Autumn Leaves

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Following that earlier walk down the autumn garden path, here are 10 super scents to gladden your hearts on crisp frosty mornings and gloomy damp evenings. Scents with uplift, comfort and a whole heap of style; perfumes that make a nod to the season but are not governed by it. Nor is this selection made with any reference to gender. All of the following fragrances are great for both men and women, though some seem angled somewhat by their names; and one or two may work better on those of riper years. But that’s something I’d love you readers to comment on: so please, as ever, do write in. Meanwhile: enjoy, taste and try:

1. Vetiver Fatal by Atelier Cologne

B9-VF 200ml Packshot

Vetiver grass has been used in perfumery for millennia: it has a rather rough male reputation but women love the scent so here’s a perfume to suit everyone: sophisticated, easy-going, clean but with a touch of winter comfort. Oud emphasises vetiver’s greenery; cedar and violet leaf bring out the earthiness. Effortlessly charming.

2. Monsieur by Huitieme Art

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Rocks, streams, stones, trees – the forests of the Auvergne or Wordsworth’s Lakes. Aromatic and woody – full of patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, poplar, dry papyrus and smoky incense. All the invigorating freshness of cool damp forest air but also comforting, warm and perfectly poised.

3. Bois Du Portugal by Creed

Bois du Portugal flacon75ml + etui

An old personal favourite which never palls: an unjustly forgotten Creed scent but still one of the best. Like sinking into a huge green velvet armchair inhaling lavender, mosses, bark, scented woods and memories of hot summer suns.

4. Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

MFK-OUD cashemere mood WEB

I adore the loudness, the flamboyance and blatancy of oud. This cracker is wildly animalic, faintly rude, always animalic with sweet oils of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. A fabulous contrast to the delicate cashmere fibres of Musc Ravageur – see below.

5. Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

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This is a beautifully dressed continental gentleman wearing soft supple tweeds and the finest, lightest cashmere scarf smelling subtly and deliciously of lavender, bitter orange, spices, woods….and clouds of warm sexy musks.

6. Tobacco Rose by Papillon

Tobacco Rose

The last rose of summer; the one still blooming in the sere garden on Christmas Day. Deep, dark, pourri’d and arousing; full of wonderful non-floral notes such as aromatic beeswax, musk, ambergris as well as the lushness of spicy Bulgarian rose oil.

7. Intoxicated By Kilian

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To give you courage on dark cold wet mornings; to stimulate you at night. A gorgeous warm spicy coffee fragrance laced with rose, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom. Exciting, addictive, satisfying. Can’t live without it.

8. Vanille by Mona di Orio

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Beautiful fantasies of the South Seas and the Caribbean: a spangled veil thrown across the sky to catch diamond stars. Natural oil of vanilla laced with leather, gaiac wood, vetiver and a hint of rum. A landmark vanilla fragrance: exotic, never ersatz; modest but unconsciously overwhelming

9. Gardenia Sotto La Luna by Andy Tauer

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Tropical splendour from your own hot houses, brought to table with the forced peaches and melons. A boutonniere or bouquet for the winter balls and galas: massed creamy gardenias & white roses with incredible depth and almost vegetal richness. For me, currently Best in Show at Les Senteurs.

10. Sienne L’Hiver by Eau d’Italie

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The city of Siena in dead of winter: stone cold without, sumptuously heated and indulgent within. This little-known fragrance plays with colours, recreating the rich earthy tones of Siena’s architecture with truffle, frankincense, golden hay, labdanum, violet and geranium. A classic jewel!

Autumn: In Your Garden

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Autumn is full of excitement. This morning I was setting spring bulbs again and unearthed a huge mother toad in her burrow under the peony. (The peony that let me down, last summer: maybe the plant does not like the toad). The toad was pale yellow and fast asleep until I so rudely awoke her: she blinked at me like an old pug. I tucked her up again under the warm damp soil and leaves; and planted the Queen of the Night tulips in another spot. No wonder people used to think toads such witchy creatures. She was in exactly the same place twelve months ago: it must be her favourite nest and I shall not disturb her a third time. The whole garden has an invigorating fertile humus smell in this limpid late sun: there’s still the green bitter caper-tang of late-flowering self-seeded nasturtiums, pruned lavender and transplanted herbs in my new Medea patch. Especially fragrant is the delicious helichrsyum (“spirals of gold”) – the silver-leaved curry plant which to me smells more like bacon mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next year I shall plant it among the tomatoes for an explosion of savoury scent. What must surely be the last rose of 2014 is in fat pink bud beneath the wall.

