The Coffee Sonata

hitchcock-notorious1

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no cup of coffee tastes as good as it smells. The same might be said of bacon and cigarettes. When I was a child I had two curious idees fixes of adventurous high romance in daily life. The first was the modest desire to possess a sponge bag, filled with toilet requisites: my first term of boarding at prep school both fulfilled and killed that fantasy. “My passion & my poison”.  The second was the yen to live on coffee and sandwiches. For many years this wish partially came true.

When I was at school we brewed up instant coffee from pre-dawn to dusk on charred gas-rings which burned with a spectral blue light in dingy corridors. We learned to drink Nescafe and Maxwell House black and unsweetened as our pocket money dwindled with the term. Coffee was served constantly: from the time we arose surreptitiously at 5am to attend to our neglected essays until we   reluctantly retired at 10 pm. At one stage I reckoned I was drinking at least 25 mugs a day, often more. No wonder we were all so lively and – well – ‘exuberant’. Like Balzac we were inflamed and maddened by the beverage.

Nowadays I am told that the sandwich is moribund – “The Great Sandwich is dead!” – elbowed out by cakes – “O! The CAKE!” – and miniature meals in little pots¤. But then as now I loved the idea of wonderfully aromatic and brilliantly coloured sandwiches. White waxy bread or brown granary bread lavishly buttered then daintily¤¤ plastered with ham, mustard, tomatoes, egg and cress, cream cheese and cucumber – and accompanied by stinging strong hot coffee “handed separately”. That heavenly contrast of smells and tastes: the bitter black coffee and the moist, well-stuffed snacks: yin and yang, absolutely. Even reading about such refreshment in novels – often called for after a shock or during a crisis – still makes my mouth water.

Gertie Lawrence used to sing about the experience:

“The things I long for are simple & few:
A cup of coffee, a sandwich and you”

(She “don’t need lobster or wine”).

The very word “coffee” (from the Arabic via the Turkish) is one of my favourites. I like the double F’s and E’s – the soft exoticism of of the assonance. I am prejudiced in favour of that old Hollywood writer Lenore Coffee simply of account of her exotic name. Ms Coffee’s movies turned our heads¤¤¤ just as the eponymous bean does. The drink originated in Abyssinia where the ancient Coptic monks used it to keep them awake during the prayerful vigils of the night. Contrary-wise I was assured many years ago that in Brazil it is served as a soothing nightcap.

Coffee chocolates, coffee eclairs and coffee ices. Coffee and walnut cake: now there’s a divine combination of taste, colour, texture and scent – the graininess and slight bitterness of the nut and the smoothness of the coffee. Coffee enemas; coffee grounds to deter the slugs – especially germane in this strange summer – and coffee perfumes.
At Les Senteurs you can smell coffee flowers whipped up with frothy cream and chocolate in MUSC MAORI. ( “You’re the cream in my coffee” – remember Marlene’s screen test for The Blue Angel? She always said it had been pinched by the Red Army in ’45, and eventually she was proved right).

Then there’s INTOXICATED – a scented jeu d’esprit that one can imagine being served up to the Empress Josephine, that connoisseur of perfumes, on a painted Sevres tray. Picture la belle Creole lolling in her great golden swan bed at Malmaison: the wallpapers and draperies are saturated in her favourite musk and rich jasmine oils of the Islands; the smell of 10,000 roses drifts through the windows. And mingling with all this, coffee – “hot as Hell, black as night and sweet as love” – fragrant with green cardamom seeds and precious glazed sugar from Josephine’s homeland in Martinique. An earlier femme fatale, the Dubarry, relied on coffee – among other things – to stimulate the appetites of Louis XV. Of a morning, early, he’d kindle the fire and she’d boil the water – “La France! Ton cafe!” Their little private bourgeois idyll, years before Marie Antoinette took up farming.

