“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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Classic Camel – or, “Cover Yourself With Pearl!”

When I was a child it was the done thing – the sought-after thing – to be the proud possessor of a camel coat. I see this garment is still described ‘on-line’ as ‘ an iconic style choice’, though seldom seen in my world. It is years since I bought any sort of coat; decades, even. (I wear my dad’s). The camel coat was especially desired by women, but it was also popular with smart children and with the smoother type of man¤. A camel coat was worn in town, to attend church and to go out to dinner. A camel coat was always correct and ‘safe’. Of course, as a tot, I thought these clothes were spun from camel hair whereas actually they were made of alpaca, merino, cashmere or angora. They were soft, supple, warm and usually lined with some thick slippery silky fabric, sometimes detachable for cleaning. ‘Camel’ referred to the colour – a beige, biscuit, fawn or stone. The coats dirtied quickly, being prone to greasy dark smears around collar and cuffs, and down the front breadth. Their second home was at the dry cleaners. Nonetheless I associate them with wonderful smells.

I guess this was because the coats were worn for best. Consequently, small children being kissed in a hallway, or helping to pile visitors’ wraps on a hostess’s bed, were overwhelmed by a whole perfumery of fragrance, redolent and abundant from expectant bodies and scented skin. There were odours of make up, hairsprays, lotions and aftershaves too: sweet, powdery, sharp, plastic or creamy. Even the odd boutonniere of rosebud or carnation pinned to a lapel.

So it was ironic that lately I was reminded how appalling camel and camel hair – the real raw stuff – actually smells. Maybe you’ll recall that back in June I was reading the novels of Pearl S Buck. Buck wrote exhaustively about China: she was bred if not born there, at the very end of the Imperial era, in the last years of the Dragon Empress.  Her memoirs are picaresque and monumental: reading her is like the very slow and relished munching of rich dark fruit cake, thickly frosted. In one memorable passage she talks of a Mongol camel driver in Manchuria, knitting directly from his moulting animal. Then she tells us that “the reek of the camel is eternal, and not to be removed by the best of washings”. In the Great War, American ladies up in the Chinese hill stations had planned to knit vests for European troops from local camel hair. But the smell was “so strong that my mother held her nose and dropped all the yarn into a pail of strong carbolic solution to soak for a day or two ..(but)…when taken out and dried, the camel reek was still there, triumphant..” ¤¤

Now I know a lady who used to spin her own wool on a wheel, back in her former sheep-farming days. Ever anxious to research on your behalf, I popped round to discuss this. I rang the bell. My kind friend is knitting a blanket and has plenty of wools to hand, including some from her old flock. Even after nearly twenty years, each skein has its own peculiar smell – mostly hay-like, even vaguely flowery and aromatic. I asked her about camel. She’d had it on the wheel once, she said. And like Pearl’s mother, she’d found the odour unbearable.

I can’t speak for myself. I came close to a camel only once, in Egypt. My attention was diverted by an almighty row between the camel-owner, his boy and a British lady who claimed to have been short-changed for her ride on the beast. So the camel driver beat the boy; and the lady ended up paying her fare over again to compensate the victim for his ( I think, carefully staged ) sufferings. I don’t recall much about the smell. Only that of the mint tea made with Nile water – “eau de Nil” indeed – which concluded the riotous proceedings.

Mrs Buck also goes into the whole business of the ‘occidental’ smell of milk. Milk – animal milk at any rate – was not  much used in China a century ago. In one of her books Pearl describes the perceived foul smell – the “cow smell” – exuded by westerners returning from milk-product-consuming Britain and America. It took months to wash through the system and for the sweet clean ‘oriental’ body smell to return.

Finally, and to change the subject entirely. Did I mention some time ago my pot of Greek oregano? I certainly intended to. Well, this hot summer is very much to the herb’s liking and it romps along in the back yard. The scent and the taste are unparalleled. Last Saturday night I baked red peppers and threw in a couple of sprigs. Fragrant, savoury, flavoursome. The oregano had much the same smoky salty effect as adding a rasher of  bacon or a couple of anchovies.  If you can’t afford the camel coat, treat yourself to the oregano.

¤ children and men often had natty velvet collars to their coats. I’m sure Prince George has a camel coat.

¤¤ extracts from ‘My Several Worlds. A Personal Record’ by Pearl S Buck. London: Methuen 1953

Riders of the Purple Sage

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer days should be served hot..

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¤¤ such as:

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

…Every one a gem!

