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.

 

bohea-boheme_social-media
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

Perfume That Hurts. Part 2: The Scent That Stings

indian-bee-goddess

 

Life is so very fluid and uncertain that there’s great comfort to be found in the Eternal Truths of the primeval cosmic myths. The contemplation of the planting of a Garden, east of Eden; or the Laying of the Cosmic Egg by the Cosmic Goose. These stories have the great calm of an eternal inevitability. There was a riveting, if slightly grumpy, discussion of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on the wireless last week: a fresh churning of that ocean of perfumed milk and white lotus flowers from which the deity sprang, entire and perfect, like Athene or Aphrodite. I was enchanted by the description of the cosmic elephants trumpeting golden largesse and wearing garlands of impossibly lovely blossoms of unearthly fragrance. The animals were maddened by the sound of the scent. The pachyderms were bombarded by the vibration of the intoxicating perfume, in itself the sound of Creation. At this point the studio experts disputed as to whether the noise was coming from the flowers themselves or from the bees swarming on their nectar. But what an image! We have all in our time been deafened by fragrance; and stung too, as by a merciless horde of insects.

I’ve been re-reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificently upsetting Beyond Black: a novel of the grotesque, cruel and comic supernatural, replete with invasive, disturbing and disorienting smells. These are the kind of reeks that muck up your powers of hearing – and thus your balance – just as the ungodly voices of fiends gibber on the psychic Alison’s tape recorder. In vain she tries to repel them with hot scented baths and liberal applications of her sweet signature perfume, pregnant with meaning: Je Reviens.

An early lost work by Rembrandt has recently been rediscovered in the USA. This is one of a series of paintings illustrating the five senses. Rembrandt’s depiction of the sense of smell is perhaps the last thing you would expect: nothing lyrical nor sentimental here. We see the eponymous Unconscious Patient in a swoon, during the course of some minor and doubtless dubious surgery. The man is being brought round with pungent smelling salts: consciousness being revived by the shocking sting of sal volatile. When I first saw images of the painting I instinctively thought, with my foolish modern sensibilities, ah! now here is a patient being given a whiff of merciful ether prior to treatment. I was, of course, ahead of blessed anaesthetics by two centuries. Rather the artist is taking a very grim look indeed at the power of smell: its use to restore that consciousness lost through pain in order that the victim may endure more – possibly efficacious – agony.

All this bearing in mind that, as was appreciated even then, the healing arts of the seventeenth century killed more than they cured. Our ancestors used perfume for pleasure, to be sure: but scent then was far more to do with awe, magic, alchemy and enchantment – and that’s enchantment in the witchy – rather than the QVC or Disney – sense of the word.

I have been stung – literally; not in the monetary sense¤ – several times by fragrance. By crude pot pourri that burned the nose – “don’t get it near your face” – and which roughened the hands as though you were laying carpets; by liquid perfumes that scorched my neck and peeled my ears. These items I have avoided at point of sale. It is trickier when you are assaulted by scent worn by others. I don’t subscribe to the general execration heaped on Dior’s Poison – I think it’s an ingenious and pioneering creation. However, some quarter century ago, I worked for a whole year standing next to a girl who apparently swam in Poison and washed her clothes in it. I was comprehensively worked over by Poison; pounded and force-fed by that curious smell that is so like that of old Russia: spicy fermenting bruised apples.

Last week – anticipating LES SENTEURS’ paradoxical new scent ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL – I said a little about the pain in pleasure of certain perfumes. These You Have Loathed – Yet Loved. I remember now my tormented relationship with Fahrenheit – is there some curious anti-bond between me and Dior? – in the late ’80’s. People today say Fahrenheit has an unnatural strength and vigour: but back then – o my! Those wild accords of leather, mandarin¤¤ and violet and I don’t know what. It was something akin to the buzz you may get from the smell of fresh petrol on the garage forecourt. I adored it and had a standing order with the Dior girls for empty testers from which I could wring a few more drops. The precious odour of Fahrenheit kind of hurt my teeth: it made my gums ache and my mouth water¤¤¤. I think it’s the closest I ever came to a perfume addiction.

Perfume is an exciting and nerve-wracking business: occasionally even the most ardent of lovers needs to take stock. Every once in a while a fragrance-free weekend, naked as nature intended, rests the nerves – while simultaneously sharpening the appetite for more. The technique of the true epicure and the connoisseur of sensations.

¤ In 50 years of purchasing power I’ve always felt I’ve had my money’s worth from perfume. I have bought into the dream all my life and never yet awoken.

¤¤ ‘mandarin’ – or ‘man-darr-INN’ as everyone pronounces it these days.

¤¤¤ Lancome’s Tresor – once the cult fragrance of Holloway wardresses – had something of the same effect. A compulsive acidic juiciness.

