“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.

“Dear Diary”: my week in perfume

Les Indémodables founder Valerie Pulverail and her partner Remi Pulverail, founder of L’Atelier Francais des Matières with Claire, Daniela and James!

SUNDAY:

Pack up for the return to London. Very hot. Reluctant to leave my tower lilies, now in full bloom in a pair of pots framing the back door. This is their second year, and they’ve put on a massive growth spurt. The taller lily is well over six feet, with a stem as sturdy as a young sapling – “no need to stake”. At the summit – rather as in a belfry – hang twelve trumpet blooms. Each is the size of a eccentrically-shaped soup bowl, and the colour of a very rich cream custard with scent to match. Ginger, lemon, tonka, vanilla, musk and jasmine accords attract swarms of insects – and me. Why does no perfumer produce a fragrance to replicate this heavenly smell? I’m always asking this question. Never get a satisfactory answer.

 

 

MONDAY:

My office day. Pop down to Richmond. Queen Elizabeth 1’s favourite palace once stood on the river bank. All that remains now is The Wardrobe. Officious person tells me, “..that doesn’t mean a cupboard in which to hang your clothes, you know.” Elizabeth Tudor died here – not in the Wardrobe. I always think it was a foolish place to bring a sick cross old lady in wet windy March weather; but I suppose the Queen insisted. The Thames at Richmond intensifies winter cold and damp; but in July all is idyllic. Dancing in the streets and flowers everywhere. Office is filled with the scent of a bowl of ripe mangoes. Am shown a new eau de parfum from Mizensir with the provocative name of Tres Chère – masses of orange blossom and vanilla; comforting, seductive and a great booster of spirits. Mizensir perfumes are all great fun – an essential quality in scent. Clever Mr Morillas!

 

TUESDAY:

A very warm night. Troubled dreams of Myrna Loy; and of pugs. A dear former colleague writes that she is visiting the H.Q. of Aspects Beauty, “custodians of luxury cosmetic and fragrance brands”. Aspects live in a gorgeous old house – Balneath Manor – in East Sussex which once belonged to Queen Anne of Cleves. The property was part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII. A pleasing irony, because one of Old Harry’s grouses was that Anne smelled funny. Now her lovely home is filled with wonderful scents. A pub quiz mentality kicks in here, and I think about other divorced Queens of England – Catherine of Aragon, Sophie Dorothea (locked up by that old brute George 1st); and, of course, the scatty Caroline of Brunswick, barred at the Abbey doors from George IV’s coronation. She too “smelled offensively” – too lazy to wash, her own parents said. The English Ambassador put in a word, but all in vain.

 

WEDNESDAY:

So hot that I draw across the curtains upon arising to keep out the cruel glare. Am pleased to recall the ancient Egyptians personifying the angry sun as the “Lady of the Chamber of Flames”. Interesting weather for smelling scent. All the oils come shimmeringly, blazingly, to life and open up like so many peacock tails on hot damp skin. A pyrotechnic perfume show. Go marketing for dry goods and beverages to adorn tomorrow’s Les Senteurs Event. Lemons, limes, mandarins and raspberries make a wonderful splash of colour – a Frida Kahlo still life. Put on a splash of our new Paloma Y Raices ‘en hommage’. The Edgware Road seems endless in this heat – “a long long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams…” But there’s no white moon beaming at the end of it. Return to shop with my loot. Pascale says I’m making funny noises. It is possible.

 

THURSDAY:

Meet the wonderful Valerie and Remi Pulverail who fly in from Annecy for our Event. The kind, gracious, generous and richly informative Pulverails have come to talk about Valerie’s new brand Les Indémodables. Five scents inspired by the classic perfume families – and now exclusive in the UK at Les Senteurs. Just For Us!! We are blessed indeed. Become very excited. Each fragrance has a silky smoothness, profound depth and a jewel-like brilliance. The names add to the sense of rich colour and luxury: Fougére Emeraude, Chypre Azural, Iris Perle…A fragranced wardrobe of dreams. Shop fills up wonderfully for Event: Remi and Valerie speak thrillingly and persuasively. A great success. Home very late, by taxi.