Plagued by smells

 

Awoke on Sunday morning to the delightful sound and smell of soft refreshing purging rain. The baked-up fields and gardens need water like mad after this unnaturally dry spring: so does the air. Wherever I go, I meet folk afflicted by coughs, respiratory congestion, catarrh and choking fits. The atmosphere is thick with pollen, dust and a creeping pollution: eyes and noses are streaming. The wonky weather doesn’t help, lurching from the icy blast of a north wind to sultry closeness: and all within twenty-four hours. May – theoretically one of the most blushingly romantic of months – can be the very devil in practice. There is nothing crueller than a piercingly cold Bank Holiday afternoon: and all your winter wardrobe prematurely packed away. ‘Ne’er cast a clout’, indeed.

In our spanking new and surreal 21st century London – now rebuilt for perhaps the third time since 1945 –  we occasionally stumble into a jarring electric reminder of our origin of species. Something stimulates our animal senses. We are yanked back into a brief realised memory of how the capital once smelt. The yellow bronchial fogs have long gone; so has the smoke. The smell of hot horse and equine manure¤- once ubiquitous – is limited to the parades of Royal State occasions and early morning cavalry exercise in Rotten Row. It is years since I saw anyone relieve himself in the street.

Discarded food, however, lies about in profusion: this was something you used not to see. It would be snapped up by stray dogs and cats (now completely vanished) or by the totally destitute. The other morning I came across – and not for the first time – an entire abandoned meal laid out on a cafe terrasse. Smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee all complete – cooling yet still fragrant in the morning air. Abandoned, barely touched, like that last breakfast aboard the ‘Mary Celeste’. The poor customer’s heart must have failed him at the last. ‘Fain would I eat/ Yet fear I to fall.’ You imagine all sorts of scenarios: an anxious stomach in knots finally undone by the smell of the meal. Eggs with salmon are very potent – and the ashtray was brimming with butts.

For what you do still find everywhere in the capital – so you must pick your way through the streets – is evidence of weak stomachs. I saw someone being suddenly and terribly sick at a railway station the other day. The effluvia was fluorescently blue and purple. What can he have been eating or drinking? A diet of fake news and fake food.

And, of course, we now have vapes: gushing clouds of perfumed ghostly steam. I have just finished Daniel Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year, written in 1722, but describing the last visitation of bubonic plague to London 57 years before. Defoe lived through the Great Plague as a child in Cripplegate. I think the vapes would  seem kind of familiar to him though he might mistake their purpose. For he writes of terrified Londoners with sticks of rue rammed up their noses and herbs held in their mouths; citizens doused in vinegar fumes¤¤; ever-burning braziers of woods and oils to smoke out infection and disperse the miasma of plague.

“….in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew…”

Everyone rushes out of church, and when they again foregather the worshippers have taken precautions, filling their “..mouths with one preparation or another”.

In an age when sickness was thought – quite logically, really – to be spread by smell¤¤¤, “the whole church was like a smelling-bottle; in one corner it was all perfumes; in another, aromatics, balsamics and variety of drugs and herbs; in another, salts and spirits, as every one was furnished for their own preservation”.

Because the infection did not break out in the Fleet, it was naively believed by Londoners that the smells of the shipyards “would preserve them”. Therefore they built great fragrant bonfires in the street and smoked the interiors of their houses with burning sulphur, pitch, oil of turpentine, rosin, cedar and brimstone.

Some survived, many perished. The huge irony in retrospect was that the true finish of the plague did indeed lie in the purification by flames. For in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the old city and the warrens of rats’ nests where the infection bred. Plague never returned.  Defoe’s most haunting lines describe what might be seen when a victim of the sickness breathed “upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen…of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils..”

Try spritzing some perfume on the bathroom mirror!

¤ Jumentuous: of, relating to, or smelling like the urine of a horse, from Latin jumentum, meaning a beast of burden, or ‘yoke-beast’, from jugum, a yoke
¤¤ Defoe writes of shop-keepers handing out the change from coins kept in a pot of vinegar. Our fishmonger favours this homely method of disinfectant today.

¤¤¤ My great grandfather Francis Braley (1844-1923), Chief Inspector of Nuisances for Leicester, still believed in miasma theory to some extent. So did his daughter, my grandmother.

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.

“…always with his nose in a book…”

 

Good news this week for the publishing trade. The sale of printed books is on the rise once more. I saw only one electronic ‘Kindle’-book up and running on the London/Leicester express last Friday night – and believe me I’d schlepped the length of the train hunting for a seat. Which I found.