A Plum In My Mouth

plums_early_morning

 

Just around about this time my mind and my nose turn to the sweet redolence of plums. I must tell you that for many years we have lived next door to an extensive walled garden. For twenty three Septembers, a gnarled old tree in that plot’s remotest and most picturesque corner was seen to be laden with magnificent plums – never gathered but left to rot on the branches or to provide occasional food for birds and insects. How our mouths watered and how our hearts ached for those wasted luscious fruits. We looked on and languished like Rapunzel’s mother pining for the witch’s blue-flowered rampion. And then – do you know? – the house was sold and we told the new young owners about the plums. “Plum tree? There are no plums here. Just apples….hard little red apples”. So all the greedy longings of decades were wasted and quite in vain: a three minute sermon in a country garden! The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Plum blossoms:

Red, red

Red ” ……¤

My mother often described folk whose looks she admired as resembling “a great big beautiful plum”. That is to say:  high-coloured, smooth-skinned, zaftig; apt to be extravagantly exuberant and deliciously scented. And evidently she was not unique in entertaining this fantasy. A lively lady at the Tesco check-out this morning jabbed a lilac-painted finger nail – “Tsarina Mauve” – into a basket of over-ripe scarlet plums saying with a wink, “and this one’s me!”. It was the softest piece of fruit, and the most brilliant.

Plums have a great individuality about them: they are vivid little personalities with their silky iridescent skins, sensually cleft flesh and hard-hearted stones. They grow in a rainbow of wonderful colours: blue, yellow, topaz, crimson, pink, mauve, green, purple and almost white. When you cook them you see a miniature sunset of red and gold blaze at the bottom of your saucepan. Their perfume fills the house; a smell which is sharper when plums are cooked¤¤ than when they hang all velvety and sun-warmed on the tree. Or when their syrupy nectar oozes out as they lie on the grass, ripped open by voracious young wasps.

“Send her Victorias!”, as one of my teachers used to parody the National Anthem. They put him away for two years – though not for that.

The heavenly smell of plums is what used to lead children into orgies of greed, gorging themselves on the pilfered orchard fruit and being terribly ill – “pains” – in the night. And then, at Christmas, the indigestible but irresistible richness of bottled, candied, frosted, and crystallised plums. Plum cake, plum pudding, plum duff and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In these austere days when Expiry Dates and the “Five-A-Day” policy rule the roost these surfeits probably no longer take place. But, in the same way as oranges and nasturtiums, plums have an indefinable but powerful nostalgia about them. Like dahlias, grapes and golden rod they have the glamour of an imperial past, a dazzling hue and the thoughtful bitter-sweet taste & scent of autumn about them. A sense of numbered days.

I first smelled plums – I suppose – in the Madman’s Paradise of my great uncle’s suburban garden. His house was full of the fumes of leaking gas and Players cigarettes. The back garden was a jungle of old man’s beard, of half-wild nose-tingling horseradish and fallen waspy plums heaped up on the old tennis court and all over the cinder paths. Uncle Fred was born only 13 years after the death of the Prince Consort: he gardened like a High Victorian. I think this sepia photo aspect is what makes plum such a popular and powerful note when used in perfumery. It takes you back to a finer age of leisure, succulence and refined self-indulgence.

The plum accord in scent need not be botanically exact. It comes to life in the imagination and perception of the beholder, in a similar way to many people’s definition of musk. Plum notes evoke a mood rather than a precise odour. Plummy scents have a deep dark polished fullness to them; an embraceable roundness; a feeling that every corner has been smoothed away & sanded down leaving a glorious glowing ripeness and volupte. Plum scents whisper – in rich engorged plummy tones – ‘eat me!’. I have only to read that a perfume boasts plum notes for me to want to try it. I associate plum with the sophisticated fruitiness of the classic chypres – the novel peach accord in Mitsouko; the sexy synthetics of Ma Griffe; the grande horizontale seduction  of Parure. Especially I love the infinite and mysterious sweet green lake – “all hung about with fever trees” – that is LE PARFUM DE THERESE, Roudnitska’s star turn from the late 1950’s, bound into softest moss-coloured leather for Editions de Parfums.

Kilian’s LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is served from a bar in Zola’s Paris – a plum steeped in a shot of brandy or absinthe to brighten a frosty morning in Les Halles. ACQUA FIORENTINA is an Italian orchard where late carnations add a delicate hint of clove to a conception of greengages, plums and apples. LIQUEUR CHARNELLE streams out like liquid apricot velvet: plums and prunes distilled into after-dinner gourmanderie. And then, less literally, I find a dark, discreet but splendid plummy opulence and amplitude in that fabulous duo from Atelier Cologne – ROSE ANONYME and VETIVER FATAL.

In the old days I went several times to the former Jugoslavia. In Split – where the Emperor Diocletian once grew his prize cabbages – I first tasted plum slivovitz. We were recommended by a local to try it spliced with kruskovac: the sharpness of the plums, the sweetness of pears. Greatly daring, I ordered this enticing-sounding drink in a waterfront hotel: there stood the appropriate bottles, all ranked on glass shelves. But the barmaid – vividly similar in appearance to Elsie Tanner  – vehemently refused to serve me. “NO slivovitz! NO kruskovac!” Her hands slammed flat on the bar like fruit pelting down to earth in a high wind.

Plums witheld! Plums verboten! Their glamour was heightened all the more.