 

FRIDAY:

Rendezvous with Valerie and Remi at 11am at Les Senteurs, Belgravia. The Pulverails both look fresh as daisies, crisp and immaculate, full of energy and knowledge. Valerie is the epitome of French chic in a cunning white lace jacket. Fascinating two hours of training. Our shop manager says, “I have never enjoyed a training more, nor learned so much”. Finally understand exactly why Calabrian bergamot is the BEST bergamot: often stated, never before explained. Here’s the reason. Thanks to the proximity of Mount Etna across the straits, Calabria has its own micro-climate. Night temperatures consistently warm, balmy winters. The volcanically-manured soil feeds and nourishes the temperamental bergamot trees and their fruit.  Remi makes reference to the fact that few flowers bloom for longer than three weeks. (Jasmine is one exception). We agree ruefully that, as we grow older, these weeks seem to shrink. Dissect Cuir de Chine and discover the radiance of natural Chinese Osmanthus Absolute. A miracle! Never smelled anything like this. Les Indémodables demonstrate that, even at my age, revelations in perfume can occur. Ask Remi about fragrances celebrating lilies. He is kind and sympathetic but we come to no definitive conclusion.

After work, take late train home to Leicester. As I step onto my native heath, the Heavens open – am soaked as I dash across London Road. Had almost forgotten this refreshing sensation.


SATURDAY:

Drink chilled redbush tea all day – a new craze much recommended by my neighbour. Flowery, delicate and refreshing. Find a Chinese pot pourri dish – still filled and fragrant – at Oxfam. Buy a yellow orchid and an Italian plate. Tower lilies still holding their own. Still pumping out perfume. They have one week left.

 

 

Roman Holiday

In this continuing oppressively muggy weather our intellectual energies are sapped. Consequently I’ve returned to a degenerate old habit. Every night I’ll watch the same DVD: time after time. For the last few weeks I have been hypnotised by ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone’ (1961). It’s so relaxing to pick a familiar film to pieces, knowing that no shocks or surprises await you; but that new innuendoes are still there to be understood. Tiny overlooked details are yet to be found in the corners of the frame. Very similar it is to exploring the outer limits of your favourite perfume. And so, only two nights ago, kneeling before the set with my sharpest specs on, I spotted the flacon of Shalimar to the side of Mrs Stone’s dressing table: the same prop and bottle previously noted in Diana Dors’s beauty shop in ‘Yield To The Night’. Guerlain, your magic spell is everywhere!

‘Mrs Stone’ – adapted from the Tennessee Williams novella – is as disturbing as anything you might expect by that upsetting writer. The film is a study of – I suppose –  sexual desire, loneliness and moral decay. Abruptly widowed in the skies over Rome, the “proud…arrogant” – and to use a modern euphemism, “troubled”  – stage legend Karen Stone comes to live in a palazzo apartment on the Spanish Steps. Here the angel of death and his troupe of unlikely heralds in the costumes of low cafe society come to stalk, court and seduce her.

What twists the knife, is the unnerving casting of Vivien Leigh in the title role. The whilom Lady Olivier is compelled to play out her own tragic story in the unattractive persona of Karen. There is not a sympathetic character in the movie: not even among the servants where a more sentimental piece might have discovered a little warmth. Mrs Stone’s maid has a smirking knowingness to her; her chauffeur (Warren Mitchell, would you believe, in a bit part¤) is perfunctory and gruff. Alone among assorted birds of prey – though she is ironically the only one so stigmatised by the script – Karen Stone begins to lose her bearings, to drift.