And most recently, please Ladies and Gentlemen, here comes 8 MARS 1764 by Pozzo di Borgo, premiering soon at Les Senteurs. More C18th redolence: an evocation of the era when the cult of coffee reached its peak. Cognac and bitter coffee; sweet incense, leather and glittering citrus notes. The life of the Corsican grandee, Carl Andrea Pozzo di Borgo, St Petersburg’s Ambassador to Paris, translated into immortal fragrance. (Before you ask – he never met Josephine; he was Napoleon’s mortal foe¤¤¤¤).

“There’s An Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil!” So, come, another cup? ‘

¤ Tesco sells a dear little pack of 2 hard-boiled eggs – exquisitely shelled – on a miniature bed of baby spinach. The perfect “snack on the track”.

¤¤ not too daintily, mind. “Be generous!”

¤¤¤ she scripted big hits for Flynn, Harlow, Crawford, Davis…

¤¤¤¤ though he achieved the distinction of being portrayed on film by Norman Shelley, an actor loved by millions as ‘Colonel Danby’ in The Archers.

Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

blog henry viii

 

“In my time I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting six reigning Queens, each in very different circumstances. I wondered this week how I should conduct myself if the six wives of Henry VIII should suddenly roll up at Les Senteurs, demanding high rare perfumes and scented goods from beyond the seas and the outer realms of Christendom. This unlikely prospect came into my head on account of a book review in The Times which proposed that, of the six, Katharine of Aragon “…is the least sympathetic to us now”. I was a bit thrown by this; couldn’t agree less. Neither could insightful historian Alison Weir on BBC R4: she plumped for Anne Boleyn – I’m with her, there. But the Spanish Queen, the first wife, is one of the most attractive and admirable of the set: she and Katherine Parr, Henry’s eventual widow and Queen Dowager, would get my vote. Together they clocked up twenty five odd years with the old beast. The other four marriages were over and done with in less than ten.

I imagine that, as a former Infanta born into the purple, Katherine would be most in demeanour like our own dear Queen, gracious and dignified; poised and powerful. And already exuding the odour of sanctity and frankincense from her velvets and furs, the exotic perfumes of Moorish Spain. My instinctive choice would be to reach down GRAIN DE PLAISIR on account of its top notes being an accord of majestically crimson pomegranates, the symbol of fertility which graced Katherine’s personal coat of arms: the pomegranates which grew in the gardens of Granada where the princess spent her childhood. Katharine was a blonde fair-skinned Spaniard and might also appreciate a glittering hesperidic beauty to remind her of home: maybe the airy and delicate YU SON with its accords of mandarin, green tea and gaiac wood. The thousand-seeded pomegranate failed to work its blessing of propagation on the luckless Katherine: had she mothered a son, the terrible Boleyn would never have stolen her crown.

I anticipate that “Anne-Sans-Tete” – as she called herself at the end with an hysterical gallows humour – would be tricky; arch, bossy and demanding. She wanted to stick a silver bodkin through any tongue that slandered her; the six fingers on her left hand were the infallible mark of a witch. Her arch-enemy Cardinal Wolsey called her “The Night Crow”; but (remembering that bodkin) would one have the effrontery to propose the all too aptly named L’OISEAU DE NUIT with its sumptuous oriental luxe and creamy notes of liqueur? Alternatively there is ANGELIQUE by Papillon which contains pungent ambiguous addictive hawthorn: otherwise known as (unlucky) may blossom. To the medieval mind the month of May was sacred to the Queen of Heaven and thus fraught with taboos: Anne Boleyn was prepared for Coronation, arraigned and beheaded all in the merry month of May.

Jane Seymour, mouse-meek but cunning as a rat, with strange transparent milk-white skin – and a milk- and-water demeanour: what shall we have for her? Maybe TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Pure, sweet, delicate and diaphanous: but with powdery depths of suppressed passion – and an immense clinging tenacity.

