“Touchez-pas mes tomates!” – Josephine Baker

 

I have never yet assisted at an anthropophagous feast. Indeed, despite the occasional voice from the BBC radio archive, many academics now question whether cannibal banquets ever occurred at all. They could be a figment of a warped cultural imagination. (See also: violent Vikings, the various cakes of King Alfred and Marie Antoinette, or even the very existence of the poor old Dolly Sisters). The tomato is such a well-known homely fruit and food-chain-rivet today. It’s hard to imagine it in Pre-Conquest Mexico, served up with marigolds and tuberose on a garnished epergne of human sacrificial flesh.

‘Tomatl’ the old Mexica called the luscious-acid berry. Spookily it’s a member of the nightshade family. We in Britain first wrote the word as ‘tamatah’ or ‘tomata’ – the way many of us still pronounce it.

How the tomatl finished up here is uncertain. It grew wild all over the South American continent and came to London via Italy and Spain, courtesy of Columbus – maybe! – and the Conquistadors. In those days carrots were purple, beetroots were yellow and tomatoes were gold. And the English didn’t take to the novelties at all. The taste was too sharp and sour for a nation already sky-high on sugar. The colour was at first thought amusing for table decoration; but tomatoes, it seems, mostly ended up in animal feed. What people objected to most, was the horrible smell.

Which is odd. Because today the fragrance of ripe warm tomatoes is as much of a delicacy as the fruit itself. I used to know a greenhouse in a walled secret garden. At this time of year, the hothouse would surrounded with huge fleshy bitter-scented scarlet dahlias and a tangle of tarragon, run wild. Push open the swollen glass door and you were embraced by the narcotic perfume of vine peaches, and of ripening tomatoes in their feathery foliage.

I’m growing tomatoes right now, in tubs, and feeding them with Tomorite. Very healthy this year, they are: bug-free and appreciative of last week’s 48 hour deluge. The leaves smell good when pinched: spicy and green and slightly dusty, musty, feral. I guess the scent is not that far removed from that of geraniums. Spiky, aromatic, uplifting. Our wonderful Mona di Orio always remembered from infancy the smell of her grandmother’s geraniums: one of her own key perfume references. Baking summer days – and then watering the flower pots in the cool of the evening: the sharp tang of wet earth and leaves.

We have had one or two tomato scents in the shop over the years; and the occasional tomato candle. They have all been ingenious and rather lovely; though not especially successful sellers. Maybe because – although lusciously redolent – the tomato is too much associated in people’s minds with eating. But then, you exclaim, what nonsense is this? Folk go mad for gourmand perfumes suggestive of cream, chocolate, peaches, apricots, praline, liqueurs. Yes, certainly. But then these are luxurious, voluptuous, often rather unhealthy foods: ergo, erotic. The tomato represents ‘health for all’ and for some perverse reason that is not generally seen as sexy. Or, not as yet. Consider, too, canned tomato soup: it comes very high on comfort lists for the poorly and the exhausted. That too doesn’t sit well with an exuberant sensuality.

When tomatoes were eventually bred as red in hue they still failed to find favour. Great ladies of the Victorian and Edwardian era – most famously Duchess Violet of Rutland – thought them common. The Duchess banned them from Belvoir Castle. I remember it being said that Prime Minister John Major loathed tomatoes, and they were in his day never proffered with the Full English at No.10. My father was wary of them and preferred them skinned. He believed that every tomato skin ingested would one day have to be accounted for: evidently another inherited Victorian food fad.

My grandmother taught me the most amusing way to peel tommies: inexhaustible fun at age five or six. You stuck a skewer into the core, and held the fruit in the gas flame of the stove, rotating it slowly. Sooner or later there came a satisfying ‘POP!’ – and a spitting burst of juice – and a wonderful scent of scorching warm tomato flesh. The skin slid off as easily as on a baking Bank Holiday beach weekend at Bognor!

I saw Jamie Oliver cooking dried beans the other night. He advised popping in a tomato because its acid softens the beans, and stops them from splitting. It occurred to me that you could drop in whole tomatoes and thus loosen their skins in the boil-up. Myself, I don’t bother about peeling. The way I like my tomatoes best is raw – warm from the sun, sliced and tossed in olive oil and black pepper. Let the mix sit – covered – in the sun a while longer. Lots of fresh basil leaves satisfy an urgent need for violent primary colour-clashing and added fragrance. To gild the lily, chuck in peeled and glistening avocado halves. The ultimate quantum of solace.

