The Pyjama Game

 

Maybe you enjoyed a “pyjama day” over the recent Bank Holiday or even last weekend? There’s been a lot of talk recently about parents in pyjamas picking up their children from school; or even shopping in jim-jams. In my innocence (as Mrs Mary Whitehouse used to say) I imagined pyjama days to be marked by an immaculate cleanliness. I had thought you showered and bathed upon arising; then slipped into a fresh suit of night attire in which to lounge all day, free of all belts, ties, stays and restraining fastenings. But according to a recent piece in The Times, this is not so. You simply wake up, hop out of bed and start living – in what Carol Midgley calls your “bed-stink”. In effect, your own filth.

It’s a nasty brutish expression, one that as a child I’d have been very much discouraged from using. But there you are. Now I begin to understand why headmasters and supermarket managers are not so keen on pyjama culture. It’s all a far cry from those beds of roses & spices we discussed on this page a while back. However, unless you are one of those persons – about a sixth of the population we regularly told – who change their bed sheets (and/or jim-jams) only quarterly, I can’t really see why there should be any disagreeable smell at all. A slight warm fug, maybe. Surely nothing more. Anyway, this week we were again warned of the obvious by the medical faculty: that lolling about is bad for you. It weakens your muscles, your mind and all that. “Wake up – dress up – and live!” – as Alice Faye used to sing: kind of.

Shall we move on? It’s not an especially pretty topic.

We had fine company to luncheon last week. The kitchen was filled with the delicious smells of home-made kedgeree, tarte au citron¤, parsley, cardamon, coriander, basil and ripe tomatoes. I can say this with modesty as it was my gifted brother who cooked it all for our dear cousin. She said, “I adore kedgeree but never make it as I cannot get the smell out of the house.” And this is true. You must fall back on the old trick – geography of the house permitting – of opening back and front doors simultaneously and letting the air rush through, as fresh water gushed through the stench of the Augean stables.

On the table I placed a blue pot of cream freesias. Freesias have changed – or I have. Probably both. They look the same; the colours – white, saffron, mauve, plum – remain constant. But the scent is far less penetrating. When my brother was born in 1960 my mother’s maternity bower was crammed with them – the month was March. The hospital room was as heavily perfumed as Audrey Hepburn’s gloriously floral railway compartment¤¤ in The Nun’s Story. Consequently my mother was never able to look another freesia in the eye – nor to abide their scent – for the next half century.

Today the odour is – it seems to me – far more subtle. Airier, faintly spicy, much less honeyed. The Easter freesias smelled faintly reminiscent of the famous JASMIN ET CIGARETTES: I detected a whiff of very dry papery tobacco, a trace of pepper. None of that suffocating fruity-floral cushiony sweetness and opulence of yore. I should of course have taken note of Country of Origin on the wrapping. The last truly pungent freesias I remember came from Guernsey: I fetched them back myself about 12 years ago.

The irony is, the blooms we smell today are much more like the ‘freesia accord’ we inhale from so many modern perfumes. Ergo, an impressionistic appreciation of the plant, not an extraction or a reproduction. Life once more continues to imitate art.

And talking of which: I don’t know whether this is an example of the synaesthesic mind or just fanciful reverie but, this ‘Snap Election’, now. The mental image the phrase conjures up is that of a fragrant dish of sugar-snap peas, just shown a pan of boiling water: steamed, buttered, minted and brought to table. Brilliantly fluorescently emerald; smelling divinely of crisp greenery, goodness and springtime.

Will it really be like that?

Finally, as I finish this, my Tube train pulls into Kings Cross and there’s a funny poster pasted up in the tunnel:

“Sushi tastes even better in your pyjamas.”

Which is where we came in.

¤ 4 unwaxed lemons are called for.

¤¤ Brussels-bound from the pre-War Congo.

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EASTER EGGS

 

Wishing You All a Happy and Radiant Eastertide! Don’t rush to brush off the season along with the melting chocolate crumbs; don’t start darting off in the direction of far-off Father’s Day. Savour the feast of Easter like a rare wine or indeed your favourite perfume: it lasts a full fifty days.

