“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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“All By Yourself In The Moonlight” – Rosa Greta at Les Senteurs

 

My grandfather was a great Garbo fan. Whenever the Divine One’s latest movie opened in Leicester he’d be off into town on his motor bike. It was after one of these outings, on a dusky summer’s evening, that he claimed he’d had a supernatural encounter; that he’d driven right through a spectral monkish shade gliding across the road. I am always intrigued to hear to which great stars my venerable ancestors were addicted. Their preferences provide thoughtful and unexpected insight into their characters. One’s adoration of a certain actor is as revealing as one’s choice of perfume. I remember my grandfather as bluff and sporty, always gardening or racing, a glass well to hand. But he painted, too; loved Swinburne’s poetry and the novels of Balzac. He had served right through the Great War and was wounded twice. He was acquainted with the shadow side of life. His first meeting with his future bride was unorthodox. He, on his motor bike in a narrow leafy lane, ran into her mother’s funeral cortege. Miss Elliott raised her crepe veil – gazed into the eyes of Mr Craven – and that was that. A scene that might well have come from an early Garbo silent.

She was a funny one, that gloomy Swede, with her family of trolls under the sofa. Greta Garbo always had far more of a following in Europe, in the Old World from which she sprang. Americans found her just too nutty, too glacially and disturbingly beautiful; too much of the outsider. As David Shipman put it¤, she signally failed to muck in. It was to Europe that Garbo regularly returned for her holidays – to England and Sweden; and to the Mediterranean which provided the heat, sea and sunshine that she loved so much. She was once one of a cruising party on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. Fellow guests included the Winston Churchills, Callas and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. One of the company later complained of the extreme ennui of the glittering party. Garbo had easily the most boring conversation of any of them, her remarks being mostly about the price of dry groceries in New York.

(But is this in itself not strangely endearing? Rather like Marlene’s homely recipes for sardine sandwiches and boiled potatoes).

The new and exquisite ROSA GRETA by Eau d’Italie now at Les Senteurs is inspired by another, earlier, holiday: this time at the Villa Cimbrone at Ravello. The Villa is noted for its rose terraces and still very much on the tourist route today. Garbo arrived for a stay in 1938, on the arm of her current lover, the conductor Leopold Stokowski¤¤. He was over a quarter century her senior with a great mane of white hair. The fan magazines were baffled. Their editors would have been even more foxed had they been privileged to see Garbo unpack her luggage upon arrival at the Villa. From her one small and shabby suitcase she took a selection of pots of jam. The jam went down to breakfast with her every morning. Afterwards it was returned to the bedroom and locked in the case. I would like to know whether a.) G.G. had made the jam herself and b.) whether Leopold was allowed to try it.

Stokowski was then beginning to make a big splash in Hollywood. He worked with the new teen sensation Deanna Durbin; and was later to be spliced in with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. Despite his name, Stokowski was English: in fact he was born a short walk from Les Senteur’s Seymour Place store, in Upper Marylebone Street. He was schooled in Marylebone High Street. So it feels as though ROSA GRETA has a strange and unexpected link to Seymour Place. It seems to belong with us, in a very esoteric way.

G.G. had an affinity with roses. Roses have thorns. Unlike her compatriot Ingrid Bergman, there is no rose specifically named for Garbo but the flower is part of her myth. In the 1929 silent ‘A Woman of Affairs’ she emerges distraught and dying from a hospital room to embrace a vast bouquet of white roses as she would a lover. The title card reads:

“I don’t want much – only you!”

In the next decade her bizarre on-off affair with Cecil Beaton began at a Hollywood party. Garbo drew a yellow rose from a vase, kissed it and presented it to Beaton who dried, pressed and framed the petals. The shrivelled – richly symbolic! – rose hung by his bed for the rest of his life and was auctioned off after his death in the 1980’s. It was knocked down for only £750 which – whatever anyone says – wasn’t that much, even then. G.G. is not to everyone’s taste. That’s part of the appeal.