Then poor Anne of Cleves, “the Flanders mare”: painted as an exquisite fragile beauty by Holbein but reviled on sight by Henry who made unpleasant slurs on what would now be described as her lack of “body toning”. The King also remarked, straight out, that she smelled. The very fact that he said this indicates that the Tudor Court had – and this may surprise some – high standards of hygiene. It strikes me that Henry – himself always well doused in rose-water  – might conceivably have been put off his stroke by the bride’s perfume. Coming from the Low Countries Anne would have been well acquainted with the already legendary alchemical Queen of Hungary Water, said to have been formulated by a Carpathian hermit two hundred years before, and a best-seller ever since all over Northern Europe. But assuming the worst, that Anne exuded a natural ‘bouquet de corsage’, let’s introduce her to the olfactory phenonemon of SALOME, deliciously full of sexy sleaze and grubby animalic tease: enough to awake the beast in any Man.

Katherine¤ Howard was a wayward teenage minx and pathetic hoyden whom the uxurious monarch named his Rose Without A Thorn. There’s no fool like an old fool. And a fat one, to boot, with a waistline by now of over four feet. Kate played Henry false before and during marriage: precocious and voluptuous, she would have carried off UNE ROSE superbly. This intensely fragrant parfum has all the scarlet richness and majesty of the Tudor rose with an underlying earthy darkness. Like her dreadful Boleyn cousin, Katherine Howard was decapitated on Tower Green, in 1542.

Katherine Parr went on to take a fourth husband – Jane Seymour’s sexy brother Thomas – after Old Harry’s death¤¤ in 1547. She subsequently died tragically in childbirth at Sudeley Castle. What then could be more appropriate for this warm, erudite and sympathetic woman than BY ANY OTHER NAME inspired by the magnificent rose gardens of that same Gloucestershire property. The same heraldic flower as UNE ROSE but rendered with such a difference – a silky petal-soft prettiness and lighter than sunny summer air.

And for “Bluff King Hal” himself? Let’s wean him off that rosewater. It HAS to be Creed, and probably AVENTUS – the mark of the Confident Conqueror! Well, don’t you agree? Vive le roi!

¤ all these Katherines! The eponymous saint – She of the Wheel – was one of the most popular in the pre-Reformation calendar. Nowadays the Vatican pronounces that St Katherine of Alexandria “may have never existed”. And see “The Corner That Held Them” by Sylvia Townsend Warner for intriguing details of the once popular convent game of “Flying St Katherine”.

¤¤ his coffin exploded due to inefficient embalming. The stench was appalling and Catholic clerics grimly noted that, as in the case of the Biblical tyrant King Ahab, “dogs licked his blood”.

A tribute to Angela Flanders

angela flanders

 

Angela Flanders was the most magical of perfumers and the most generous of women. She gave everything – her time, her advice, her sympathy, her wonderful gifts. The warmth, charm and intelligence of her personality shone through her dazzling creations. Angela Flanders’ genius as a perfumer derived from and reflected her deep appreciation and understanding of human nature, emotions and desires: empathy and sympathy flowed from her like a sixth sense. She knew about perfume and she knew about life. Her fragrances – to use the words of Elizabeth Tudor – made windows into men’s souls. Angela played many parts in her long and richly varied life: the good fairies at her birth showered her with many talents and all these were woven into her exquisite scents.

To know Angela was to respect, admire and most of all to love her. Magnetic and charismatic are much-overused words today, but Angela Flanders personified these adjectives. If she didn’t actually invent charisma she demonstrated to perfection to all who encountered her exactly what this rare quality is all about. Her appearance at Les Senteurs Summer Party in 2014 delighted all who were lucky enough to meet her. Angela had a very highly developed and robust sense of humour, an acute shrewdness and a youthful, ageless sense of fun: anyone fortunate enough to be in her company laughed a very great deal. Angela loved a party; meeting new people and old friends; to be up and doing. Her mind was always teeming with new ideas and plans: whenever you telephoned her, it was to find some new scheme or inspiration being pondered. (She was by the way the most entertaining and accomplished exponent of the nearly-lost art of letter writing). This kept Angela seemingly eternally young. She was optimism, curiosity and vivacity incarnate. Like Marlene Dietrich, whom she admired, she had “energy and discipline”. Angela had also a great belief in fate and destiny: a profound spirituality which gave her always a serene and tranquil air, like that of the beautiful cats she adored. Like her cats, she, too, preserved her mystery.