Because round here we all shop at Wilkinsons the same horticultural novelties from that store tend to appear in all the local gardens. This autumn many of us have had a go at growing black sunflowers. Not actually black at all, these beauties are multicoloured in deep violet and bronze, copper and gold with leaves that look as though covered in dark verdigris. They glow in the sunlight and have a unexpected and delicious fragrance, reminiscent of cinnamon, dust, nutmeg and gingerbread. Here’s yet another flower that is all too often written off as scentless – along with the under-rated perfumed pleasures of petunias, daffodils, scarlet runners, iris and snowdrops.

The fallen apples don’t lie long enough to moulder and only a few neighbours have the pleasure of fermenting waspy pears and plums. I missed the wasps this year: there were hardly any despite all that heat. The gathered apples are safely indoors, laid on newspaper on trays and filling the dining room with a rich fruity earthy odour that is also curiously oily. In that terrible winter of sugar riots and power cuts (1971, I think) I slept in a house that came alive after dark. The husband, Crippen-like, shovelled coal in the shallow cellar so that the hall filled with bitter coal dust. The wife boiled up chutney: so much chutney! Night after night the sweet and sour vinegary currant and sultana sugar smells wafted hotly beneath my bedroom door, making my mouth drool involuntarily and setting my teeth slightly on edge.

Soon the great boilings of the orange marmalade season will be here; the pickling of onions has begun. A crisp sweet onion scented with pepper corns and a few cloves is an irresistible delicacy. I met a lady at the bus stop in a state of great indignation: one of our best-known supermarkets had told her there was “no call” for white vinegar these days. My old childhood friend Mrs Sarson used to tell my mother that if you peel onions on your knees, holding the bowl of a spoon in your mouth then your eyes will not water. Mrs Sarson was a great pickler and her husband went to his reward eating an onion. She said, ‘He sat there with the jar on his knee looking up at the sky. I says to him, do you think you’re going up there? And then he did..’

There are worse ways to go.

The Wicked Uncle

Rosalind Thornycroft Richard III On an unusually beautiful morning of our perfect Indian summer I awoke feeling like the Mole in The Wind in The Willows, possessed of a great urge to get out of the house and do something a bit different. So I put up an egg sandwich and hopped on the first bus into Leicester to see for myself what is afoot with the remains of Richard III in the newly designated Cultural Quarter. The Cathedral is full of screens behind which they are digging out the grave in the crypt and then the new tomb will lie above in the nave. There’s a newly planted herb and flower garden outside graced by a statue of the last Plantagenet in Bosworth armour, with a spicy nip of catmint from beneath his mailed feet, but no alley cats to roll in it. This part of town has been greatly smartened up. That sharp scent in the clear silky air persuaded me to give the accompanying exhibition a miss: it’s permanent so no doubt I shall go eventually but it seemed to be too lovely a day to be indoors with all the flashing lights and booming sound effects. All museums have a certain airlessness about them, some of the most famous being the most oppressive. There are too many fast food cafes for one thing and too many sealed windows. It’s a new kind of stuffiness to that of the old days. I remember the smell of the old Leicester Museum in New Walk, just a few minutes’ stroll away from Richard. It is now greatly changed and modernised: the menagerie of stuffed animals which so entranced and secretly terrified me as a child have all gone. I realise now that the pungent odour that hung over everything then must have been some kind of embalming fluid: and maybe the emanations of the partially unwrapped bitumen-blackened mummies in a shadowy back gallery. Like a lot of Leicester people I can’t get too excited about King Richard in death. Our vicar thinks he should have been left alone in the privacy of his car park, not dug up to make a Roman holiday. I’m with her there. I think we have far too many exhumations in this modern craving for certainties. Exhumation is a dreadful and solemn thing, traditionally performed by the light of torches as though it were something shameful: the participants holding cologne-soaked cloths to their faces, and prayers said as spades jar against rotting wood and eternal stone. Nowadays it is all sanitised and glossed over by easy talk of DNA and glib scientific journalistic niceties. Poor old king, his bones all spread out on a table for the world’s press to peer at. How would Richard have smelled in life? Probably not that bad. The folk of the late middle ages were rather cleaner than their immediate descendants. They didn’t for one thing have the fear of washing and bathing which came on rather later due to cranky medical theories, sewage-polluted rivers and water-borne diseases. Medieval people liked hot baths, often taken communally. The habit had been brought back by the Crusaders, along with such expensive and desirable niceties such as soap, attar of roses, incense, spices, damask and silks. Jolly pictures of naked ladies in the bath show them still wearing their hennins, veils and cauls, the bare head still being regarded as the most erotic and private part of the anatomy. MIMI_MMW_10A11_069V_MIN_1-650x482 So Richard would have had his baths; washed his hair occasionally; dried and mopped himself with linen towels. All very necessary after being half boiled in a suit of armour all day whether in battle or for arms practice. Skin might be rubbed with bunches of herbs or with grains of musk; it was also rinsed, massaged and toned with primitive blends of what we should think of as eau de cologne – concoctions such as the 14th century Queen of Hungary Water, the European best-seller (to be taken internally, too) of rosemary, marjoram and pennyroyal. It was Richard’s clothes that caused problems: the damp of those stone castles must have permeated everything, despite being laid up in cedar chests and layered with dried rose petals and lavender. None of the garments apart from the shirts were washable; and underwear as such was unknown. The furs so essential for warmth were not all properly cured and the tanning processes of leather relied heavily on the use of human excrement. The most popular method to deter moth was the hanging of one’s clothes on poles above the open pit of the latrine. So you can see for yourselves that a certain whiffiness would have been only exacerbated by the attempted camouflage of civet, musk and ambergris. Picture the scene! The Tower, the sleeping Princes, the reeking bottled spider scuttling up the winding stair..but all that is another story…