She “was becomingly alarmingly conscious of a sense of drifting if not of drowning in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapours.” ¤¤

As the narrator intones this, we pace with Mrs Stone in her sealed airless pastel bedroom with its huge empty sateen bed and closets of Balmain couture on padded hangers. These were the days when bags, shoes and gloves were dyed to match the dress. Karen sits at her dressing table loaded with its extensive armoury against age. The “fluids and vapours” materialise – not rushing, but torpid – as luxurious lotions, creams and perfumes. Unguents for the embalming. There stand Shalimar and Miss Dior, for sure; those with keen eyes will probably identify other famous names. Here, too, as throughout the film are endless arrangements of flowers. “Floral tributes” might be more appropriate: there is something funereal about the stagey profusion of waxy magnolias, freesias, lilies and indecent anthuriums. Their scent may be invisible but the claustrophobic painted sets seem saturated by it. When Karen buys a posy of muguet in the street, she fidgets and sniffs with it while lying to old stage colleagues that she has an incurable illness. And we then remember “Flores para los muertos!” – the ominous flower seller in the earlier Leigh vehicle A Streetcar Named Desire. We gradually notice too that Mrs Stone’s soi-disant best friend (Coral Browne) is clad exclusively in shades of black, white and grey whenever they – uncomfortably – meet. Colours of premature mourning.

This sense of doom is intensified by the modern audience awareness of Vivien Leigh’s own precarious health, neuroses and early death. One of her many preoccupations was with hygiene and her fear that others might find her evil-smelling. She worried about her breath; and kept a series of silk embroidered squares which she threw over discarded intimate clothing. Mind you, there may be something exaggerated about this last report. I remember reading it out to my mother some 40 years ago, and she said “oh, we ALL had those cloths then. Maybe not silk nor embroidered – but everyone had them…”

Vivien Leigh’s signature perfume was apparently Patou’s Joy: that wonderfully intense and exaggerated heady animalic jasmine that either delights or repels. It’s an old favourite of mine although – or is it because? – within the rainy damp loveliness you can detect the faint whiff of imminent decay.

And that’s how poor Vivien looks on film: a wrecked beauty at age 47; garishly made-up, atrociously coiffured. Kittenish still, sometimes, but now a spiteful hard-eyed kitten who has been teased too much by life. Her tormentor-in-chief is the Contessa who is obsessed with – amongst other things – food. With “fine dining”, as we might say now. In the original story, I remember the Contessa as being consequently obsese. Here in a stroke of casting genius she’s played by the angular and voracious Lotte Lenya – forever famished for caviar, lobster and money. Here we go again, back to the predatory birds and the smells of meat, flesh and blood – life and death in Rome, ancient and modern.

 

 

This September – 50 years after her death at the age of 53 – Sotheby’s are holding an auction of Vivien Leigh’s personal possessions. And right now in this “red raw moment”¤¤¤ we have at Les Senteurs a sensational new perfume. Andy Tauer’s L’EAU conjures up an aura of a happier Roman holiday with all the languorous delights of la dolce vita. L’EAU is a glorious paradox. This rara avis is a sensual citrus, an erotic hesperidic. It smells of sunshine on ancient balconies, terraces and verandas. Ancient stones soaked in a light and warmth that melt your bones in joyous languor as you open a second bottle of Limoncello. L’EAU wraps itself around the wearer in a cloud of lemon blossom, orange, bergamot and iris. The wonderfully persistent base lingers on for hours thanks to what appears to me to be beautiful infusions of amber, musk, sandalwood and tonka. It really is blissful: so sexy, stylish – and, unparalleled for a citric scent, sumptuous. Why not pop round?

¤ the whole cast is extraordinary: amongst others we meet –  Ernest Thesiger, Jean Marsh, Maria Britneva, Edward de Souza, Jill St John, Warren Beatty, Mavis Villiers, Elspeth March, Sam Jaffe and – toast of the early silents – Bessie Love.

¤¤ shooting script by Gavin Lambert

¤¤¤ Molly Keane, passim.

“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.

