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.

The Pot Pourri of Life and Death

Anna Atkins, Poppy, 1852

 

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

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

Now, there’s a class act!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Stops For Tea

doris-day-tea

 

Nearly a quarter of a century ago a rumour ran around perfume circles reporting the imminence of a divine new scent; a wonderful fragrance, the like of which had never before been smelled nor seen. Presently, like the Firebird or Phoenix or some other airy creature of legend this miracle came to rest as an Exclusive Presentation in the marble halls of Harvey Nichols. We all rushed round, in our lunch hour or coffee break, to try it. To some, the premise of Green Tea – an “eau parfumee” by Bulgari – was somewhat bathetic but the effect was staggering, a revelation. You must remember this was the heyday of the first cough-candy aquatics; the time of the Escape riots at  Harrods; and the blazing crimson sunset of the hideous ’80’s power scents, then slipping below the perfume horizon in a sea of blood. Green Tea was all delicacy and elegance; it was slinky, lissom and diaphanous while its contemporaries were brash, loud and angular. And it cost a fortune.

As far as I can recall this was the first time that tea had been presented in a scent, or, at any rate, had taken centre stage as an perfume accord. Green Tea set an amazing precedent. Like some hermaphrodite chthonic deity it became the Father & Mother of hundreds of descendants. Green Tea was the progenitor of a discrete and very specialised new fragrance family which also infiltrated candles; room scents and diffusers; bath gels and creams. Maybe Bulgari’s influence was so tremendous because Green Tea hit upon the fact that tea is a paradigm of our extraordinary society: this struck a instant if unconscious chord with the public.

For, however you look at it, tea presents itself as a paradox as mad and contrary as our own modern lifestyle. Tea is rarified, refined and exotic – and, simultaneously, a staple food of the thrifty, the modest and the down at heel. Tea – like biscuits – keeps you going. Sweet strong tea and a couple of aspirin is still one of the best and cheapest quick cures for a nerve storm. Weak black tea is the banter’s friend, and soothes an uneasy digestion. Tea and sympathy: it still comes cheap enough. The tea ceremonies of the Far East and the subtle blends of epicure groceries are in another world from those drudging toilers “weary of the tea leaves in the sink”¤. Yet the common source is the same, those camellia bushes in the damp mists of an Asian hillside – “on your far hills/ Long cold and grey…”. Every cup of tea is individual; every blend of leaf offers different interpretation of the drink. A perfect parallel with perfume, no?

 

tea-and-marriage

 

Tea has been Britain’s favourite beverage for three hundred years: in that time it has developed from the epitome of rare luxury (the locked mahogany and ivory caddy) to the role of universal friend and comforter (the painted Typhoo tin: Free Gift With Purchase). Tea is a stimulant and the warm curvy rounded pot – sometimes wearing its own little knitted or quilted jacket – is the hearth goddess that gives it birth¤¤. Over the centuries tea became a necessity rather than a treat, but it has always been able to soar again when necessary to the heights of refinement. Furthermore it has a compelling touch of the weird. The skilled seer can read the future in the leaves. (Green Tea was also the title of Sheridan Lefanu’s most famous tales of the supernatural – a tale of delusions and apparitions later riffed by Ruth Rendell in The Speaker of Mandarin).

All these contradictions and ambiguities add to the allure of tea in scent. You don’t have to follow these trains of thought, of course. You may choose tea fragrances purely on account of their fresh clarity; their delicious contrast to smoky orientals or waxen florals. But their variety is infinite, their boundaries generously wide.

There are worlds of difference between the icy-cold freshness of SILVER MOUNTAIN WATER¤¤¤; the dark bosky richness of IMPERIAL TEA with its steamy jasmine vapours; and the tiger-stalkers’ greedy picnic sketched out in FOUGERE BENGALE. Don’t forget to try YERBAMATE with its bitter – almost sour – notes of South American mate and its visions of huge open pampas of grasses, herbs and starry camomile. What a contrast to the pink and mauve transparency of DON’T CRY FOR ME: an Argentine vision of cherry flowers and heliotrope floating in jasmine tea. A personal favourite – MYRRHIAD – adds absolute of black tea to unctuous myrrh, liquorice and vanilla. This last gummy gorgeous fragrance is a Pierre Guillaume creation for Huitieme Art. Msr Guillaume is a genius with tea. Consider his three blissful MATALE variations.

Les Senteurs is a veritable Tea House of the August Moon: model the slim grace of ASIAN GREEN TEA; Cloon Keen’s tailored and classy INFUSION ASSAM; and the glassy glittering EAU DE CAMELLIA CHINOIS which explores the austere succulence of the living plant from which the tea leaf is plucked. If you’re seeking the most recherche of pale and faint exotica, OOLANG INFINI with its mouthwatering list of accords – blue tea, tobacco flower, blond leather  – may well prove your heart’s desire.

 

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And then …..and NOW!….we proudly add Mona di Orio’s glorious BOHEA BOHEME to the array on the tray. For our ancestors the bohea blend – ‘wu-yi’ in its native China – was synonymous with tea; it was the only tea; the Ur-tea. That’s what they’re all drinking  in those stiff eighteenth century conversation pieces; sipping from porcelain bowls and making play with their fair hands and lace cuffs. Queen Anne¤¤¤¤ was addicted both to bohea and to brandy: the latter often being disguised in the former. That’s how I think of this smoky black tea: being sipped in the luxurious cabinets and boudoirs at Hampton Court or St James’s Palace.  BOHEA BOHEME evokes tiny intimate rooms draped in silk, and filled with flowers and temperament and hysteria. Odours of pot pourri, incense, dark polished beeswaxed wood, amber and musk are enhanced and flavoured with this precious and mysterious new drink from the East. A window is thrown open – stopped with a cushion to ward off the perilous fresh air – and scents of poplar and box waft in from the parterres; smells of fir balsam, oak, bay and smoked juniper.

Another cup, dear? And whilst you’re enjoying that, why not read our intriguing interview with the creators of Bohea Boheme, Fredrik Dalman and Jeroen Oude Sogtoen? Stimulating and highly digestible.

 

Tea in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka on Claire's recent visit

Tea in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka on Claire’s recent visit

¤ Louis Macneice: Death of An Actress, 1940.

¤¤ remember the cosy mice in Two From a Teapot? And note the way some folk nurse a teapot as a substitute for human contact; warming – to coin a phrase – both hands before the fire of life.

¤¤¤ a quintessential Creed masterpiece, SMW was also released in 1992: another tea scent in the van of fashion.

¤¤¤¤ “Here thou, great Anna!whom 3 realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea”

Alexander Pope 1688-1744