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.

 

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.

“Just Like a Little Bit of Leather”

shanghai express

 

Perfume and leather, leather and perfume: the trajectories of both are forever crossing and merging. For centuries, the tanneries of Europe used raw human excreta to cure hides and skins: that’s how the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend makes an honest maintenance, collecting the waste of London streets to sell on at a handsome profit. (‘Dust’ is by way of being a dainty euphemism for what Mr Boffin trades in). Therefore, for our forefathers, the heavy and heady scenting of leathers was not only a sensual pleasure but also a cruel necessity.¤

On the battlefield, in the armoury and the stables, leather has been a virile medium of aggression and restraint material for millennia. The more elegant use of it in clothing and furnishings had its first tremendous vogue in Tudor and Elizabethan times. Leather was made up into curtains, books, cloaks¤¤, covers, jerkins, mantles, gowns, boots, shoes, gloves: soft supple upholstery for both the home and the body. Marie Stuart went to her death in beautiful slippers of Spanish leather, saved for the occasion and much remarked upon. In that age of display and the beginning of modern ideas of luxurious living, stylish but hard-wearing leather was an ideal medium for gilding, bejewelling and painting: a costly but tough and hard-wearing backdrop for priceless ornamentation.

And the leather was soaked, drenched and saturated in perfumed oils; initially as a camouflage, later according to the dictates of fashion. What started as a precaution and an olfactory necessity became de rigueur among the beau monde ¤¤¤.

Hence the well-known tale of Elizabeth 1st ( blessed like her father Henry VIII with a very sensitive nose) telling a courtier to take himself and his scented leather cape out of her presence before she choked on the smell.

The overly-fragranced fancy man had the ready wit to riposte:

“Tush, Madam! ‘Tis my boots that stink!”

But off he went, just the same.

The old Victorian version of this anecdote has the offending garment smelling of the lavender essence which the Queen is supposed to have loathed. Maybe the Victorians – who loved the modest herb so well – saw a certain symbolism in lavender’s repudiation by the gaudy bawdy Virgin Queen of whom they so greatly disapproved.

The other, ruder, tale concerning Gloriana and smells is that of an Earl who inadvertently and noisily broke wind in the Royal Presence Chamber, before the Faery Queen Herself. Mortified, he buried himself for seven long years (the mystic seven!) in the country. On his return to Court, Elizabeth was like honey; charming, witty and adorable as only she could be. Then, at the end of the audience, as she whisked out of the door in a haze of sweet marjoram and Tudor rose, the Queen said with a dazzling smile:

“We hath quite forgot the f…t!”

We’d better get back to leather, though that is hardly a safer theme. There’s something about it that excites, intrigues and titillates people. Perfume is daring enough, but a touch of leather lends an extra edge of wickedness. What does the smell of leather imply? What gender and ambiguous sexual preferences does it infer? As a perceptive woman – well attuned to her animal nature – said to me the other day, “the thrill of wearing scent is all about anticipating what MIGHT happen when someone smells me…how will the beast react? Love me or eat me?”

Or, of course, both.

Imagine, then, if you are sporting a leather fragrance: what might NOT happen? You are presenting visually and olfactorily as a sexually attractive human being, decked in the dressed skin of a beast. And smelling, deliciously but definitely, of that animal’s hide. Leather is a living entity: the creature that yielded it may be long gone but the dried husk lives on. When I was young, my elders were always reminding me of this: leather must be continually “worked”; that is to say fed, polished¤¤¤¤, dubbined and waxed. Above all, it must be much handled. That was the point of having beautiful kid-bound books or good doe-skin gloves. The more you nurtured them with your own oils, the softer and warmer they became. The more intimate they seemed as they absorbed new life from their owner. The human and the animal elements would elide as the DNA mingled.

The Ancient Greeks explored the implications of all this very fully in their myths which have since been dissected with many a cosmic or Freudian slant. Over and again the old poets and playwrights tell us of beautiful flower-crowned heifers pursued by Zeus; Queen Pasiphae’s passion for a white bull from the sea; the voyeur Actaeon ripped apart by his own hounds after Artemis turns him into a stag.

Provocative. And all those millennia ago.

Leather’s second great fashion vogue, both in clothes and perfume, was during the Roaring Twenties* and the Hungry Thirties. This was the craze my parents remembered: my infant mother’s craving for huge gauntlets; her terror of an aunt’s zippered alligator boots; an uncle’s vast white leather overcoat. No doubt – like the fashion for smoking & all those concomitant tobacco fragrances – this rage for leather referenced the emancipation of women and the late hostilities of the Great War. The scent of fine leather was now cherished for its own sake. The fragrance and the texture emphasised, by contrast, the delicacy and fragility of the feminine form and mystique – or so the style magazines might say, for form’s sake. But the wearing of leather also demonstrated sexual ambivalence: it played lightly with the contemporary fascination with “inversion”**, and hinted at the shocking inadmissible fact that Woman could be the Boss.