Dryad

 

I love trees yet I am wary of woods. Trees have so much natural magic in and about them. Consequently, when they grow en masse, they can be intimidating. Trees are homes to elves, witches, trolls, goblins, dryads, nymphs and all manner of faery grotesques. When you plant many trees together you are playing with fire, tempting outbursts of the supernatural and the paranormal. I fancy that maybe Lewis Carroll thought the same. Think of that terrifying Jabberwocky – turn the page quickly when reading in bed! –  the Cheshire Cat up in the branches, and that deafening aggressive Pigeon. There are a lots of dark woods and their disconcerting denizens in the Alice books.

Then come Babes in the Wood, The Tinder Box, Hansel and Gretel, The Wild Wood, Mr Tod. Our mother filled her children’s heads with stories of The White Monkey who sat high in the tree tops, gazing down with glitter-eyed malevolence and malice. Not to mention the Wooky Witch who lived in a blackthorn alley behind the gas works and who flew after us – and the pram – as we raced, panic-stricken, up the bosky tunnel of leafy twigs. And there was also the Giant Budd who ate ice cream from the convolvulus flowers twined around his poplar trees.

Now a dryad is the spirit of a tree; the life of a tree. She is the nymph who lives and presides within the bark. Sometimes an unlucky woodcutter will see blood when he fells timber and knows with terror that he has killed the dryad: evidently with consequent fatal consequences to himself. Old dictionaries of mythology describe dryads as usually benevolent but apt to sometimes boo out and terrify unwary lone travellers. This happens especially at noon and midnight –  the hours when the world is brightest or dimmest; when humankind is blinded by light or night. That’s when the dryad strikes.

Many old stories are told of mortal maidens transformed into flowers, shrubs or trees to protect them from lecherous admirers. Daphne, for instance. To save her from the advances of Apollo, she was turned into the sweet-smelling flowered laurel bush that bears her name. Did Daphne then become a dryad herself, by divine intervention? Or must one be born into this blessed but precarious condition?

We must ask Elizabeth Moores, presiding genius of Papillon Perfumes. Her new perfume is named DRYAD and it’s a fragrance of an intense weird beauty. Elizabeth was kind enough to send me a sample to wear on my holidays. As my mood relaxed and my senses sharpened DRYAD smelled more and more divine – and increasingly subtle. I’m wearing it right now, on a glorious midsummer Sunday afternoon. To this old synaesthesic it is like a weightless mantle of gauze woven in lilac and dull gold, the colours of the orange, apricot and lavender which play such a bewitching part in its elaborate formula.

Am I picking up these particular notes because I’m lying at ease in a warm and balmy garden? As the year moves on – when I return to the bricky glare of London – will DRYAD rustle her wing cases and shake out her heavier earthier robes of galbanum, vetiver, oak moss, musk and clary sage?

I suspect she will for, even at this early stage, one is well aware of the unfathomable dense intricacy of this treasure. The rich resonant depths which have the critics comparing Elizabeth’s magic touch to that of a Guerlain or a Daltroff. And the connection is not only to these revered old masters. There is also a certain touch in DRYAD which reminds me of the gorgeous dressiness of Editions de Parfums’ new release SUPERSTITIOUS. Both perfumes hint at the smell, feel and texture of sumptuous fabrics. Ms Moores and Dominique Ropion have discretely caught the Zeitgeist most exactly – though in contrasting ways. Ropion dazzles us with the sweet shiny glare of satin, the sleekness of silk. SUPERSTITIOUS is buoyed up with a profusion of whalebone, and taffeta underskirts: the innermost wiring seen in the Balenciaga X-rays at the new V&A exhibition. Elizabeth Moores is more interested in the feral warmth of fur, the bite of leather; ells of creamy damp velvet wound around the stems of narcissi, jonquils and lilies. SUPERSTITIOUS has all the gloss of the atelier. DRYAD speaks more of the secrets of The Golden Bough, the seance and the innermost sanctuary of the shrine. It is a fragrance crammed full of Sybilline riddles and enigmas which I feel I am only just beginning to understand. And that’s the key to true perfume magic: the expert creation and manipulation of illusion.