ROSA GRETA is packaged in the bright blue and pink that featured largely in Garbo’s private wardrobe. She was especially fond of a certain shade of blue to set off those huge blue eyes, never seen in colour in any of her 27 films – and rarely in photos. The Garbo image is essentially a creation of black and white. It takes a bit of practice to imagine her in clear cheerful shades flattering that honey-tanned skin and the silky hair described by Beaton as ‘biscuit’. And always smelling clean, sweet and delicious in a Nordic natural rural way. If she bothered to wear scent at all, it was usually some vaguely masculine cologne.

ROSA GRETA is sexually ambiguous and intended to be enjoyed by everyone. I love it. It’s a scent into which one can sink: as into a pool or a bath or a bed of roses. This refreshing graceful creation by Fabrice Pellegrin¤¤¤ is a summer confection of white tea, damask rose, lychee (very discreet; not at all gloopy) and ambery woody accords. It has a dewy dampness about it, and a soft mossiness. Rose perfumes are always chancy because they carry such a weight of association and expectation, inherent in the choice of theme. Everyone thinks they know how a rose smells, and how it SHOULD smell when translated into a fragrance. It’s the one flower everybody can identify and name. Every perfumer wants to have a go at creating the definitive rose. It’s the odour of universal myth and symbolism, the fragrance of prayer, myth, fairy tale and passion: “the raptures and roses of vice”. Very apt therefore for associations with Garbo. Like the famous closing shot of “Queen Christina” – “think of nothing at all: make your face a blank” – we each of us read whatever we desire into a rose perfume. You’re likely to find your Heart’s Desire in GRETA.

¤ In “The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years” – that seminal work of 1970.

¤¤ he was married to – amongst others –  Gloria Vanderbilt of designer jeans and perfume fame; and the Johnson & Johnson heiress Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson. Interesting tangential fragrance connections!

¤¤¤ Pellegrin is already well known to us at Les Senteurs as the creator of By Kilian’s Smoke For the Soul.

New Worlds to Conquer: HOMOELEGANS and others…

 

What about that heat, then? How did it affect you? In some ways it did me a lot of good – I was away from the shop and so able to surrender totally to the mercury, and relax. The intensity and ferocity of the sun put paid to my doing anything; even to the extent of shutting down my brain. It was impossible to worry or even to think very much. Delightful. I turned back to some novels of my youth and “lay on the lounge”, behind drawn curtains, like Elsie in What Katy Did. I also sprayed myself ad lib with alternate scents from the Liquides Imaginaires range: namely the dreamy floaty Roman bath experience of Tumultu and the duskier sweet desires of Fortis. Something about them suited the atmosphere of hypocaust very well.

And I re-read The Good Earth, that seismic best-seller of the 1930’s by the great but now almost forgotten Pearl S. Buck. She writes in stately rhythm, like an Old Testament prophet or a spinner of immemorial fairy tales. The Good Earth is an often horrific story of old rural China  – a real eye-opener. Mrs. Buck had been reared in Asia and she knew the score. (Incidentally, the actress Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar in 1938 for her portrayal of the long suffering drudge O-Lan in the MGM film treatment, was a great friend and loyal customer of Les Senteurs). Pearl Buck reminds us that perfume in the China of more than a century ago was an art, a luxury and a seduction. We read much of hair combed through with oil of sandalwood; frequent scented baths and powderings; ‘the perfuming of the eight orifices’; and the luscious aroma of Eight Jewel Rice when brought steaming to table.

(And Mrs. Buck also reminds us of a fragrance tip I’ve often mentioned to you. Be sure to perfume the palms of your hands).

I am always fascinated by the way writers and other creative artists approach perfume, odours and the sense of smell. I’m intrigued by how they celebrate the olfactory mystery, weaving it willy-nilly into various aspects of their creations. So naturally when Les Senteurs invited the sensational Italian brand HOMOELEGANS into the fold I was mightily intrigued and beguiled.

The first three scents in the HOMOELEGANS sequence – the trio we have right now in the shop – are inspired by the complex personalities and creations of three eccentric and tricky twentieth-century individuals. Namely, Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo – two painters, one writer. Quite a handful!