One thinks of the great originals of that period who toyed with a leather motif: Vita Sackville West in her pearls, silk shirts and great clumping laced knee boots. Garbo as Queen Christina, swathed from top to toe in Adrian-designed suede. The whole flight of aviatrixes – from Jean Batten (“The Garbo of the skies”) to Amy Johnson.  Dietrich in the then outrageous leather jackets and flying caps of ‘Dishonoured’. And Marlene again in ‘Shanghai Express’, the apogee and pinnacle of sartorial fetish: a wardrobe of gleaming black & white. Harsh wire-like net veils, cascades of glossy feathers, furs, silk, lace, bugle beads. Above all, those magnificent kinky hugely-cuffed gloves: black backs, white palms.  And her perfume? “The Notorious White Flower of China”, blooming in a bed of leather.

The Cutting Edge of Leather: now It’s back for a third time around. Try Six Of The Best – at LES SENTEURS

– Tom Daxon’s VACHETTA –  a deep, fleshy, profound leather with meaty hints.

CUIR PLEINE FLEUR – is a James Heeley cracker – silky, musky and unctuous. The gloves of Cardinal Mazarin.

– Parfumerie Generale’s CUIR VENENUM – the smell of tanneries, orange blossom and sulphur. Lucifer descending, in his traditional suit of black and scarlet leather.

– Mona di Orio’s CUIR – smoky, dry, almost savoury with a strong accord of castoreum and the sweetness of opoponax.

And from Andy Tauer, the Dark Lord of Leather:

LONESTAR MEMORIES – the cult evocation of cowboys around the prairie fire – saddles, boots, harness, wood smoke and coffee.

LONESOME RIDER – Tauer’s new chamois twist; sweeter and sweatier – introducing notes of orris butter, pepper, rose and citrus.’

¤ hence the name of the brand so long and happily represented at LS: ‘Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier” (soon to be repackaged): glove makers of the Baroque being, of necessity, also perfumers.

¤¤ it makes more sense of Sir Walter Raleigh’s puddle incident if we imagine him laying a great leather tarpaulin at Elizabeth’s feet.

¤¤¤ just as patchouli did, centuries later. Primarily a moth repellent, then an indispensable perfume oil.

¤¤¤¤ should you doubt that the heyday of polishing is long gone, conduct your own little survey of dismal shoes on the Tube.

*Erich Von Stroheim in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, recalling his Paramount office back in the ’20’s :

“I remember the walls were covered with black patent leather…”

** “the bucket in the Well of Loneliness”

I am qualmish at the smell of leek

leekz

 

“We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick…”
Book of Numbers : 11.v.

Such an evocative passage from the Old Testament. How acutely these ancient texts show up the unchanging resonance of human nature! How well we can imagine the Children of Israel recollecting the bursting fruits and piquant vegetables as they wandered in the scrubby desert of Sinai; in “the cloud abode in the wilderness of Paran”. All that flavour, appetising smell and juicy texture – the cool luscious melons and cucumbers; the hot tang of the roots. “But now” they said to Moses, “..now there is nothing at all: we have nought save this manna to look to.”¤ You can hear them now, with a derisive emphasis on the word “manna”.

Thousands of years later those lost dinners of Egypt continue to emit a distinct and pungent aroma.  We judge the ripeness of a melon by its warm, earthy succulent scent. Garlic cleans the blood and brightens up almost any vegetarian dish. As to cucumbers, I share in a family trait of finding them indigestible. My grandfather – quoting some Edwardian wit? –  used to say that the best way of preparing a cucumber was to cut it in half and put in the dustbin. But, well watered – drought makes them horribly bitter – cucumbers can taste and smell wonderful. Cucumber waters and flesh whiten and tone the skin, bleach out freckles and soothe swelling and puffiness beneath the eyes. In perfumery, cucumber brings to fragrances such as EN PASSANT and 24 OCTOBRE 1985 a glassy translucent coolth, a green watery subtlety and a sense of light wholesome fraicheur. (Woods of Windsor used to make an exquisite cucumber cologne – and a cucumber blended with roses). Cucumber smells wonderful in food too: as in Marlene Dietrich’s recipe which serves it with with sour cream and masses of chopped dill¤¤. Or, again, inhale the summer delicacy of pure and simple cucumber sandwiches – on brown bread with plenty of butter, salt and black pepper.

