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

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!

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.

EASTER EGGS

 

Wishing You All a Happy and Radiant Eastertide! Don’t rush to brush off the season along with the melting chocolate crumbs; don’t start darting off in the direction of far-off Father’s Day. Savour the feast of Easter like a rare wine or indeed your favourite perfume: it lasts a full fifty days.

I hope you enjoyed your eggs? We had ours in the form of an omelette, garnished with the fine herbs which are just beginning to shoot and scent the garden. When I am quite alone and relaxed, I want to try the experiment of making burnt Passover eggs. These should be hard-boiled and then the shells scorched¤ under the grill, or ( I guess ) passed quickly through a hot oven. Maybe you could even use a blow torch as Mary Berry did with her Easter Simnel Cake. The eggs symbolise the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and I want to experience their taste  – and their smell.

And of course, meditating on these burnt eggs, it is evident that it is the ancient Jewish tradition that has developed into our modern Easter custom. This probably has nothing to do with the reputed Celtic fertility goddess Oestre and her old sacred hares¤¤. The chocolate version is a relatively recent top-dressing. The blowing¤¤¤, painting, dyeing and otherwise decorating of poultry eggs still continues in more thoughtful schools and patient households. There is no end to the rich symbolism of eggs. The concept of the Cosmic Egg, hatched upon the primeval waters to give life to the Universe, is so ubiquitous in the lore of all ancient cultures that you wonder if it might actually be true. Like the story of Adam and Eve it often seems easier to believe than the intricacies of Darwin (much as I love him and his beetles and his always-poorly-stomach).

I wrote here some years ago about the ambiguous, somewhat sulphurous, smell of egg sandwiches. That aroma was compounded of the additional bread, butter, spices and mayonnaise. Before my brother sautee’d that omelette the other night, he said to me, “now, take the clean laundry out of the room. Omelettes have a Strong Smell!”

Certainly they do, and it’s not just from the hot sizzling butter. When the New  Wave of the early aquatic fragrances hit the perfume market some 25 years ago many of them then struck me as very fried-eggy in tone; something about the way the calone molecule hit my nose, back then. Omelettes have a papery dryness to them – I speak olfactorily. Fresh raw eggs smell … oh, I don’t know quite. Well, something a bit like a very new baby being sick. The albumen has a faintly queasy sweetness, a gelatinous coolth that sometimes verges on the repellent.

Some of my older readers may recall a once-notorious newspaper interview with the late Mrs Indira Gandhi. During the conversation she had cooked – for whatever reason – a dish of scrambled eggs for her son Sanjay. He refused to eat them, saying they tasted too oily. Since reading this piece I have often used olive oil to scramble and it works fine, but it can be just the least bit nauseous. Which butter never is. Nevertheless, eggs do have an inherent greasy quality of which you need to be wary. After all, we class them as ‘dairy’.

I’ll wind up with reporting a moment in legal history. The Italian Supreme Court has just this month banned the invasive smell of frying: it constitutes a new crime of “olfactory molestation”. Offenders who pollute their neighbours’ space will be savagely fined. I found this so ridiculous that I wondered if it was a newspaper April Fool: but then much of our current news is now so weird that the whiffy old ‘poisson d’avril’ has become – in our time – redundant.

Once again, Happy Easter!

¤ “to the colour of mahogany bruises”, writes a dear friend and culinary maven.

¤¤ “Oestre may never have existed!” – new and amazing claim. They seem to think now that the goddess is a cranky Victorian academic factoid.

¤¤¤ though the use of a straw is now recommended for reasons of hygiene.

A Quiet Lie-Down

 

” I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes* and cinnamon….” – Proverbs 7:17

I thought of this when I found a buxom queen wasp emerging from a kitchen curtain, awoken by the brilliant sunshine and the scent of spring. I ushered her out of the window, in the manner of an obsequious Court Chamberlain. Off she flew to build a vast and multi-celled fragrant waxen palace in which to raise a summer tribe¤.