I’ve written about Mann in this column before. His first great novel Buddenbrooks was published in 1904 – and was a huge best-seller in Germany for thirty years until the Hitler regime burned it. In this immense family saga, the sensual smells of good food and sleek grooming take their place in the repetitive rhythms, small hypnotic pleasures and joyous monotony of daily life. HOMOELEGANS approaches Mann via his much later work, Death In Venice: the stifling emotional atmospherics of the Lido; the fatal entrapment of the Lagoon.

Then, Frida Kahlo and Bacon. Francis Bacon’s paintings make me very sick: the very carnality of them reeks. He sees the Beast in us all and reveals it without mercy. I was advised to keep away from that bio-pic ‘Love Is the Devil’, and I heeded warning. Our English master at school used to tell us that Bacon’s pictures looked and smelled like reportage of slaughter houses. And those Popes! Velasquez was quite upsetting enough without Bacon imposing his own peculiar vision.

Much of Kahlo is bizarrely lovely: vivid, weird and mesmerising. The parrots and monkeys and hummingbirds; the surreal humour of “What I Saw In The Bath”; and Frida’s chthonic pre-Columbian fantasies. But she’s not exactly reassuring – and what about works such as “A Few Small Nips”? Very difficult to send to anyone when included in post-card collections. If you put the card inside an envelope – and the subject matter requires that decency – it seems even worse. As though one is a certain covert understanding with the recipient.

Anyone who is loves the enigma of perfumery will recognise that these three artists offer limited scope for a revolutionary approach to fragrance. Consider the way in which the mainstream media approaches scent. You’ll then appreciate how esoteric and even alien a subject perfume still is to many people. Only the other day a wireless presenter remarked on how difficult it is to talk about scent on air. I thought, now why do you say that? To me radio presentations and perfume have a lot in common: both are unseen, and their appeal lies principally in the magic of one’s own imagination.

So don’t take my word for it but come by and try these new beauties on our shelves. They are quite, quite extraordinary. And – as you would expect – headstrong,  ambisexual, wayward, even slightly perverse. There is an extreme ingenuity and subtlety in the way in which the perfumers have used three very disparate and complex characters & themes to create new life, energy and beauty. Art generating art; artifice breeding artifice.

But if that suggests something sterile and contrived then I am greatly misleading you. One of the key aspects of these three perfumes is their forceful impact; their visceral vivacity and vigour; their originality. All the elements that enthrall and disturb in the works of Kahlo, Mann and Bacon are evoked in the scents. A cruel beauty, a beautiful cruelty; fleshy textures and fleshly desire; colour; self-indulgence; pride; confidence and terror.

The Poisoned Chalice

 

A charming young person wrote to me recently to ask for my views on
Poison, that succès de scandale created  by Edouard Flechier¤ for Dior in 1985. How unorthodox was Poison really, in its own time? That was my student’s question.

Well, 32 years ago it was highly unusual. Half-crazed. Kind of running wild. Nowadays, however, Poison has no end of competition. Just think – for instance – of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques* with all its sour and sick bodily fluids. Even that has mellowed with the years, to the extent of sometimes being described as an aquatic floral, cool and fresh.

We have become hard to outrage. Schiaparelli’s Shocking wouldn’t cut much ice nowadays. And indeed Yves St Laurent’s provocative Opium (1977) had predated Poison by eight years. Now that perfume really did raise Cain, what with the concomitant controversial adverts and the insistent connotations of drugs and degradation. Before then, perfumes were given pretty names – or risque, naughty, sexy names. ‘Poison’ and ‘Opium’ were seen as very strange: as deliberately and offensively egregious. Of course that was the intention and the whole point. The subsequent publicity was immense. Like Giorgio, these were perfumes everyone TALKED about, at the water-cooler and elsewhere: perfumes it became the fashion to loathe.

No doubt the colours of the Poison packaging – the pantomime-evil green and purple – plus the name had a great deal to do with Dior’s runaway success. As I wrote back to my young friend: “You perhaps can’t imagine how shocked and baffled people were back then. We were still very innocent.”