As to leeks : the oldest vegetable on earth. The root that nourished the pyramid builders; the medicine that cured medieval lepers (was their disease actually scurvy?); the badge of Wales. I am currently enjoying a near-mania for them. You see, I was reared on leeks but enjoyed them then only with reservations. My father grew leeks but – as with all vegetables – he would never allow them to be culled when young and tender. Eventually great tough things were dug and the everlasting problem was, how to clean them of the grit, dirt and soil which penetrated every one of their hundred skins. So the leeks were put under the hose, washed in the drain, soaked in a bucket, scrubbed, trimmed and peeled before coming to table well boiled. Tasty – though still gritty – but the whole house smelled of them: especially the laundry, hanging like a Coronation canopy below the kitchen ceiling.

Jane Grigson remarks in her wonderful Vegetable Book that it was partly because of their smell that leeks fell from favour for centuries, as British society became more genteel. Root vegetables were despised as the food of the poor; and the fashionable worried about the taint of leeks and onions on their breath.

Now here’s a recipe that I must share with you; something you can photograph and Instagram, and bring to table with pride. A credit to any occasion! My Director originally brought it to my attention and I have since somewhat developed and expanded it. It smells of sweet summer, health, efficiency and vigour.

Take a few leeks and chop them into thick rings. If you buy them at the supermarket you will gasp and stretch your eyes at how clean, how pearly white and smooth they are: like the arms of Norse goddesses. No grit at all. How do they do it? You tell me. Some kind of power-shower?

Rinse the rings in a colander, drain and chuck into a saucepan. That will be enough water. Add a dash of olive oil, another of tomato ketchup; a pinch of salt and a lot of ground black pepper. Inhale deeply. Then cover, and cook very slowly on a low heat until soft: no more than 15 minutes. Stir from time to time. If you desire, throw in a few whole cumin seeds and a little chopped dried fruit – the sort of mixture that’s sold for fruit cakes. Serve alone, with poached eggs, smoked fish or what you will.

Mahlzeit! ‘

* Shakespeare, HENRY V

¤ “and the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium…the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil”. The Book of Exodus agrees with the coriander likeness but says that “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey”. In either case – one would imagine – very toothsome. How ideas of fragrance permeate the entire Bible and indeed so many other religious texts. And no wonder: the origins of perfume lie in worship.

¤¤ See her unique “ABC”. Marlene calls for the cucumber to be peeled; and then drained of its juices overnight. You weight down the slices in a covered dish so that the water pours out. This precautionary procedure seems to obviate the indigestion.

Cultural Appropriation: Flesh and Fantasy

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Where do you stand on Cultural Appropriation? It’s the topic of the hour and it’s driving LW crazy because it would seem to have a special relevance to perfume – crucially, one not yet  determined.  One source ( “on line” ) defines it as a culture enjoying or celebrating a sensation that another has known in misery or in otherwise alternative circumstances. As in, say, pizza. An easy example. In the eighteenth century the good pizza succeeded macaroni as the food of the street poor of Naples – the lazzaroni. Ergo, it is morally wrong to enjoy this delicacy in our modern affluence at Pizza Express. But this explanation would not explain the frenzy over a girl dressing up on American TV as “Hello Kitty”. Twiggy voo? Viewers were described as “traumatised”.  Pretty Kitty is an especially controversial figure: there was another quite separate scene recently about whether or not she is bodily and entirely a cat beneath that little pink dress. Then “Around The World in 80 Days” is in trouble; also, the sporting of sombreros at costume parties; and even poor old Monet’s portrait of a French lady – wearing a kimono.

“How shall so grave a problem resolve itself?”

Scent seems to me to epitomise the best of cultural appropriation. (But is that remark in itself oxymoronic?). Every civilisation since time began has revered, created and worn perfume. It has been put to a multiplicity of arcane uses. The ancient Egyptians believed it could raise the dead. At the altars it created a mystic pathway – a Silver Cord – between earth and heaven. How could one doubt it when a trail of incense smoke was plainly visible in the blue, linking the worshippers physically as well as spiritually to the sky gods? Sweet smells led the way into transcendental states, cured disease, initiated adulthood, promoted sexual vigour and sedated the sick mind.

I hope that perfume’s connection with the tribulations, trials and beliefs of our ancestors is not going to get redolence in wrong. For me – as I am sure for millions of fragrance fanciers – the long and varied history of scent and its multiplicity of contexts adds immeasurably to the magic of perfume: that all-powerful gigantic genie in a tiny bottle. Did you ever hear of mellified man? A legend went around in the antique world of certain saintly sages in a far distant country who, for the public good, would volunteer to be embalmed alive….in honey. The eligible martyr would be fed exclusively on honey – gorged with it – until his all bodily systems and fluids were invaded by the nectar. After he died – which was quite soon – his body was set aside to dry & crystallise into a pungent substance rather – I suppose – similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. Fragrant fragments of this carnal honeycomb were then broken off and administered to the sick or sold to the highest bidder as a universal panacea.