I hope you enjoyed your eggs? We had ours in the form of an omelette, garnished with the fine herbs which are just beginning to shoot and scent the garden. When I am quite alone and relaxed, I want to try the experiment of making burnt Passover eggs. These should be hard-boiled and then the shells scorched¤ under the grill, or ( I guess ) passed quickly through a hot oven. Maybe you could even use a blow torch as Mary Berry did with her Easter Simnel Cake. The eggs symbolise the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and I want to experience their taste  – and their smell.

And of course, meditating on these burnt eggs, it is evident that it is the ancient Jewish tradition that has developed into our modern Easter custom. This probably has nothing to do with the reputed Celtic fertility goddess Oestre and her old sacred hares¤¤. The chocolate version is a relatively recent top-dressing. The blowing¤¤¤, painting, dyeing and otherwise decorating of poultry eggs still continues in more thoughtful schools and patient households. There is no end to the rich symbolism of eggs. The concept of the Cosmic Egg, hatched upon the primeval waters to give life to the Universe, is so ubiquitous in the lore of all ancient cultures that you wonder if it might actually be true. Like the story of Adam and Eve it often seems easier to believe than the intricacies of Darwin (much as I love him and his beetles and his always-poorly-stomach).

I wrote here some years ago about the ambiguous, somewhat sulphurous, smell of egg sandwiches. That aroma was compounded of the additional bread, butter, spices and mayonnaise. Before my brother sautee’d that omelette the other night, he said to me, “now, take the clean laundry out of the room. Omelettes have a Strong Smell!”

Certainly they do, and it’s not just from the hot sizzling butter. When the New  Wave of the early aquatic fragrances hit the perfume market some 25 years ago many of them then struck me as very fried-eggy in tone; something about the way the calone molecule hit my nose, back then. Omelettes have a papery dryness to them – I speak olfactorily. Fresh raw eggs smell … oh, I don’t know quite. Well, something a bit like a very new baby being sick. The albumen has a faintly queasy sweetness, a gelatinous coolth that sometimes verges on the repellent.

Some of my older readers may recall a once-notorious newspaper interview with the late Mrs Indira Gandhi. During the conversation she had cooked – for whatever reason – a dish of scrambled eggs for her son Sanjay. He refused to eat them, saying they tasted too oily. Since reading this piece I have often used olive oil to scramble and it works fine, but it can be just the least bit nauseous. Which butter never is. Nevertheless, eggs do have an inherent greasy quality of which you need to be wary. After all, we class them as ‘dairy’.

I’ll wind up with reporting a moment in legal history. The Italian Supreme Court has just this month banned the invasive smell of frying: it constitutes a new crime of “olfactory molestation”. Offenders who pollute their neighbours’ space will be savagely fined. I found this so ridiculous that I wondered if it was a newspaper April Fool: but then much of our current news is now so weird that the whiffy old ‘poisson d’avril’ has become – in our time – redundant.

Once again, Happy Easter!

¤ “to the colour of mahogany bruises”, writes a dear friend and culinary maven.

¤¤ “Oestre may never have existed!” – new and amazing claim. They seem to think now that the goddess is a cranky Victorian academic factoid.

¤¤¤ though the use of a straw is now recommended for reasons of hygiene.

A Quiet Lie-Down

 

” I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes* and cinnamon….” – Proverbs 7:17

I thought of this when I found a buxom queen wasp emerging from a kitchen curtain, awoken by the brilliant sunshine and the scent of spring. I ushered her out of the window, in the manner of an obsequious Court Chamberlain. Off she flew to build a vast and multi-celled fragrant waxen palace in which to raise a summer tribe¤.