I love to see these creatures about their business. My favourite reassuring sight just now is the blue tit pair, popping in and out of their nesting box like cuckoo clock machinery. They are single minded in their occupation, completely absorbed in the job of propagating the species. In the heat wave of last weekend they both took advantage of the water pans in the yard to have a good bathe. I should think that tit box is more than a little stuffy. Cosily lined with moss, wool and green budgerigar feathers it is probably also crawling with mites. Birds seem not to have much of a sense of smell; but I bet that bath felt so good to itchy little bodies. I replaced the water after the tits had finished, I need hardly remark… it was so warm from the sun.

Perfumed beds remind me also of a client I had many years ago in the big stores. She was an avid collector of scented talcum powder. She bought so prodigally that it was inevitable that a sales assistant would eventually ask what she did with it all.

The lady said, ” I put it down the bed!”

Today you can do the job far more elegantly and efficiently with a flacon of Frederic Malle’s heavenly pillow and linen spray Dans Mon Lit. Richly, intensely yet delicately rosy this wonderfully romantic preparation perfumes your sheets to smell like the bedding of Titania’s bower. Its name reminds me of those saucily crafted movie titles of the early 1930’s, designed to titillate. So the posters might read:

‘Constance Bennett
In
BED OF ROSES
With
Joel McCrea’

That sort of thing.

Incidentally, I must tell you. Remember last week I was describing the chickeny-smells that led to my vegetarian phase? So, I had to smile when on Friday I went into my fabulous award-winning butcher’s – which always smells as sweet as a nut. A diffident customer was in there “looking for ideas for the weekend menu”. Then she announced that she was a vegetarian. I thought this was adorable, if slightly daffy. But spring-fever sends us a little crazy. It expects too much of us. It keeps the nerves at full stretch.

For instance, at this time in Japan folk go breaking their hearts over cherry-blossom-viewing. A regular participant was explaining the bitter-sweet brevity of the festival. One week of buds, one week of full flower, one week of fading and falling¤¤. But this pattern is not peculiar to the cherry. We experience it here in Britain just as poignantly and exquisitely. Since I became a (coarse) gardener I have noticed that few flowers last longer than three weeks. My neighbour has a magnolia tree with huge blooms like pink chiffon dusters, as though specially grown for the set of ‘Madama Butterfly’ or ‘The Mikado’. So spectacular but agonisingly fragile and short-lived: sometimes you can hardly bear to look.

Sprouting, flourishing, dying. All in three’s. That sacred mystic number since the beginning of human civilisation. It gets in everywhere, like King Charles’s head. It began maybe as a symbol of generation when we first started to climb up off all fours: father, mother, child. This was refined into the theology of the divine triads (Osiris, Isis, Horus) and finally degenerated into such petty superstitions as ‘three on a match’¤¤¤.

And think, of course, of perfume. A scent is generally described as having a three-tier pyramid structure of top, heart and base notes. Delicate sparkling accords to attract; full-blown epanouissement; and – with luck and skill – an enduring slow-burning afterglow. We all know about the inextricable meshings of scent and memory. Perfume is the ghost of a hundred springtimes.

* some scholars now read ‘oud’ for ‘aloes’. But then there are bitter aloes, once used to deter nail-biting.

¤ “I look like an elderly wasp in an interesting condition” – Mrs Patrick Campbell, when complimented on a black and yellow stage costume.

¤¤ not for nothing was the cherry blossom a favourite symbol of the kamikaze pilots. And remember Diana Dors reciting ‘A Shropshire Lad’ from the condemned cell in ‘Yield To The Night’?

¤¤¤ a belief supposedly manufactured by the great match companies at the time of the Great War. See the eponymous movie with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak.

