“Touchez-pas mes tomates!” – Josephine Baker

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

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.

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.

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