I love to see these creatures about their business. My favourite reassuring sight just now is the blue tit pair, popping in and out of their nesting box like cuckoo clock machinery. They are single minded in their occupation, completely absorbed in the job of propagating the species. In the heat wave of last weekend they both took advantage of the water pans in the yard to have a good bathe. I should think that tit box is more than a little stuffy. Cosily lined with moss, wool and green budgerigar feathers it is probably also crawling with mites. Birds seem not to have much of a sense of smell; but I bet that bath felt so good to itchy little bodies. I replaced the water after the tits had finished, I need hardly remark… it was so warm from the sun.

Perfumed beds remind me also of a client I had many years ago in the big stores. She was an avid collector of scented talcum powder. She bought so prodigally that it was inevitable that a sales assistant would eventually ask what she did with it all.

The lady said, ” I put it down the bed!”

Today you can do the job far more elegantly and efficiently with a flacon of Frederic Malle’s heavenly pillow and linen spray Dans Mon Lit. Richly, intensely yet delicately rosy this wonderfully romantic preparation perfumes your sheets to smell like the bedding of Titania’s bower. Its name reminds me of those saucily crafted movie titles of the early 1930’s, designed to titillate. So the posters might read:

‘Constance Bennett
In
BED OF ROSES
With
Joel McCrea’

That sort of thing.

Incidentally, I must tell you. Remember last week I was describing the chickeny-smells that led to my vegetarian phase? So, I had to smile when on Friday I went into my fabulous award-winning butcher’s – which always smells as sweet as a nut. A diffident customer was in there “looking for ideas for the weekend menu”. Then she announced that she was a vegetarian. I thought this was adorable, if slightly daffy. But spring-fever sends us a little crazy. It expects too much of us. It keeps the nerves at full stretch.

For instance, at this time in Japan folk go breaking their hearts over cherry-blossom-viewing. A regular participant was explaining the bitter-sweet brevity of the festival. One week of buds, one week of full flower, one week of fading and falling¤¤. But this pattern is not peculiar to the cherry. We experience it here in Britain just as poignantly and exquisitely. Since I became a (coarse) gardener I have noticed that few flowers last longer than three weeks. My neighbour has a magnolia tree with huge blooms like pink chiffon dusters, as though specially grown for the set of ‘Madama Butterfly’ or ‘The Mikado’. So spectacular but agonisingly fragile and short-lived: sometimes you can hardly bear to look.

Sprouting, flourishing, dying. All in three’s. That sacred mystic number since the beginning of human civilisation. It gets in everywhere, like King Charles’s head. It began maybe as a symbol of generation when we first started to climb up off all fours: father, mother, child. This was refined into the theology of the divine triads (Osiris, Isis, Horus) and finally degenerated into such petty superstitions as ‘three on a match’¤¤¤.

And think, of course, of perfume. A scent is generally described as having a three-tier pyramid structure of top, heart and base notes. Delicate sparkling accords to attract; full-blown epanouissement; and – with luck and skill – an enduring slow-burning afterglow. We all know about the inextricable meshings of scent and memory. Perfume is the ghost of a hundred springtimes.

* some scholars now read ‘oud’ for ‘aloes’. But then there are bitter aloes, once used to deter nail-biting.

¤ “I look like an elderly wasp in an interesting condition” – Mrs Patrick Campbell, when complimented on a black and yellow stage costume.

¤¤ not for nothing was the cherry blossom a favourite symbol of the kamikaze pilots. And remember Diana Dors reciting ‘A Shropshire Lad’ from the condemned cell in ‘Yield To The Night’?

¤¤¤ a belief supposedly manufactured by the great match companies at the time of the Great War. See the eponymous movie with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak.

The Pot Pourri of Life and Death

Anna Atkins, Poppy, 1852

 

Wasn’t it funny when Ms Sturgeon “channelled Kellyanne Conway” (BBC R4) but nonetheless kicked off her shoes before sitting on that now famous sofa? Maybe she’d read our chat on this page the other week about going barefoot in the house. I’m so glad this theme has gone viral: it’s a social etiquette that needs defining in Britain once and for all. As a dear regular correspondent observes regarding the removal of shoes:

“… it is of course de rigueur in many Asian countries. Moreover, I do not lose my poise or posture: should I find it difficult to bend down there is usually someone around to undo my shoe laces…”

Now, there’s a class act!