Wonderfully dressed, jewelled and scented Angela invented her own style; a figure of grace and elegance illuminated by joy and kindness. She moved like an empress, was as modest and self-deprecating as a nun and as clever as paint. All of London will miss her desperately but she leaves an immortal legacy not only as a gifted perfumer but as an irreplaceable friend and phenomenon.

Beer and Skittles

crowned with hops

 

“Give me a pig’s foot and a bucket of beer!”

I never really came to terms with pubs or felt at home there: I rarely saw the point of the places. The forced hectic jollity or the maudlin gloom – the solitary drinker in the corner – jars on me. l am like a reluctant animal as it is hauled into the vet’s waiting room, scraping its protesting claws across the lino. My great uncle Frank – architect and surveyor – was a noted pre-war designer of Midlands pubs and cinemas. He and aunty Doll were always at the centre of a noisy glittering saloon bar crowd: the piano, comic songs, dubious jokes, chaff and a kind of obligatory leaden flirtation. Doll and Frank’s twin daughters, meanwhile, sat for hours in the car drinking Vimto through straws and sharing a bag of crisps.

Twenty-five years later things hadn’t changed much. Us kids were still on the Vimto. That was a strange drink, not nearly as sweet as in its modern manifestation and with much more bite. It was said to be made from unripe black cherries and it stung the nose with acid aeration. I loved the contrast between this deep purple liquid and the greasy fatty smell and texture of Tudor crisps which left oily salty smears on car upholstery and clothes. In the late 1950’s pubs seemed to be thronged throughout their limited opening hours. Children were sometimes grudgingly allowed indoors – if they sat quiet and if their parents were “known” – but they were in practice far more likely to be penned up in the garden or car park. Dogs had a better chance of hospitality.

If you did get to go inside, it was all a thick expansive fug of raw perfume, pipe tobacco, stale beer and cigarette smoke. Now, fresh clean beer has a most attractive smell: in the days when I had hair, I used to rinse it in beer or buy that lovely thick shampoo that was sold in miniature yellow plastic barrels. Fresh beer is fragrant and clean, golden and summery, smooth and clear like the sun on a hay field. Wild hops – spicy and yeasty – used to grow down the lane at home.  When we took holidays at Southwold one of the great delights of the place was the all-pervading fragrance of the Adnams brewery blended with sea air, June roses and fried fish.

But old-style pubs usually had a particular sinister reek especially noticeable in those labyrinthine back passages – stacked with crates of empties¤¤ – which led to the ‘jug & bottle’, clattering vending machines, pay phones and the usual offices. An oppressive, feral smell it was, suggestive of tom cat, sweat, wee wee and mouldering ale slops. Sometimes I used to wonder whether Mine Host had not been right through with a mop and bucket of Lysol spliced with Double Diamond. The damp floor tiles, the tables and the sticky settles felt as though they’d been rinsed in Manns or Greene King, as the ancient Greeks are said to have scrubbed the furniture with salt water and bunches of mint. Establishments with a cosy open fire fared better: the logs and coals burned off the evil air. The warmth dissolved some of the institutional dreariness, and the slight sense of menace.

I remember city pubs where the smell of fags and ale went right through to your vest and knickers¤ – and stayed there. And I do dislike visiting cafes, restaurants or any hostelry where you are obliged to launder your entire wardrobe after half an hour inside. Ironically, the No Smoking rule seems to have made things worse. Proprietors have become very dilatory in airing their establishments being evidently under the illusion that cigarettes are the sole source of unwanted odour.

But modern pubs are greatly changed from those of half a century ago. Whereas children were once unwelcome or merely tolerated, they now appear to run the places. Up-turned boxes give them a bit of extra height behind the bar. I have to say, I only venture in at the occasional lunch time and then it seems to me that drinking has been more or less phased out: mineral water and fruit juices are the most popular beverages of the day. The customers’ attention is now concentrated principally on food, with everyone sitting up to his own blond-wood table and minding his own business. That vague sense of threat has drained away with the wine and spirits. There is nothing scary about scampi and chips, or baked cod with quinoa. Establishments that were glorified cow sheds in my dad’s heyday now have the atmosphere of dainty tea rooms. Pubs are less scary but less lively too. There is a certain dullness and conformity. However, swings and roundabouts no doubt.

