“Peace and quiet is for libraries” – Bette Davis

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Peace Rose

 

Last Remembrance Sunday Our Vicar talked about Peace. She told us about a class of school children who had been asked to write down what Peace might smell like. No one mentioned the now outmoded rose of that name, so popular in gardens of my youth; but one infant had volunteered a bouquet of flowers. Other suggestions included vanilla ice cream, fresh laundry, cinnamon and pop corn.

With Advent now upon us we might all play this little game. I didn’t thrill to any of the above suggestions. For me they are all redolent of comfort, nurture, relaxation and gratification of the senses. No harm in that. Perhaps that’s how most of us define Peace: precious moments of switching off, and a spot of more or less innocent self-indulgence. But clean linen and food scents don’t conjure Peace for me. Not Peace as opposed to war; or divine heavenly Peace; or internal emotional Peace. Bond No.9 perfumes used to make a fragrance called The Scent of Peace – probably they still do. The packaging was designed around a Picasso-style dove and I recall the fragrance as being rather of the crisp, cool aquatic type with a nip maybe of blackcurrant and tea. I thought it a bit numb and vague, actually.

Because, for me, Peace smells of nothing at all. It’s a freedom from all stimulation, including the sensory; a cessation of all the excitement of the perfume cabinet, the scent shop and the sample. It’s as Mrs Patrick Campbell said of marriage – the exchanging of “the hurly-burly of the chaise longue for the deep, deep peace of the double bed”. All passion spent. If I was pressurised to give a sensual attribute to Peace it would be tactile rather than olfactory. Possibly I’m still thinking of that eponymous rose, but I feel Peace would likely be similar to the touch of thick creamy velvet – smooth and having the coolness of petals. But, simultaneously, also healthily firm, well-sprung and grounded. Colour-wise, always in shades of white.

White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

J.M. Barrie, like countless others, found a kind of Peace wreathed in the smoky silky brown arms of his Lady Nicotine. “A cigarette – well, it’s like a little friend” someone once said to me, rather tragically I thought. I am lately entranced by vapes, and more especially by vape shops. Suddenly these exotic boutiques seem to be everywhere: the only place to be. I haven’t yet indulged but I look on in wonder. I don’t quite understand vapes yet, and that’s the state of fascination I like best. A little bit of mystery preserved¤.

I must tell you of my vape epiphany. It was an absolute pig of a day – icy rain and it never got light. I was in Richmond, hobbling up a side street in the murk and sodden gloom. Like Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise, I had my salad lunch by me in a string bag. I wondered how our forefathers coped with the old choking London fogs. My father well remembered them from his student days in the late ’40’s; Piccadilly and St James’s cloaked in thick yellow-grey filth. I came by a little shop set rather back from the road. It was like a store in a dream: the Sheep’s shop in “Alice”, or Mrs Corry’s establishment in the “Mary Poppins” books. (D’you remember Mrs Corry? Too frightening for the movie, I guess, she has barley-sugar fingers which she snaps off for children to eat).

I peered through the window and saw only clouds of mist. The door flew open and two gentlemen emerged like Seraphim, absolutely enveloped in perfumed steam and sweet vapours. The grey day was suddenly psychedelic with colour and fragrance: it was a vision from the Arabian Nights; a folk memory of the Temple of Solomon. Warm odours of caramel, grapefruit, chocolate, cherry, strawberry, tobacco, vanilla, pineapple and peach filled the air and rolled up the hill towards those roads aptly named Paradise and Mount Ararat.

Magical! Absolutely. Because so unexpected, do you see? Peaceful? Not exactly, but a vision of another world. Those departing customers put me in mind of the four mythical houris who are said to be made respectively of amber, camphor, saffron and musk. And  of course, at the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation, we shouldn’t forget the ancient Native American concept of Smoking the Pipe of Peace.

Peace to You All!

¤ like the very best sort of perfume. Or friendship.

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Nasty Smells

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Because the olfactory sense is a safety mechanism to alert us to danger, the memory of a really bad pong can last a lifetime. Twenty years ago I went off to explore the middle east, spending the first night in the beautiful port of Aqaba, as blue as a Hockney swimming pool, on the Red Sea. As we tourists were then going into Syria we were rigorously chaperoned, with a good deal of luggage checking. When I retrieved my case to get on the Damascus ‘bus I all too soon became aware that the handle was now the source of a most appallling smell: something dead and rotten was smeared on it. Exactly what or how I could never tell; but of course it was impossible to remove, or appeared to be so. Hot water, soap, salt scrubs, perfume went only so far – talk about Lady Macbeth. The horror lingered behind and below all the cleansing: out of the sweetness came forth stench. The experience to some extent poisoned the whole expedition; and when I later became very ill indeed after a dish of humous at Aleppo, the infection seemed somehow to have more to do with the now much-swabbed suitcase than the chickpeas.

Many of us conduct infant experiments with water and rose petals. Aged maybe four, I took apart a plastic bracelet of multi-coloured flowers (remember “pop-beads”?) and floated them artistically in a screw-top jam jar of water which I put on the nursery shelf, enchanted by the effect. Now, whether I added something else I do not now know, but I do recall being shocked and repelled by the nauseating stagnant smell when this piece of juvenile conceptual art was revisited some time later. And here’s an apercu I spared you in Valentine’s week:
“The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man – its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath”. ¤

Our ancestors, of course, believed that evil smells indicated demonic presence. Some of us can certainly pick up the foxy sharp smell of fear; and I think that occasional inexplicable aversions to places and people may be explained by emanations that we do not logically comprehend or even consciously smell but which are detected if not fully interpreted by our limbic systems. My mother had a superstitious – or was it? – dread of cut flowers that lasted too long in a vase. She believed that this indicated the presence of death; and said that flowers in a room where someone had died would flourish indefinitely.

