uses lavender water for high days and holidays; and then there’s that maudlin Gracie Fields song about the Little Old Lady Passing By – “in your lavender and lace”. It’s an English tic, this: the French, Italian and Dutch see lavender as virile and energising, clean and uplifting, healing and calming. They take the aromatherapeutic view, I suppose inherited from the old Romans who loved the stuff and gave it its name, deriving from “lavare” – to wash. They cleansed their bodies with the fragrant healing oil which is yielded by every part of this ancient plant, and laid up their heavy woollen togas in the dried flowers. It was probably Roman colonists who brought the herb to Britain, two thousand years ago.

I grow lavender: the common or garden type, and that fancy variety which looks like lilac bumble bees. And I wear it. My old favourite was Jean Patou’s long discontinued Moment Supreme: purple prose in perfume! Vast amounts of lavender suspended in sweet vanilla and tonka like a medieval flan for an Emperor’s feast. At Les Senteurs we have three especial crackers: Lorenzo Villoresi’s dark, intense, austerely beautiful Wild Lavender which smells like great bunches freshly culled from a wet garden. Caron’s immortal Pour Un Homme, one of France’s perennial bestsellers since 1934, blends lavender oils with a dash of rose absolue and a lingering melting base of tonka and vanilla. It is as soft and relaxed as a lilac cashmere sweater: although it earned its place in perfume history as the first fragrance specifically branded for men, it also works deliciously on a woman’s skin. The jury is out as to whether lavender can be sexy – and I think it is! – but it is certainly (as Tynan wrote of Dietrich) without gender. I rest my case.

And then there’s Andy Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin.pa This is my current summer favourite, my passion. Andy uses Alpine lavender grown high on the slopes which imbues it with a wonderfully cool, slightly mentholated tang – “cool as a mountain stream”. The dry woody fragrance of lavender is accentuated and exoticised with orris, frankincense and cedar; the sweetness increased with rose and vanilla. There is a glorious generous freshness and a slight juicy fruitiness withal; Reverie Au Jardin is as far as you can get from drawer liners and the old Bazaar & Rummage image. It’s lush, expansive, intricate and as beautiful as a Mediterranean dawn.
Use lavishly.

Spanish Carnations: Vive el Rey!

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It is sad to see the old King of Spain putting aside his crown. When he came to the throne in the 1970’s after Franco’s unspeakably protracted end Juan Carlos was a great golden figure of traditional Bourbon glamour and vigour. The elegant & charming Queen Sofia was said to Hoover her own palaces and there were two pretty neo-Velasquez Infantas plus the little Infant Felipe for the picture papers to delight in: a perfect “Hola!” family to lead Spain out of the long shadows of the Civil War. My friend Dona Pilar who sold newspapers down our road had grown up in a country where women were forbidden to wear trousers nor any garment in red or yellow – the national colours. Do you remember, old books on colour symbolism used to say grimly “in Spain the public executioner is arrayed in yellow”?

And now all this has ended in the anti-climax of abdication and the dreariness of scandal. But the Spanish royals have never had much luck. Maybe Louis XIV’s pushing his grandson onto the throne in 1700 drew down a native curse on the Bourbon intruders. There followed feeble-minded monarchs who never got out of bed, were caricatured by Goya, chased out by Napoleon and subjected to anarchist outrages. An Infanta sent to Versailles as the fiancee of Louis XV was eventually humiliatingly returned to Madrid, labelled ‘Not Wanted’. The beautiful blonde Queen Ena, an English princess and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, had her wedding dress spattered with blood as a result of a terrorist bomb, an augury of a disastrous marriage.

What, I wonder, do we have in the shop as an olfactory ave atque vale to King Juan Carlos and to the new Felipe VI? Carnations are the national flower of Spain; crimson, pink and snowy flowers pulsating with that hypnotic creamy musky clove scent which electrifies you when encountered in a garden. A red carnation, say Spaniards, is the symbol of hopeless passion, erotic despair.

