“Si jeunesse savait; si veillesse pouvait”. Some of my younger readers may never have tasted – nor yet smelled – an icicle. In the old days you broke them off from a low roof or drainpipe, and licked them gingerly. They took their metallic mineralic redolence from tiles, slates, brickwork and tarred felting. They were full of tang. Sometimes a dead leaf or blades of grass would be embedded in the ice. Do you remember people trying to make snow-filled pancakes, as mentioned on the wireless just the other day. There were squeaks of disbelief in the studio, but I certainly recall rumours of this exotic and rather romantic recipe, though it was never put into practice at ours. Neither did we see dishes of snow topped with cream: surely this is an American idea?
I remember the icicles because they represent the incarnation of so many Christmas Eves. The snow usually came a little later, for New Year. The 24th December was all about the smell of water, rain, dampness, ice. This old ghost of Christmas Past looks back over the decades and sees our kitchen in the twilight. The mopped-out floor is covered in fluttering newspapers marked with gum-boots, paw prints and little kids’ feet. The back door is banging in gusts of unseasonably stuffy wind. The sink is full of my father’s ice trays, and the melting frozen peas forgotten by a neighbour who’d called for a mid-afternoon gin¤. We are waiting for the turkey.
Our flightless bird used to be delivered at the very last minute, usually on Christmas Eve night, when a certain anxiety might well be setting in. A florid old man would come round around eight o’clock, half-blotto – demanding more whisky: and he’d sling the bird on the kitchen table. So then my dad had to sort it out. The smells of turkey preparation from the feathered stage are enough to put you off for life. Also, in those days, there was a lot of controversy about the stuffing. The preliminaries involved great scrubbings-out, and then prolonged sniffings, of the cavity. Was everything sufficiently clean and sweet? (Nowadays many people go in for turkey “crowns” – a cropped, trimmed & sanitised format – and no wonder)¤¤.
Christmas morning came round all too soon: time for the full ritual of turkey worship to begin with the lighting of the oven. After which the phantasmagoria of Christmas smells went crackers : “open that window!”
New Year’s Eve we had beef.
Of course, we had a few words of warning from those ubiquitous seasonal surveys this past week¤¤¤. When choosing your New Year champagne, go for a brand that offers bigger bubbles. I tend to keep off the champagne; it’s too acid for my tum. But now it appears that larger bubbles – once considered vulgar – produce a finer scent and therefore a superior flavour. The findings of another scientist-gang suggest that a fragrantly frugal champagne breakfast is, after all, likely to do more you good than oats, fruit and eggs. Defying the conventions of centuries, dieticians now propose that fasting from supper right through to next day’s lunch is the way forward to perfect health. No more savoury smells of The Full English (“served all day”). I haven’t eaten a regular breakfast since the 1970’s so I ought to be as fit as a buck.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the cold, cold tomb”
My mother used to say they sang this in the air raid shelter. But even in church today we note some diminution of traditional smells. The verse above has been “adjusted” in some modern hymn books. The Three Kings are apparently more likely to have brought “incense” than the more specific frankincense. For myself this refinement of translation comes too late for me: I’m leaving my nose be and keeping to the old ways.
On behalf of L.W. and of everyone at Les Senteurs may I now wish you the Happiest, Most Peaceful and Prosperous of New Years? And, Thank You All!
¤ “two rounds of the best hot gin punch” is what Cratchit children drink in the 1951 British movie ‘Scrooge’.
¤¤ but my Canadian cousin now writes to me of her sister-in-law’s bird:
“…listen to this!… She put it in the oven FROZEN and PRESTUFFED – and only had to roast for 6 hours…!?? From FROZEN?!?!” It turned out perfect!”.
¤¤¤ , only the other day, a MORI pollster came round the village just after dark. No one would admit him.