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More intimate pages from my diary…

 

SUNDAY

Awake too soon. Decide to tidy my handkerchief drawer. Empty it out on the bed. Here’s a rainbow of coloured cottons: every sort of hanky from sturdy spotted indigo bandanas to dainty lexicons of the Language of Flowers. Some have been gifts, others found in the street. Iron, fold and stack. Re-line drawer and spray everything with Papillon’s delectable Dryad. Spend rest of morning opening and shutting drawer for the sheer pleasure of smelling that heavenly Dryad flying out. Take late afternoon train back to London. No seats. Balance myself in the aisles. Write my blog standing, like Florence Nightingale’s papa. Passengers stampede like cattle over one another’s baggage. A bad couple of hours, and to crown all I find I have forgotten my heartburn tablets. Though not my scented hanky.

 

MONDAY

Take Tube down to Richmond for a day in the office. It’s right next door to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth House. Mrs W. once wrote that poor Katherine Mansfield smelled like a civet cat.

Read a fascinating Times obituary of Frank Sinatra’s last wife. I’ve always found Frankie a most unattractive character, but Marlene adored him; and so did this wonderful woman Barbara Blakeley who stood for no nonsense. “He signed his love letters to her as ‘Charlie Neat’, a reference to his tendency to take several showers a day and to smell of lavender water”.¤

The fondness for lavender is interesting. Too many folk still associate it with ennervated effete old ladies whereas it can be a very virile, invigorating scent. Today I’m working at Creed UK HQ: Sinatra is often said to have had a yen for Creed products. People fixate on knowing which perfume a celebrity wears: but you never know for sure, not really. Stars get sent so many gifts. And, like the rest of us – but on a vaster scale –  they buy stuff but never use it. Or they pass it on, unopened, to the maid and the valet. Nonetheless it’s still a thrill to think that one can smell – more or less – like one’s idol. The purchase of a little sympathetic magic.

 

TUESDAY

Quite a day. Les Senteurs at 71 Elizabeth St is now being wonderfully done up – redecorated and refurbished – so every last stick has to be moved out.

We packed all that could be packed into the van and that’s a fact – then we haul it down into the basement of Les Senteurs at 2 Seymour Place. Here we now congregate like a colony of bower birds. All sorts of flotsam and jetsam from the past drift ashore. Perfume stimulates memory as we all know, so the whole experience is exceedingly overwhelming. For the next couple of months all the staff will be at your service at the one shop in elegant Seymour Place. Plenty of good restaurants nearby; so why not come down and spend the day in Marylebone?

 

WEDNESDAY

Two new scents from Mona di Orio arrive & are unpacked. Pascale – always the perfect House Model for every perfume –  smells swooningly lovely in Dojima. This is a delicate fantasy of rice powder, jasmine, nutmeg and creamy musk. We all go out for supper at ‘Zayna’ in New Quebec Street to console ourselves for Pascale leaving us on August 15th. For the past two and half years she has been not only a dear and irreplaceable Friend, but also a perfect Nose, a witty and perceptive cultural Philosopher, an adroit PR Operative and a conscientious Manager. The loss is irreparable.

Take our places at ‘Zayna’, eat wonderful food – including the best prawns in the world – and feel a bit weepy.

 

THURSDAY

How differently we all interpret the same fragrance – thank Heaven for that! Else, as my father used to say, some of us would be killed in the rush. Enjoy animated chat with a most charming and erudite gentleman who comes to buy a bottle of BOIS D’OMBRIE. I experience this dark woody resinous fragrance as a  sleepy siesta in a deep green velvet armchair. My visitor thinks of it as a wild war-time forest ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’. Fascinating. Just goes to show you need imagination as well as a nose to get the most from perfume.

 

FRIDAY

Awake up to find my phone chocka with texts & emails. Have I seen the Daily Mail? No. Apparently I’m ‘in’. Hobble out for a copy, and – o dear! – it’s true. Here is a whole page, lavishly illustrated  – and with a by-line, yet. It’s an article I wrote back in the spring about Diana’s Perfumes. Here at Les Senteurs we stock Houbigant’s legendary QUELQUES FLEURS, the scent the Princess is said to have worn on her wedding day. It has been adored by generations of women since 1912. Said to be perfumery’s first true multi-floral bouquet, Quelques Fleurs (brilliantly understated name) is as fresh and dewy as it was 105 years ago. I like the apple blossom note myself – and the deep musky jasmine shadows.

 

SATURDAY

Awake in my own bed having caught the late train home last night.
Gather a large bowl of blackberries in record time. The gleaming warm fruits
are already tumbling off the briars or being pecked by birds. They are shining and brilliant in the morning sun, almost the colour of iridescent bluebottles – or beryls. This year’s crop has been ripe since July. Abnormally early. The Devil spits on the berries on Michaelmas Day¤¤ – so it’s a long harvest this year.  Poach them briefly in a little sugar and their own juices: a wonderful sweet nutty smell. I think of MOMENT PERPETUEL and how artfully Msr Arnaud blends blackberry with lavender: symphony in violet, purple and mauve.