” Beer At Home Means Davenports. Cheers!”

john_t_y_gilroy_have_a_guinness_when_youre_tired_d5491221h

¤ as the Shiseido sales ladies used to say – more agreeably –  of the deliciously woody 1992 Feminite des Bois perfume:

“the scent comes billowing up from the wash bowl when you rinse through…”

¤¤ all that money you could recoup on returning the bottles: especially empty soda siphons.

Cultural Appropriation: Flesh and Fantasy

sterrett_rosette_

Where do you stand on Cultural Appropriation? It’s the topic of the hour and it’s driving LW crazy because it would seem to have a special relevance to perfume – crucially, one not yet  determined.  One source ( “on line” ) defines it as a culture enjoying or celebrating a sensation that another has known in misery or in otherwise alternative circumstances. As in, say, pizza. An easy example. In the eighteenth century the good pizza succeeded macaroni as the food of the street poor of Naples – the lazzaroni. Ergo, it is morally wrong to enjoy this delicacy in our modern affluence at Pizza Express. But this explanation would not explain the frenzy over a girl dressing up on American TV as “Hello Kitty”. Twiggy voo? Viewers were described as “traumatised”.  Pretty Kitty is an especially controversial figure: there was another quite separate scene recently about whether or not she is bodily and entirely a cat beneath that little pink dress. Then “Around The World in 80 Days” is in trouble; also, the sporting of sombreros at costume parties; and even poor old Monet’s portrait of a French lady – wearing a kimono.

“How shall so grave a problem resolve itself?”

Scent seems to me to epitomise the best of cultural appropriation. (But is that remark in itself oxymoronic?). Every civilisation since time began has revered, created and worn perfume. It has been put to a multiplicity of arcane uses. The ancient Egyptians believed it could raise the dead. At the altars it created a mystic pathway – a Silver Cord – between earth and heaven. How could one doubt it when a trail of incense smoke was plainly visible in the blue, linking the worshippers physically as well as spiritually to the sky gods? Sweet smells led the way into transcendental states, cured disease, initiated adulthood, promoted sexual vigour and sedated the sick mind.

I hope that perfume’s connection with the tribulations, trials and beliefs of our ancestors is not going to get redolence in wrong. For me – as I am sure for millions of fragrance fanciers – the long and varied history of scent and its multiplicity of contexts adds immeasurably to the magic of perfume: that all-powerful gigantic genie in a tiny bottle. Did you ever hear of mellified man? A legend went around in the antique world of certain saintly sages in a far distant country who, for the public good, would volunteer to be embalmed alive….in honey. The eligible martyr would be fed exclusively on honey – gorged with it – until his all bodily systems and fluids were invaded by the nectar. After he died – which was quite soon – his body was set aside to dry & crystallise into a pungent substance rather – I suppose – similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. Fragrant fragments of this carnal honeycomb were then broken off and administered to the sick or sold to the highest bidder as a universal panacea.

So this brings us to oud, that mysterious and dramatic oil: the olfactory epitome of the gorgeous east. Startling and even evil-smelling in the raw (some compare it to an over-ripe Stilton cheese), oud is in my mind assuming an almost semi-mythical construct; rather in the fashion of ectoplasm, prana¤, manna, the alchemist’s stone or the elixir of youth. We all enjoy conjuring tricks and illusions: “is it real? Is the magician in fact in league with the Devil?”. We thrill and wonder at a bizarre and apparently magical perfume ingredient: and here it is, incarnated in oud, a substance that defies logic and belief. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”: and, goodness knows, reality and rationality are stuffed down our throats with a vengeance nowadays. Maybe what we are now taught to call oud is in fact a mood, a style, a stifled desire: a longing, a far distant horizon of the heart.