Ironically none of the perfumes at Les Senteurs use Spanish carnation oil but let that pass: the scent, if not the poetic conception, is similar; and (perceptible) carnation of any species is not common in modern perfumery. Caron’s Piu Bellodgia is a graceful reworking of their immortal Bellodgia first launched in 1927: a lighter, drier accord; powdery like petals. Myself, I think I may even prefer it to the great original. Creed’s Acqua Fiorentina is a decadently lush corncupia of white carnations atop velvety greengages and bursting plums; while Une Fleur de Cassie from Editions de Parfum uses the flowers to enrich an already hedonistic extravaganza of mimosa, acasias, apricots and jasmine.

But for a truly Hispanic experience, the full monty with castanets, fans, guitars mantillas and peinetas, try the Cuban pastiche of Molinard’s Habanita. This is perfumery’s legendary take on the Carmen/ Dietrich sluttish cigarette girl fantasy; you know, the one that has tobacco workers rolling cigars on their thighs; the story that inflamed the House of Molinard in 1921 when smokes were the sexiest smells in scent in the wake of Caron’s barnstorming Tabac Blond. Florid, smoky and dark as the Havana night, Habanita is spangled with stars of orange blossom, jasmine and lilac in a thicket of leather, benzoin, amber,oakmoss, vetiver and cedar with florid flashes of raspberry and peach.
It’s oily, earthy, seductive and as penetrating as a Toledo steel estoque.

Ole! We salute His Most Christian Majesty, King Felipe, as he takes the throne on June 19th.

How Are Your Roses?

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Early summer slips like your fingers like running water: you stretch out your hands to grab all the loveliness, the flowers and the blossom, but Time gallops on remorselessly. The laburnum, the may, iris, lilac, bluebells and lupins wither and perish at a heartbreaking rate beneath his scythed chariot wheels, like a speeded-up David Attenborough feature. May and June really are the months when you must force yourself to stop, stare and smell before Nature devours herself. My blue bearded iris have lasted barely a fortnight but their scent is more delicious than ever in its brevity, seeming to have something of a rich golden dessert wine in its translucent, powdery depths. At dusk, as the bats flit overhead, half dozen plants scent the entire garden.

This year I’ve fought a hard battle with the aphids: I think the long dry spell in March and April encouraged them. Myriads made desperate incursions into my herbaceous border so that I lost precious early flowerings; my tight green rose buds were caked with them. Proprietary bug killer discouraged the creatures but it also scorched plant leaves. Some experts recommend the slow and messy process of scraping the aphids off by hand in a squashed pulp; the trouble is you always miss a colony or two. You can be strictly organic and collect ladybirds and introduce them to their favourite food; but even Our Lady’s Little Beasts (as the Dutch call them ) have limited appetites.

Then a French cousin in Aquitaine sent me a tip which I pass on to you: it seems to work. You mix up a mixture of water, soap and olive oil; add a few cloves of garlic, leave to macerate and then spray onto the infected areas. The oil allows the mixture to adhere to the plants even after rain. The aphids quietly suffocate. The plant is unharmed. The only thing is, do not spray downwind on a breezy day – as I did. You will find yourself pungently and aromatically garlic-scented.

Ironic though that one of the most beautiful roses I’ve seen this year is on a patch of cinders in our local Tesco car park. Obviously a relic of an ancient lost garden, this tough old plant is untended, unloved but blooms in a fumey dusty desert like an Old Testament prophecy. No aphids there. This yellow rose of Tesco smells cool, rich and redolent of the finest tea. I attach a snapshot: judge for yourselves.

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How appropriate that the auctioning off a long-forgotten Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting should be scheduled this month. It has a wonderful name: ‘The Triple Rose’ ( good name for a perfume, by the way). Expected to fetch upwards of a million pounds, this is a study of three flame-haired sisters draped in red & entwined before a rose hedge. Their mouths – those unmistakable carved Rosetti lips – are like pouting buds about to burst into full erotic bloom. If I were to choose a perfume to complement this gorgeous panel I’d go for Papillon’s Tobacco Rose to be unveiled exclusively at Les Senteurs this June. The creation of the astonishing Elizabeth Moores, Tobacco Rose has all the sultry overblown quality of a Rosetti, the sultry sensuality and the hypnotic intensity. Beeswax, hay and amber cast a spicy veil over blended rose oils while superb oakmoss works its own arcane dusky magic. Pervasive, bewitching and all-encompassing, Tobacco Rose unfurls its petals to reveal a heart of darkness.

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