Eat the blackberries.

 

¤ The Times July 27th 2017

¤¤ St Michael, Leader of the Celestial Armies. Feast of St Michael and All Angels: 29th September.

Classic Camel – or, “Cover Yourself With Pearl!”

When I was a child it was the done thing – the sought-after thing – to be the proud possessor of a camel coat. I see this garment is still described ‘on-line’ as ‘ an iconic style choice’, though seldom seen in my world. It is years since I bought any sort of coat; decades, even. (I wear my dad’s). The camel coat was especially desired by women, but it was also popular with smart children and with the smoother type of man¤. A camel coat was worn in town, to attend church and to go out to dinner. A camel coat was always correct and ‘safe’. Of course, as a tot, I thought these clothes were spun from camel hair whereas actually they were made of alpaca, merino, cashmere or angora. They were soft, supple, warm and usually lined with some thick slippery silky fabric, sometimes detachable for cleaning. ‘Camel’ referred to the colour – a beige, biscuit, fawn or stone. The coats dirtied quickly, being prone to greasy dark smears around collar and cuffs, and down the front breadth. Their second home was at the dry cleaners. Nonetheless I associate them with wonderful smells.

I guess this was because the coats were worn for best. Consequently, small children being kissed in a hallway, or helping to pile visitors’ wraps on a hostess’s bed, were overwhelmed by a whole perfumery of fragrance, redolent and abundant from expectant bodies and scented skin. There were odours of make up, hairsprays, lotions and aftershaves too: sweet, powdery, sharp, plastic or creamy. Even the odd boutonniere of rosebud or carnation pinned to a lapel.

So it was ironic that lately I was reminded how appalling camel and camel hair – the real raw stuff – actually smells. Maybe you’ll recall that back in June I was reading the novels of Pearl S Buck. Buck wrote exhaustively about China: she was bred if not born there, at the very end of the Imperial era, in the last years of the Dragon Empress.  Her memoirs are picaresque and monumental: reading her is like the very slow and relished munching of rich dark fruit cake, thickly frosted. In one memorable passage she talks of a Mongol camel driver in Manchuria, knitting directly from his moulting animal. Then she tells us that “the reek of the camel is eternal, and not to be removed by the best of washings”. In the Great War, American ladies up in the Chinese hill stations had planned to knit vests for European troops from local camel hair. But the smell was “so strong that my mother held her nose and dropped all the yarn into a pail of strong carbolic solution to soak for a day or two ..(but)…when taken out and dried, the camel reek was still there, triumphant..” ¤¤

Now I know a lady who used to spin her own wool on a wheel, back in her former sheep-farming days. Ever anxious to research on your behalf, I popped round to discuss this. I rang the bell. My kind friend is knitting a blanket and has plenty of wools to hand, including some from her old flock. Even after nearly twenty years, each skein has its own peculiar smell – mostly hay-like, even vaguely flowery and aromatic. I asked her about camel. She’d had it on the wheel once, she said. And like Pearl’s mother, she’d found the odour unbearable.

I can’t speak for myself. I came close to a camel only once, in Egypt. My attention was diverted by an almighty row between the camel-owner, his boy and a British lady who claimed to have been short-changed for her ride on the beast. So the camel driver beat the boy; and the lady ended up paying her fare over again to compensate the victim for his ( I think, carefully staged ) sufferings. I don’t recall much about the smell. Only that of the mint tea made with Nile water – “eau de Nil” indeed – which concluded the riotous proceedings.

Mrs Buck also goes into the whole business of the ‘occidental’ smell of milk. Milk – animal milk at any rate – was not  much used in China a century ago. In one of her books Pearl describes the perceived foul smell – the “cow smell” – exuded by westerners returning from milk-product-consuming Britain and America. It took months to wash through the system and for the sweet clean ‘oriental’ body smell to return.

Finally, and to change the subject entirely. Did I mention some time ago my pot of Greek oregano? I certainly intended to. Well, this hot summer is very much to the herb’s liking and it romps along in the back yard. The scent and the taste are unparalleled. Last Saturday night I baked red peppers and threw in a couple of sprigs. Fragrant, savoury, flavoursome. The oregano had much the same smoky salty effect as adding a rasher of  bacon or a couple of anchovies.  If you can’t afford the camel coat, treat yourself to the oregano.

¤ children and men often had natty velvet collars to their coats. I’m sure Prince George has a camel coat.

¤¤ extracts from ‘My Several Worlds. A Personal Record’ by Pearl S Buck. London: Methuen 1953