Ambergris is another substance which prompts similar thoughts. Last year – maybe the year before – there was a wonderful and sobering thirty minute documentary on BBC R4 – an interview with a man who had found this chunk of ambergris on the local beach. As in a fairy tale, all his problems seemed to be at an end. He was profiled in the Press, the amber was apparently proved to be genuine and worth a fortune. But the treasure trove proved a curse, not a blessing. Envious neighbours poisoned his dog, he was ostracised and in the end, the mysterious substance was proved to be nothing but sea-cured palm oil. As apparently is all too often the case. Worthless! Malign fairy gold. The beachcomber said that ambergris had ruined his life.

“Flounder, Flounder in the sea!”

How just exactly like a tale from the brothers Grimm! The origins of both ambergris and oud are a grotesquerie worthy of folk tale or legend. Both are of animal origin and each is the result of a metamorphosis both actual and symbolic that might have been dreamed up by Ovid. Filth, waste, excrement, decay and rot are transmuted by that supreme enchantress Mother Nature into oils of transcendent beauty and great price. Ambergris comes from the waste matter exuded by whales – probably faecal, they now think¤¤. Oud is derived from a dying agar tree as it fights for breath in the forests of far Asia, poisoned by parasites but gallantly defending itself to the last as it pumps out resin in a gummy shield. These tales are as unlikely as those of the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold; the maiden invited to empty the sea with a sieve; or the boy left with a swan’s wing for an arm.

” Die Wahrheit ist: was ist wahr….ist unwahr!” ¤¤¤

But strange as they are, these scented stories happen to be true, even though many of the details still remain vague and mysterious.  No wonder we talk endlessly about oud and ambergris, speculating on exactly which perfumes contain these oils – which fragrances have the genuine article and which the synthesised. The whole saga is so weird and so wild: a wonderful diversion in our cut and dried world. The scent of both ingredients is ambiguous too: what could be more fitting? Farouche, shattering, disturbing, animalic, two-edged, invasive maybe even frightening, repellent. Oud and ambergris are not easy to work with. Ambergris we have learned to handle after several thousand years, but oud is new to the west.

For decades oud was a generic name given to that heavenly fragrance emanating from the robes and veils of London’s Middle Eastern visitors¤¤¤¤. It surrounded them like the perfumed nimbus that is said to grace saints and angels. Then, just recently, western perfumers discovered raw oud, popped it on their palettes and began wrestling with it. Many lost the struggle. Nevertheless, oud became a craze, the latest “must-have” and “must-do”. Every perfume house demanded an oud scent for their clients. But this is not an easy oil to work with: it is extreme and out of control; hard to subdue, to interpret and to tailor to Western tastes. A few brands have succeeded brilliantly – MFK, Killian, Creed and Ex Idolo for instance have all flourished beyond expectation. Their fragrances  are sculpted and hewn; are superbly wrought; carved, as it were, from the living rock by artists who are not afraid of oud oil but who have dominated and mastered it as though taming tigers. We wear perfume differently in Europe and America – we are shy of it, whereas in the Middle East perfume is treated as a good servant but a poor master. In Britain perfume all too often becomes the tyrannical boss.

Long may perfumery continue to discover new molecules and ancient oils; and to make use of forgotten techniques, contrasting traditions and flourishing hybrids. As the Prince Consort used to say, we need fresh strong blood to invigorate the line, to expand the horizons and boost the vigour of fragrance. Absorption, lending, borrowing, grafting and enriching: not appropriation but a grateful sharing of the mysteries of peoples, perfumes and nations. Somewhat akin to “Mae West’s Plan for World Peace”…but not as rude.

¤ “Living on Prana” – do you remember?
It turned out the high priestess was subsisting on a more mundane diet of digestive biscuits and cold chicken.

¤¤ the point is, they don’t really know. I rather hope they never will.

¤¤¤ Marlene Dietrich – having, as usual, the last word on the nature of reality.

¤¤¤¤ though I have not smelled a Western treatment that captures that especial esoteric fragrance. Maybe, as is often suggested, it results from the smoking of clothes over a brazier filled with oud. Or perhaps it comes from an oil not yet known here. We shouldn’t let in all the daylight on magic…