¤ Hirose Izen c.1652 – c.1711

¤¤ unless you are jamming of course: copper preserving pans full of red plums; pounds of white sugar slowly staining pink. Then the saucer on the window-sill to test the setting. My mother tended to lose her nerve at this point, but our Paddy who came to help in the garden used to stick his thumb in the sweet goo and judge it to a nicety. He was wonderful at timing when a cake was done, too: just thrust in the cold steel of the bread knife. He was always right.

“Open Now The Crystal Fountain!” – torrents of scent…

chateau-versailles-jet-d'eau-grand-petit-canal-xavier-veilhan

‘THE MALTESE FALCON’ (1941) – Lee Patrick comes into Bogart’s office, rolling her eyes at a perfumed calling card just handed in at the outer door by Peter Lorre

“Gardenia…..”

” Quick, darling! In with him!”

A dear friend and client of Les Senteurs wrote to us last week to suggest we have a fountain – what is sometimes now called a water feature – installed at the shop. As she said, imagine the cooling musical sound and delicious odour of fragranced droplets  –  maybe rosewater – splashing into a marble basin filled with gold and silver fish. We would all sit around the atrium on cushions stuffed with rose petals and musk, sipping sherbet and drinking jasmine tea. So then we ruminated on the Palatine palaces of Roman emperors, running with conduits of violet perfume; Francis Kurkdjian’s glorious installations at Versailles; Eugene Rimmel’s multi-spouted Fountain of Perfumes at the Crystal Palace in 1851; and Clover Carr’s fantasy of the eau de cologne pond in “Katy”. All excellent precedents and no wonder we got rather carried away. Alas! Perfume shops are not run by peris, djinns and houris. Someone has to cash up the till and dust the shelves. It’s not all glamour.

So, just as Rudyard Kipling wrote of ‘The Glory of the Garden’:

‘Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives….’

I scratch around in my back yard with my dad’s penknives and a trowel. I don’t know how I’ve raised such beauty as now manifests by the back door. No credit to me, I’m sure. I’m an old duck that’s hatched a swan in a bucket of compost. The famous tuberoses are now 36″ high – I measured on Sunday morning. They are like bolted sticks of asparagus; the leaves, so profuse in spring, have dwindled to almost nothing. Very strong and tough the stalks are, with no need for staking. At the top of each stem is a cluster of snow white ovoid buds tinged with pale apple-blossom pink; like the toes of a Norse goddess with nails tipped with shells from the sea shore. Msr. Rimmel tells us in his Book of Perfume that no more than two stellar flowers open daily. He’s not precisely correct here – I see rather more – but the blooming is certainly steady and leisured. No doubt there has been some genetic alteration in the bulbs since 1866.¤ What I must do next is to discover when – and if – I should lift the bulbs after flowering; and how to nurture them over the winter to ensure another crop in 2017. Rest assured I shall pass all this on to you. Having spent all my working life with the extracts and infusions of tuberose, how fascinating it is now to watch the plant grow and bloom, not on human skin but in accordance with the rules of Nature.

One thing I have learned is that the plants appreciate almost unlimited watering. Dousing, in fact, at the roots. It seems to me that this prevents the buds at the very top of the stalk from shrivelling before they open: something you often see in shop-boughten tuberoses. (I have noted, too, that those beautiful and supposedly drought-resistant clove-scented pinks and carnations will also lose their buds in infancy if kept too strictly short of water).

Next to the tuberoses stand two pots of  tower lilies: they have grown nowhere near the promised six feet (though this is only year one), but they are billowing out clouds of intoxicating swooning perfume. At dusk the combination of voluptuous floral smells is almost too much. Some visitors are overwhelmed.  The lilies smell something like Malle’s Dries Van Noten but with a touch of ginger, too; the white and gold flowers have a sensuous smooth coolness like that of perfect skin. I put two fallen petals in a saucer of water: these fragranced my bedroom for days.

The plants stay outside most nights pumping forth their nocturnal mega- sweetness to the owls and foxes. However, it was blowing a gale last Sunday so I brought the tuberose indoors and kept her overnight in the passage between kitchen and back door: there’s a glass door at either end. The next morning that space was heavy with elements of every tuberose perfume I have ever smelled – wreathing, blending and embracing. Very fascinating and instructive: everything from Carnal Flower to Fracas, but dominated maybe by Pierre Guillaume’s Tubereuse Couture, sweet and sugary and smokily candified.

The other week in this column I was musing about dogs in perfume shops and wondering how they protect their poor noses. (The tuberoses don’t keep the local cats away from my doves and goldfinches, by the way). One of my supportive regular readers has sent me a piece from a recent edition of the Times newspaper concerning a new type of novelty collar which is designed to curb barking dogs. As the animal sounds off, a powerful burst of citronella – which dogs apparently loathe – spurts from its harness. The fright of the sudden odour is supposed to silence the dog. Animal charities have condemned this device, repeating the old circus adage that any form of cruelty has no part whatsoever in corrective training. Too right. One thinks of customers taken by surprise by zealous spritzers on duty at the doors of a department store. A nasty shock which can put one off perfume for life.

Drop by at Les Senteurs and let us guide you by the hand to the metaphorical crystal fountain of fragrance! Where all is done by kindness and every prospect pleases. You’ll be so welcome.