So this brings us to oud, that mysterious and dramatic oil: the olfactory epitome of the gorgeous east. Startling and even evil-smelling in the raw (some compare it to an over-ripe Stilton cheese), oud is in my mind assuming an almost semi-mythical construct; rather in the fashion of ectoplasm, prana¤, manna, the alchemist’s stone or the elixir of youth. We all enjoy conjuring tricks and illusions: “is it real? Is the magician in fact in league with the Devil?”. We thrill and wonder at a bizarre and apparently magical perfume ingredient: and here it is, incarnated in oud, a substance that defies logic and belief. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”: and, goodness knows, reality and rationality are stuffed down our throats with a vengeance nowadays. Maybe what we are now taught to call oud is in fact a mood, a style, a stifled desire: a longing, a far distant horizon of the heart.

Ambergris is another substance which prompts similar thoughts. Last year – maybe the year before – there was a wonderful and sobering thirty minute documentary on BBC R4 – an interview with a man who had found this chunk of ambergris on the local beach. As in a fairy tale, all his problems seemed to be at an end. He was profiled in the Press, the amber was apparently proved to be genuine and worth a fortune. But the treasure trove proved a curse, not a blessing. Envious neighbours poisoned his dog, he was ostracised and in the end, the mysterious substance was proved to be nothing but sea-cured palm oil. As apparently is all too often the case. Worthless! Malign fairy gold. The beachcomber said that ambergris had ruined his life.

“Flounder, Flounder in the sea!”

How just exactly like a tale from the brothers Grimm! The origins of both ambergris and oud are a grotesquerie worthy of folk tale or legend. Both are of animal origin and each is the result of a metamorphosis both actual and symbolic that might have been dreamed up by Ovid. Filth, waste, excrement, decay and rot are transmuted by that supreme enchantress Mother Nature into oils of transcendent beauty and great price. Ambergris comes from the waste matter exuded by whales – probably faecal, they now think¤¤. Oud is derived from a dying agar tree as it fights for breath in the forests of far Asia, poisoned by parasites but gallantly defending itself to the last as it pumps out resin in a gummy shield. These tales are as unlikely as those of the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold; the maiden invited to empty the sea with a sieve; or the boy left with a swan’s wing for an arm.

” Die Wahrheit ist: was ist wahr….ist unwahr!” ¤¤¤

But strange as they are, these scented stories happen to be true, even though many of the details still remain vague and mysterious.  No wonder we talk endlessly about oud and ambergris, speculating on exactly which perfumes contain these oils – which fragrances have the genuine article and which the synthesised. The whole saga is so weird and so wild: a wonderful diversion in our cut and dried world. The scent of both ingredients is ambiguous too: what could be more fitting? Farouche, shattering, disturbing, animalic, two-edged, invasive maybe even frightening, repellent. Oud and ambergris are not easy to work with. Ambergris we have learned to handle after several thousand years, but oud is new to the west.

For decades oud was a generic name given to that heavenly fragrance emanating from the robes and veils of London’s Middle Eastern visitors¤¤¤¤. It surrounded them like the perfumed nimbus that is said to grace saints and angels. Then, just recently, western perfumers discovered raw oud, popped it on their palettes and began wrestling with it. Many lost the struggle. Nevertheless, oud became a craze, the latest “must-have” and “must-do”. Every perfume house demanded an oud scent for their clients. But this is not an easy oil to work with: it is extreme and out of control; hard to subdue, to interpret and to tailor to Western tastes. A few brands have succeeded brilliantly – MFK, Killian, Creed and Ex Idolo for instance have all flourished beyond expectation. Their fragrances  are sculpted and hewn; are superbly wrought; carved, as it were, from the living rock by artists who are not afraid of oud oil but who have dominated and mastered it as though taming tigers. We wear perfume differently in Europe and America – we are shy of it, whereas in the Middle East perfume is treated as a good servant but a poor master. In Britain perfume all too often becomes the tyrannical boss.

Long may perfumery continue to discover new molecules and ancient oils; and to make use of forgotten techniques, contrasting traditions and flourishing hybrids. As the Prince Consort used to say, we need fresh strong blood to invigorate the line, to expand the horizons and boost the vigour of fragrance. Absorption, lending, borrowing, grafting and enriching: not appropriation but a grateful sharing of the mysteries of peoples, perfumes and nations. Somewhat akin to “Mae West’s Plan for World Peace”…but not as rude.

¤ “Living on Prana” – do you remember?
It turned out the high priestess was subsisting on a more mundane diet of digestive biscuits and cold chicken.

¤¤ the point is, they don’t really know. I rather hope they never will.

¤¤¤ Marlene Dietrich – having, as usual, the last word on the nature of reality.

¤¤¤¤ though I have not smelled a Western treatment that captures that especial esoteric fragrance. Maybe, as is often suggested, it results from the smoking of clothes over a brazier filled with oud. Or perhaps it comes from an oil not yet known here. We shouldn’t let in all the daylight on magic…