Paradise Regained

The Butterfly that Stamped - Rudyard Kipling

When we were studying Paradise Lost for English A Level, I remember Mr Edwards expounding on the nature of the fruit that ruined Eve. The idea of it being an apple was all wrong, he thought. The fatal fruit should have been a luscious peach, a satin-skinned nectarine or a furry-velvet apricot – soft, tactile, fragrant; dropping sweet perfumed nectar, and of a rosy golden colour, blushing at the cosmic shame of the Fall. It’s not just that most of us today have the image of an apple as a hard green waxed ball sat in the supermarket: the early Church fathers suspected the intrinsic perversity of apples and this is why the fruit was stigmatised as the undoing of Eve and Adam. Apples grow harder as they mature, unlike respectable soft fruit; they are indecently slow to decay, defying the Divine Law. To put the tin hat on it, the Latin name for an apple is the same as that for evil. (“Malo I would rather be/ Malo in an apple tree/ Malo is a wicked man/ Malo in adversity” – remember?).

I recalled all this when reading The Song of Solomon, preparing a talk on perfume in the Ancient World. Here is a wonderful meditation of the sensual hypnosis of perfume: let the poetry stupefy you with scent. Once again, the 1907 “Helps To The Study of the Bible” suggests that we might more accurately read “apricot” for apple; the trouble (and joy) of all these ancient texts is that repeated translation may confuse such a precise science as modern botany. What the Old Testament calls a rose may have been what we know as a lily, a crocus or a narcissus. The ‘lilies of the field’ were probably the same scarlet anenomes that I saw one February bursting from the bare and snowy hills above Jericho.

But let each judge for himself as to the odour of his loved one:

” …Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine; and the smell of thy nose like apples…who is it that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? A garden enclosed is my sister…thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire* with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron; calamus¤ and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense ; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices…”

And then we read of the skin oozing, dripping with impossibly delicious and expensive perfumes; limbs slathered in precious oils:

“I rose up to open to my Beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock”.

Spikenard is an evocative word; it now usually refers to an extract of a root of the valerian family but, once again, the ancients may have known it as another fragrance entirely. We meet it also in the New Testament brought – “very precious” – in an alabaster box for the anointing of Christ. I have smelled it only once, I think, and it was not at all as I had expected being not creamy, spicy and sweet but dark, earthy rebarbative. In this it reminds me of the pink lotus absolute that Elizabeth Moores uses today in her perfume Anubis; a scent which leads us back into the fragrance world of 4,000 years ago.

For here is a phenonemon that links us directly with our ancestors; the sense of smell and the timeless palette of perfumers’ oils. Whereas air pollution, chemicals, saturation of odours and an increasing remoteness from the natural world may imply that we experience smells differently from our forebears, the traditional natural constituents of perfume remain largely the same. Perfumers of 2014 AD use juniper, hyssop, artemisia, iris, mint, coriander, anise and galbanum just as their predecessors did in 2014 BC. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and despite the confusion of nomenclature we still enjoy the spices, resins, incense and perfumed woods known to the Israelites, Greeks and Egyptians when Rome was still unknown.

* thought to be an oil of lemon grass

¤ the heady fragrance of henna flowers