Make no mistake: DRYAD is the very peak and pinnacle of a truly great perfume.

“To the woods!”

DRYAD is launching on the 10th of July right here at Les Senteurs.

Image credit: Thomas Dunckley of The Candy Perfume Boy

Riders of the Purple Sage

 

Another strange week! These cheating winds. The blustery gusts of change, all right. Hands up anyone who reflected upon the Dutch Wind of 1688.
Or on Queen Elizabeth’s Armada medal – “God blew with His winds and they were scattered.”

When I Iast left you, I was walking down a long road, following the trail of a strange and lovely smell entwined in the elderflower hedgerows and the early summer grasses. The fragrance was sweet, fruity and faintly powdery. A dear friend has just returned from China after a spell in Guilin, ‘the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus’. Being always suggestible, I entertained the notion briefly that a Tree of Heaven had spontaneously rooted itself and flowered by a Leicester B-road.

It hadn’t, of course. I reached the ‘bus shelter and the odour was suddenly overpowering; and not quite as entrancing. There was a flash of chrome yellow and hyacinth blue on the pavement. But it wasn’t a macaw feather. It was a funny little tree, cut out of cardboard. Not a Money Tree, of which we have heard so much lately; but a Magic Tree, with a blue thread loop attached – a “Pina Colada” room fragrance. I hadn’t seen one of these Trees for years, not close up. I view them from afar though, hanging in cars. I suppose someone had flung the Tree from a passing vehicle, overwhelmed by the smell.

Because, from the look of it, the Tree had lain there for days in the wind and rain¤, but it was still belting out a mighty redolence of synthetic pineapple, rum and coconut together with an eerie hint of Parmesan cheese. I wrapped the novelty up in a plastic bag and took it home to wipe, wash and study: “I do it for you. For nobody else!” It’s now in the back passage, wildly scenting the utility room and usual offices. My word, it’s pungent and seemingly indestructible. I  don’t think I shall keep it for ever, but I am confident that it will keep pumping out perfume to the end of time. Remarkable what can now be achieved in the laboratory.

Well, then I had a letter from a friend who had been spiritually cleansing his house with sage. I was absolutely fascinated. Apparently this ritual removes all negative energies and generally refreshes and purifies your own sacred space. I looked up the whole business on Google: there are masses of ads for things called “smudge sticks”. These seem to be little bundles of dried herbs which you burn and wave about. (Lots of Health and Safety warnings regarding flushing them down the loo after use). I have no money to squander on smudge sticks but I was determined to have a go. There’s plenty of sage in the garden: I dried some leaves on the Aga overnight and kindled them while I brewed the morning tea.

They took light like tissue paper! I suddenly appreciated the Health & Safety advice. Dried sage burns very well and gives off plenty of smoke. I blew out the flame and waved my little charred bunch about. The budgie seemed to approve, as he does when he senses the approach of rain. I also ground some of the herbal ashes into a light paste with a little water and rubbed them into my skin. That seemed to work quite well. The smell is what you would expect – dark, aromatic, burnt, not especially exciting – but I felt well-exorcised and (up to a point) purged.

A colleague at work told me he was going to clean out his washing-machine with a cup of vinegar in the cycle. Vinegar is wonderful: it kills miasmas, but its own very strong aroma doesn’t hang around for long if diluted. So it’s great for wiping out the fridge or the sink.

I love these old natural hygiene tips – they are cheap, efficient and they smell good. Softer and subtler than the Magic Tree. I save all the old lemon and lime skins from the drinks trolley for scouring pots, pans and the sink. (Someone used to say that you should stick your bare elbow into a used lemon-half, for a spot of instant skin conditioning). Cleaning with food product leftovers inculcates a feeling of virtue and a wholesome spirit of responsibility. And it’s much more fun than relying on bleach – though that’s a cruel and savage smell which I sometimes enjoy. “If life hands you a lemon – then make a cleaning aid!”