I think it’s what we always knew. The redolence of print, new pages, different types of paper, glossy covers and wrappers is an integral part of the pleasure of reading. Then, as you get into a book, it absorbs your own natural oils and DNA molecules: it becomes a part of your persona. ‘L.W. – his book’ as the traditional proprietorial inscription used to read. The volume gradually is saturated with the scent of the reader: her perfume, his embrocation, her food, his hair gel. My mother’s paperbacks were semi-transparent with smears of Nivea and Ambre Solaire. The pages looked like so many medieval windows: sheets of paper soaked in oil. And remember Emily Bronte teaching herself German as she rolled out the pastry? With the grammar propped up against the flour crock and Keeper under the table, hoping for crumbs. The apocryphal tale of finding a dried rasher of bacon (sometimes a kipper) used as a bookmark is told by many librarians.

Like Jean Harlow, I was reading a book the other day¤. It’s the new biography¤¤ of the great Irish novelist Molly Keane, by her daughter Sally Phipps. Keane is probably best remembered for her late “comeback” novel ‘Good Behaviour’ (1981) which starts with an (intentionally) nauseating description of a dish of “quenelles in a cream sauce ……there was just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation”. In fact the baby rabbit mousse proves the finish of the bed-ridden old lady to whom it is force fed:

“The smell – I’m – ”

And that’s the end of Mrs St Clair.

The entire suite of Molly Keane’s novels from 1928 to 1989 are required reading – and more than once over.  The books are beautiful, acute, very funny indeed and sometimes horribly sad – you cry ALL the time for one reason or another. Keane is marvellous on food (she adored cooking, finding it not only mouth-watering but therapeutic and fulfilling); and she is unparalleled in her awareness of smells. The first sentence of ‘Good Behaviour’ is all about things olfactory – both emotional and culinary:

‘Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt…’

For the ‘miasma’ in that seaside Irish house is entirely sinister.

The books are suffused in sensory awareness; especially of colour and of smell. Flowers, clothes, the seasons, perfume, fur, pubs, horses, gardens, food, violet sachets, hair, smoke; the hunting field and the bedroom. Ms Phipps has inherited her mother’s nose – she writes of a butler’s pantry which “smelt rather deliciously of stale coffee grounds and pink silver powder”. She describes an aunt advising Molly before a hunt ball – ‘ “don’t accept presents of scent my darling and don’t talk to any strange men” ‘.

Of course then, back in the 1920’s, a girl who accepted a gift of anything wearable from a gentleman was hopelessly compromised. ‘The coat of shame’ wrote Lady Diana Cooper. And taking perfume from a man was tantamount to wearing
his engagement ring – or admitting you were his mistress. Hence the Mae West
riposte, which today sounds rather vague and harmless:

– “You always have such swell things! How do you do it on your salary?”

– “It’s a gift, honey. It’s a gift.”

I love it when you find one of your own tricks being practised in a book. Jasper throws “bay leaves onto the low ring of the Aga so that the smoke from their curling blackened leaves might quell other smells” ¤¤¤. When I first worked and cooked with an Aga I was fascinated by its secondary use as an altar to the Lares and Penates. Like Vesta’s Flame, it burned perpetually. One could immolate herbs and spices on it at any time, like Pamela Brown ladling the incense into the brazier in Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’. And the Lady of the Aga used to polish the stove with her own hand cream, lanolin-enriched, which of course lent a very heady redolence to the kitchen and back sculleries.

I was fascinated by Molly Keane’s biography and it is beautifully done. However, it upset me in the way that only biography sometimes can; in this case, I can’t tell quite why. Brian Master’s book about Marie Corelli had the same effect on me, decades ago.  Mrs Keane lost her husband early in very tragic circumstances; but she led a long and in many ways blessed life. She was a perfectionist and that is a state that always frets me because I guess I am one myself. However, I’m so despairing of achieving any sort of perfection that I often give up before I try. Maybe the strong sense of smell that dominates Ms Phipps’s book panics me in some primeval animal way, as I am an individual who also lives through scents and odours and the complicated sensations they arouse. Could that be so? Having worked so long with perfume, I am fully aware of its strange and uncanny powers. However, I’m still prepared to be surprised and shocked by their manifestations!

¤ “reading a book?” gasps Marie Dressler, doing the double-take to end all: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).

¤¤ ‘Molly Keane: a life’ by Sally Phipps, 2017

¤¤¤ ‘Time after Time’ 1983