Folk said wonderingly, “O! How could they call a perfume that? Poison, indeed! Perfume should be a beautiful thing…. And Dior, too, of all Houses, so chic and elegant! This scent must SMELL awful to be given a name so wicked.”

And they went on and on like this, whipping themselves up, and daring each other to sniff Poison; to try it, even.

The name was so diabolically clever. It preyed on all sorts of deep but rather dreadful ancient prejudices drawn from  legendary horrors, fairy tales and infamous crimes. Poison: always the coward’s weapon, the woman’s weapon. The tool of the foreigner, the outsider, the witch and the jealous rival. Medea, Snow White’s stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Agrippina, Livia, Madeleine Smith, Dr Pritchard, William Palmer,  Mme de Brinvilliers, Crippen. Horrible people who instead of calling out their adversaries for an honest fight doomed them to an agonising death: betraying their victims while feigning care and  nurture. “A buttered scone? Excuse fingers!” – remember Major Armstrong of Hay-on-Wye?

Yes. It was quite a scenario!

I thought in 1985 that Poison was horrible – too visceral, too dirty, a smell of rot. Now I still don’t like it but I can see that the formula is daring and venturesome and what we used to call “amusing” – that basic blend of tuberose (the eternal ancient florid aphrodisiac that has always had a reputation for boldness and sex) and red chilli pepper (ditto). Flagrant, if you like.

I do go back from time to time and try Poison. I’m much older – I still don’t like Poison but I can admire its nerve somewhat. It’s a small child in all of us who loves to shock. For to shock is to be getting all the attention.

But is Poison sexy? Is it voluptuous? Is it – as the judge said – fragrant? I think it misses, if only by a whisker. It tries too hard. It’s probably changed somewhat too – same as I have. Few perfumes stay exactly the same over 32 years.

Nowadays perfume is taken very seriously by the consumer – this was not so, back then. Allergies had not been invented; ingredients had not been purged by European committee; money went so much further. Scent came in small sizes, too, so you could buy all the time without being left short. If you fancied a fragrance – if it seemed fun – “amusingly vulgar, delightfully common” – you bought it, wore it, and chucked it. Scent was full-blooded, hot-blooded. It was much more heedless, more animal, more instinctive.

And yet….and yet…..Like those tiny mammals creeping around in the undergrowth while dinosaurs ruled the earth: even while Poison and its confreres were at their zenith the early niche/artisan/artistic scents were evolving. Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque were tunnelling like moles under the great Power Perfume edifice. Like so many great ancient empires, those magnificently unhinged power perfumes were rotting even at their apogee.

*currently on show at the exhibition Perfume at Somerset House

¤ we at Les Senteurs know Msr Flechier best for his two sublime creations for. FM – Une Rose and Lys Méditerranée.

¤¤ Tuberose is wild, vegetal, animalic and unhinged enough already without mixing it with the sweet hot chilli succulence. Chilli seemed to many to be a spanking new innovative ingredient but in fact had been given a run-around in the early 1950’s by Caron, in the notorious Poivre.

Plagued by smells

 

Awoke on Sunday morning to the delightful sound and smell of soft refreshing purging rain. The baked-up fields and gardens need water like mad after this unnaturally dry spring: so does the air. Wherever I go, I meet folk afflicted by coughs, respiratory congestion, catarrh and choking fits. The atmosphere is thick with pollen, dust and a creeping pollution: eyes and noses are streaming. The wonky weather doesn’t help, lurching from the icy blast of a north wind to sultry closeness: and all within twenty-four hours. May – theoretically one of the most blushingly romantic of months – can be the very devil in practice. There is nothing crueller than a piercingly cold Bank Holiday afternoon: and all your winter wardrobe prematurely packed away. ‘Ne’er cast a clout’, indeed.

In our spanking new and surreal 21st century London – now rebuilt for perhaps the third time since 1945 –  we occasionally stumble into a jarring electric reminder of our origin of species. Something stimulates our animal senses. We are yanked back into a brief realised memory of how the capital once smelt. The yellow bronchial fogs have long gone; so has the smoke. The smell of hot horse and equine manure¤- once ubiquitous – is limited to the parades of Royal State occasions and early morning cavalry exercise in Rotten Row. It is years since I saw anyone relieve himself in the street.