¤ maudlin memories of Nancy Mitford’s “little homeless match”; Enid Blyton’s “poor little strawberry plants”; Hans Christian Andersen’s forgotten fir tree.

Summer days should be served hot..

 

Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

How Hyssop Healed My Hand

 

There I was last week, grizzling on about the drought; and then, look at the rain! “Talking about it brings it on”, as Alan Bennett used to say. When I was eleven or twelve years old, a boy at school taught me a supposed Native American rain dance. As I loathed sport – laid on for us daily – I did a lot of dancing in the hope of water-logged pitches. The creepy thing was, the ritual usually worked.

I soon took fright and abandoned it.

The torrential May rains have released the most sumptuous scents, especially on muggier days. The combined odours of may blossom, lilac and lacy cow parsley outdo for loveliness anything you’ll smell on the place Vendome or the rue de la Paix. Heady, heavy, floral-animalic, damply powdery, sweet with honey and musk. Imagine a Caron boutique of a century ago, relocated in a country lane or a roundabout on the ring road.

Charged up with a false and flower-intoxicated energy, I overdid it sadly in the back yard. Fellow gardeners will know what I mean. You don’t notice at the time, but you tug at a stubborn root too vigorously; or pull a weed from the wrong angle. Twenty four hours later you’re in agony. This time it was the second finger of my left hand. Blew up like a pound of sausages. Couldn’t move it. Throbbing in the night. Every colour of the rainbow. Because I was traumatised decades ago by Daniel Day Lewis dying abruptly of tetanus in ‘My Brother Jonathan’ on the TV, I always jump to the worst conclusions. Once I’d calmed down I had a rummage in the bathroom cupboard. With my right hand.

I found the oil of hyssop: the magic purgative plant; the holy healing herb of the ancients. The late great Angela Flanders used to keep my mother supplied with it, for her arthritis. Of course, I should have greatly diluted the hyssop: Angela’s strict instructions are still written on the bottle. However I was reckless with pain, so I rubbed the oil in neat for three days. It made my skin peel like a sloughing python, but – combined with ice baths – it brought out the bruising, reduced the swelling in short order, and worked a miracle within 72 hours.

Hyssop is much mentioned in the Old Testament – “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be white as snow” ¤. On account of the endless translations and re-translations of the ancient texts we do not know whether the plant named as hyssop in the Bible is the same mauve or electric blue flowered herb that we recognise today. Scientific botanical classification is less than 300 years old¤¤. Distilled hyssop smells exceedingly lemon-like; green, dark and medicinal. The fragrance is pure, still and calming. Hyssop is integral to the brewing of Chartreuse; and is associated with the bitter herbs of the first Passover. The Pentateuch mentions it in connection with its use as a sprinkler of blood or water or perfume. Long before we sprayed, we sprinkled.

So, always anxious to investigate on your behalf, I went down to consult with my local herb man. Regular readers will remember that this was the fascinating fellow who last year told me all about feverfew, to which he is violently allergic.

I rang the bell.

He said he’d not seen hyssop for years. As I had thought, it seems to be out of style. But he gave me a pot of flagrantly strong, smoky – even slightly minty –  hot Greek oregano. Which was very apt because many modern horticulturalists think it probable that the old Biblical hyssop was the herb we now know as Syrian oregano. I could see at once that a bunch of densely leaved, slightly furry oregano would make an ideal natural aspergillum. If only to bless a tomato salad with the good olive oil.

Which I duly did. And two hours later the wonderful aroma of the oregano still hung in the afternoon kitchen air.

Mahlzeit!

¤ Psalm 5, verse 7

¤¤ spikenard is another example of these ancient & modern botantical confusions. And look at the harebell – “the bluebell of Scotland”. Not to mention geraniums and pelargoniums.

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.

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.