Crowning Glory

 

It’s spring in all but the official calendar. The rooks have returned. Both flora and fauna have begun to go wild with excitement. For the past week the air has felt milder, softer, full of energy. Even us olfactorily-challenged humans can perceive and smell delicate and wonderful new scents. So, what myriads of odours beyond our ken can be driving the natural kingdom crazy with the desire to bloom and procreate? A word of warning: this time of year can be very risky, exceedingly precarious. You may find yourself simultaneously galvanised and drained by spring fever. It’s fatally easy to overdo, as new tingling air powers you up and consequently sends you right over the top. And what comes up must infallibly come down.

 

The wonderful Iraqi Kurdish barbers who used to have a shop round the corner from me always said that at home everyone was bled in March, to drain all the corrupt and exhausted winter blood. We used to do the same in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. Should we keep some leeches in a jar downstairs at Les Senteurs? I feel that I at least could benefit from their action. Imagine the relief of drawing off all the stale air, darkness and fug of winter. It would be the corporeal equivalent of laundering one’s entire wardrobe – and the new blood would smell as sweet as a nut.

 

In spring, those old indoor smells which seemed so cosy in the frozen mid-winter now appear frowsty, drab and unclean like the miasma of a serially unmade and rumpled bed. I was rummaging around in Oxfam the other day and I found this gaudy – but very pretty – little tin box all stuck about with pink and violet sequins. When I lifted the lid, it was to find the box stuffed full of human hair. I was absolutely repelled. Such an intrusion of mortality it was, somehow; so intimate and inappropriate on a breezy fresh morning. I cannot tell whether I really smelled oil and sebum or whether it was the power of imagination; but I clapped on the glittering lid like lightning, made an excuse and left the store.

 

I remember the late Elizabeth Jane Howard comparing the odour of a greasy unwashed scurfy head to that of cheap raspberry jam. Both my grandmothers had cut glass pots with silver lids all over their dressing tables. All their contemporaries did. When the ladies had brushed their hair they would pull out the combings from the bristles and stuff them into a pot. This nosey little boy was told that this operation was for the benefit of the birds: to provide them with warm silky linings for their nests. No doubt by the 1950’s this was so. I have since read, however, that in the days when every woman had (infrequently washed) hair to her waist, the combings were collected to be eventually woven into false fronts, falls and the like. These would augment those elaborate nineteenth century coiffures – and of course match their owners’ hair colour and texture perfectly.

 

In our own day of wash-and-go thrice-daily showering all this can seem a bit grubby. Hair can smell quite wonderful – and erotic, too. But we’ve come to think that hair – like everything else to do with our persons and our daily routines – needs always to be squeaky clean to be found attractive. A less than pristine smell nowadays is evidence of the loathly Beast in Man. Especially hair, which is all too akin to fur and the growth of which is therefore encouraged only upon the human head.  Maybe this is why – in the niche sector at least – “dirty” animalic perfumes are currently so perversely popular. It’s a natural reaction to all the disinfecting. Les Senteurs customers go mad for MUSC TONKIN, SALOME and the more advanced and spectacular ouds in our collect.

 

For the less uninhibited, we have some gorgeous hair products to tempt you. Girls who model themselves on Snow White and Rose Red should try the following delectable duo. CARNAL FLOWER Hair Mist creates the illusion that you are crowned with invisible tuberoses. The spicy rosy raptures of PORTRAIT OF A LADY are now available in an oil for both body and hair. And all those who long to lay their weary heads on a pillow of rose buds should invest in a flacon of DANS MON LIT linen spray.

 

In her later years my grandmother produced a curious little rose gold ring which had belonged to her own mother. It looked like a decayed tooth, really – a fragment of shadowy convex glass surrounded by black and crumbling seed pearls. It was worn almost to pieces. It was said to contain human hair, presumably that of my four great aunts and uncles who had died in infancy. My mother had a horror of the thing: she said it was extremely unlucky to preserve hair. I have the ring still. Sometimes I wonder – if it should finally crack from side to side and the web fly wide – just what smells from 150 years ago would emerge…