Discarded food, however, lies about in profusion: this was something you used not to see. It would be snapped up by stray dogs and cats (now completely vanished) or by the totally destitute. The other morning I came across – and not for the first time – an entire abandoned meal laid out on a cafe terrasse. Smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee all complete – cooling yet still fragrant in the morning air. Abandoned, barely touched, like that last breakfast aboard the ‘Mary Celeste’. The poor customer’s heart must have failed him at the last. ‘Fain would I eat/ Yet fear I to fall.’ You imagine all sorts of scenarios: an anxious stomach in knots finally undone by the smell of the meal. Eggs with salmon are very potent – and the ashtray was brimming with butts.

For what you do still find everywhere in the capital – so you must pick your way through the streets – is evidence of weak stomachs. I saw someone being suddenly and terribly sick at a railway station the other day. The effluvia was fluorescently blue and purple. What can he have been eating or drinking? A diet of fake news and fake food.

And, of course, we now have vapes: gushing clouds of perfumed ghostly steam. I have just finished Daniel Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year, written in 1722, but describing the last visitation of bubonic plague to London 57 years before. Defoe lived through the Great Plague as a child in Cripplegate. I think the vapes would  seem kind of familiar to him though he might mistake their purpose. For he writes of terrified Londoners with sticks of rue rammed up their noses and herbs held in their mouths; citizens doused in vinegar fumes¤¤; ever-burning braziers of woods and oils to smoke out infection and disperse the miasma of plague.

“….in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew…”

Everyone rushes out of church, and when they again foregather the worshippers have taken precautions, filling their “..mouths with one preparation or another”.

In an age when sickness was thought – quite logically, really – to be spread by smell¤¤¤, “the whole church was like a smelling-bottle; in one corner it was all perfumes; in another, aromatics, balsamics and variety of drugs and herbs; in another, salts and spirits, as every one was furnished for their own preservation”.

Because the infection did not break out in the Fleet, it was naively believed by Londoners that the smells of the shipyards “would preserve them”. Therefore they built great fragrant bonfires in the street and smoked the interiors of their houses with burning sulphur, pitch, oil of turpentine, rosin, cedar and brimstone.

Some survived, many perished. The huge irony in retrospect was that the true finish of the plague did indeed lie in the purification by flames. For in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the old city and the warrens of rats’ nests where the infection bred. Plague never returned.  Defoe’s most haunting lines describe what might be seen when a victim of the sickness breathed “upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen…of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils..”

Try spritzing some perfume on the bathroom mirror!

¤ Jumentuous: of, relating to, or smelling like the urine of a horse, from Latin jumentum, meaning a beast of burden, or ‘yoke-beast’, from jugum, a yoke
¤¤ Defoe writes of shop-keepers handing out the change from coins kept in a pot of vinegar. Our fishmonger favours this homely method of disinfectant today.

¤¤¤ My great grandfather Francis Braley (1844-1923), Chief Inspector of Nuisances for Leicester, still believed in miasma theory to some extent. So did his daughter, my grandmother.

Long Ago and Caraway…

 

Here we are again in the great season of asparagus, that timeless luscious
delicacy and supposed aphrodisiac. There was a big hoo-ha last month when the crop was blessed at Worcester Cathedral. A man was robed up in vegetable garb, and he pranced about as the Spirit of the Asparagus. For some this was much too pagan, with hints of The Green Man, the Great God Pan and Druidical nature worship. I’d imagine, too, that – in the subconscious at least – the carnal associations of the crop bothered some critics. I’m talking about the way asparagus supposedly promotes physical passion: its phallic symbolism; the role it played at Roman orgies; and the way it smells.