Just now I am bombarded with divine spring smells. All weekend the sun has shone, drawing out the perfume of the narcissi and hyacinths in the garden. Indoors there is a wonderful blend of delicate scents opening and flowering in the new April warmth and light. A phial of the new Frederic Malle triumph SUPERSTITIOUS, gleaming with glass-green aldehydes, is the star performer. Its sophisticated glossy authority enhances the soft creamy sweetness exuding from my lovely stephanotis, Coty’s gift without parallel. And then I was given a tin of Kusmi tea from Paris: aren’t I spoiled? Kusmi is ‘Le thé des tsars’¤, brought from the Champs-Elysees. My present is the new ‘Euphoria’ blend – there are many others.

‘Euphoria’ is well named. When you open the tangerine & gold tin you may think that there’s been a muddle in the shop. You seem to be looking at a bouquet of the most exceptional pot pourri. Pieces of fragrant orange peel – generous chunks! – rub shoulders with cacao and roasted mate. That’s the official party line but I can see, smell and taste other things in there: jasmine? vanilla?  I mashed two large pots of this blissful blend yesterday and the exquisite aroma filled the house. Should you be lucky enough to be gifted by Kusmi my tip would be, don’t be in a hurry to throw out the dregs: let them sit and perfume your sacred space. And the tea also tastes delicious served cold, on a hot afternoon of transplanting, digging and weeding.

I keep thinking about St Martha¤¤ and the holy house at Bethany, also filled with odours. Martha’s cookery; her sister Mary’s precious ointment of spikenard; the smell of their brother Lazarus’s sudden illness and death. Yesterday’s deeply disturbing – and lengthy¤¤¤ – Gospel reading was the story of Lazarus’s rising from the tomb. His sister Martha is appalled – as we should all be – as the listener is – by the prospect of the opening of his grave: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days”. The smell of death is truly terrifying: so final, so uncompromising. You can fool yourself no longer. No wonder certain highly-scented flowers give people the horrors – it is not so much the perfume of the blooms but the grim knowledge of what the fragrance is intended to conceal.

Lazarus, however, walks forth from his cave in the rock. He is sound and sweet and presumably redolent of burial oils and spices, though still terrifyingly wrapped with cere cloths. “…And his face was bound about with a napkin”. What dread there must have have been when that napkin was removed. Yet – and here was the miracle – all was well. Lazarus was alive and whole again;  later he is said to sailed with his sisters to evangelise Provence and the pagan Gauls. But, as Our Vicar said, he knew he must die – and rise – a second time.

From my long-ago cooking days in a City restaurant, I remember a terrible crisis one morning. The butcher never turned up with the poultry – but the boss refused to alter the menu and remove the featured Chicken Dish of the Day: he really did have a death wish, that one. This was the great occasion on which St Martha – urgently solicited – worked a true miracle. For – see! – the long-delayed chicken finally went into the oven well after noon: and not a soul thought to order The Dish of of Day until the chooky-chook was beautifully cooked and wondrously savoury. Although we were very crowded that lunchtime, everyone mysteriously preferred to choose cold quiche.

However, this episode marked for me the beginning of five years of vegetarianism. I had cooked enough chickens¤¤¤¤. The sight of all those pallid-pink joints and their post-feathery chilly smell nauseated me. Chicken in the raw. I was like King Lear with his hand:

“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

And after that things were really never quite the same again.

¤ though I think that most of the Tsars of the Kusmi era ( the firm was founded in St Petersburg in 1867) had an anglophile preference for imported Liptons and Twinings.

¤¤ the name Martha and the word ‘myrrh’ probably have the same semantic origins. Once again, the motif of smell.

¤¤¤ permission given to sit, if necessitated by bodily frailty.

¤¤¤¤ remember Garbo on being asked why she retired at age 36? “I had made enough faces”.