Jilly Cooper once remarked on how the unmistakable whiff of asparagus always hangs around the geography of great country houses at this time of year. It lingers in bodily fluids as strongly and evidently as beetroot or garlic. Indeed, the smell of older woodier asparagus has a definite similarity to that of the starry-flowered wild garlic: pungent, smoky, spicy, a suggestion of fried onions. That potent bruising highly-invasive odour is such a virile and piquant contrast to the faery-ferns of asparagus foliage. These are the delicate and feathery fronds that one used to see in wedding boutonnieres¤. The little Carr girls, if you’ll remember, used asparagus boughs to build an airy bower for the dreadful Imogen Clark in ‘What Katy Did’. And despite its luxurious reputation – and ludicrous prices in some fine-dining eateries – asparagus is not hard to grow. We had a great bed of it at home in the old days, laid down in the 1940’s if not before. My father chucked on a bit of manure; the cats sunbathed there; the crop came up year after year in full force. Pagan in its profusion!

So why not bless the sweet asparagus? The ceremony can do nothing but good. No doubt the heathen vegetable will benefit from some spiritual taming just as Edwardian hostesses tried to refine it at table by handling it with tongs.

Also on my larder shelf this week is a jar of caraway¤¤ seeds. When I was young every decent household seemed to have a caraway seed cake ‘on cut’. Cakes then were not the screechingly sweet sugar-goo mountains so ubiquitous today. ‘That’s not cake, duck: that’s gateau’, we were told in shops. You made seed cake with the old dry rub-in method. This largely went out when every cook demanded an electric mixer¤¤¤. Seed cake was generally rather dry and crumbly: it went well with very strong, very hot tea or – traditionally at a funeral – with a glass of sherry. Beatrix Potter and Charlotte Bronte both celebrated it. It smelled of caraway’s cousin, fragrant aniseed: the scent that supposedly drives dogs crackers – though growing up in a veterinary household I never saw evidence of this. And my father used to come home laden with seed cakes; his favourite thing at tea time. My aunt made a classic version; and there were fans baking cakes for him in every farmhouse kitchen

 

 

Pa would sometimes ask for dark marmalade to be stirred into the mixture; or he simply spread on his own Cooper’s Oxford at table. The unusually luxurious version of seed cake given in The Constance Spry Cook Book (1956) calls for five eggs, candied orange peel, freshly grated nutmeg¤¤¤¤, brandy and ‘a handful’ of sugared caraway comfits. Imagine the heavenly fragrance of that little beauty, cooling from the oven in shades of copper and amber and gold! The sort of cake that used to make old-fashioned tea parties so giggly.

Sixty years ago, old village ladies used impossibly vulgar nicknames for caraway seeds which will not be repeated here. But, culinary-wise, caraway is so versatile. The seeds perk up a boiled cabbage, go good with roast potatoes – and with spuds in their jackets. Let the potato bake almost through; cut it in half; dip the cut ends in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and caraway. Then return to oven until the crust is crisp. The aroma of caraway is improved and strengthened by soaking, baking or otherwise cooking. The seeds are good to chew, too. This was the invariable habit of the Baroness Lehzen, the young Queen Victoria’s gouvernante. For years Lehzen’s presence in the royal palaces would be heralded by a redolence of breath-sweetening caraway and a faint clicking noise, as of a canary or budgerigar pecking away. It was Prince Albert’s abomination of this habit, as much as his resentment at Lehzen’s influence on the Queen, that persuaded him to be rid of her once and for all.

Years ago, at the start of a Harrods Winter Sale, a beautiful Irish girl who looked like Ingrid Bergman said to me in the canteen:

“We have to EAT our way through this terrible time!”

Let’s eat and SMELL our way through the Election period! Caraways, asparagus and what you will.

¤ an unintended fertility symbol?

¤¤ isn’t ‘caraway’ a romantic word? Makes me think of Coramandel screens, Ronald Firbank characters, Edith Sitwell and her ‘Gold Coast Customs’.

¤¤¤ remember the tv ad with Maria Charles? ‘Don’t make yourself a slave, darling! Get him to buy you a mixer like your mother’s.’ Tempi passat.

¤¤¤¤ mildly mood-enhancing, as you know.

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.