When I get hyper-stressed I smell burned toast or crispy bacon, my head seems full of it. If you look on-line you’ll see this is a well-known phenomenon and the most fevered even frightening explanations are given for it. I have got used to it now after some ten years and have stopped constantly throwing open the kitchen windows. Besides, I was always told as a child that charred toast helps to develop a beautiful singing voice.

"Narzisse" by Martin Hirtreiter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narzisse.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Narzisse.jpg

“Narzisse” by Martin Hirtreiter

But let’s end on an upbeat note: what of the loveliest smells? The Book of Revelations reports St John’s vision of “four and twenty elders…having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints…”. I shall always remember the billows of a sublime silvery oud shimmering from two Middle Eastern ladies in the Fortnum and Mason lift – the scent of angels in black veils. On a more prosaic level, having just bought two more bunches of early daffodils in the supermarket – (now carefully positioned well away from the onions & Chinese veg: did you read that tommy-rot?) – I am minded to ask whether you can beat the greeny gassy honey gold of these bitter-sweet pollen-spilling trumpets?

¤ Jose Ortega y Gasset, died 1955 – just as Lemon Wedge arrived.

Be My Valentine?

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What’s one of the very nicest things you can buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day?

“Perfume” I hear you murmur, with quiet confidence. Quite right.

I’ll tell you why.

Perfume smells lovelier than store-boughten flowers which nowadays seem to have sacrificed scent for gorgeousness of colour and immensity of size.

It will smell even more delicious than a fine dining experience or a designer box of chocs; and fragrance carries none the concomitant risks to health and fitness.

And it lasts so much, much longer than either of the above. You always get your money’s worth with scent; besides which, you can personalise it in witty and exquisite ways.

Look, I’ll show you:

To make a successful gift of perfume you have to give a lot of yourself and that is always the best gift of all. You need to plan your purchase to fit your loved one as snugly as a pair of hand-made shoes. Get into his (or her) head – take a tour around his personality and choose a scent accordingly. Staff at Les Senteurs are always happy to help you translate ideas into actions if you need a little assistance.

Think laterally: consider, say, your partner’s favourite movie, colour or flower and pick a perfume to reflect that. If you were going down the cinematic route you might choose a fragrance notably worn or inspired by your inamorata’s favourite star ( Frederic Malle & Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower with Candice Bergen in mind; Catherine Deneuve was Francis Kurkdjian’s inspiration for Lumiere Noire). Or you could select a perfume worn in a much-loved film. Think of Norma Desmond’s tuberoses in Sunset Boulevard or Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille in The Scent of a Woman. If you wept over Titanic, then track down a scent that was captivating the world in 1912. We have several such treasures – cast your eye and nose over the great Houses of Houbigant, Grossmith and, once again, the inevitable and unique Caron.

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Candice Bergen in Carnal Knowledge

Matching flowers is easy to do, but so romantic and adorable if you take the trouble to discover what she really loves: we have luscious rose perfumes of all types ( dark, dewy, spicy, fruity, innocent, lascivious, smoky, waxy ); but Les Senteurs also holds captive the most beautiful examples of gardenia, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, magnolia and orange blossom. A married gentlemen may like to remember what his wife carried in her bridal bouquet and match those blooms in fragrance. Ladies, you can do the same with your husband’s boutonniere or the favourite plants he cultivates for the garden show. Don’t forget: men love flowers too.

A rose that's perfect for men and women.

A rose that’s perfect for men and women.

Now I mentioned colour which may surprise some of you. I don’t mean the colour of the packaging or the bottle (though this may play its part). I’m talking about a factor that’s rather more subtle. By and large, if a person likes brilliant, strong vibrant hues then that individual will go for expressive rich perfumes too. Contrary wise, admirers of white, beige, cream and pastels will tend to prefer lighter airier fragrances. So consider the colours your beloved wears, the shades your lover paints his rooms and let your instinct guide you like a bee to the honey.

Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

Nothing stimulates memory like the sense of smell so another cute idea would be to conjure up thoughts of a special time you have enjoyed together and celebrate it in scent. If the earth moved for you, try Nu_Be’s explosive and elemental dawn-of-the-universe fragrances. Recreate a day at the sea; an ocean voyage; a holiday in Havana, Istanbul, London, China or Morocco; an evening at the ballet. Or, more modestly, an afternoon in the vegetable garden, a shared creamcake, a romantic breakfast – even the wicked intimacy of a shared cigarette. “O Jerry don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”
Getting the idea? Choosing a romantic gift should and can be such a pleasure: and I think I can promise that the more you enjoy the selection, the more delight the chosen perfume will give to the recipient.

Happy Valentines from all at LES SENTEURS!

Autumn: In Your Garden

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Autumn is full of excitement. This morning I was setting spring bulbs again and unearthed a huge mother toad in her burrow under the peony. (The peony that let me down, last summer: maybe the plant does not like the toad). The toad was pale yellow and fast asleep until I so rudely awoke her: she blinked at me like an old pug. I tucked her up again under the warm damp soil and leaves; and planted the Queen of the Night tulips in another spot. No wonder people used to think toads such witchy creatures. She was in exactly the same place twelve months ago: it must be her favourite nest and I shall not disturb her a third time. The whole garden has an invigorating fertile humus smell in this limpid late sun: there’s still the green bitter caper-tang of late-flowering self-seeded nasturtiums, pruned lavender and transplanted herbs in my new Medea patch. Especially fragrant is the delicious helichrsyum (“spirals of gold”) – the silver-leaved curry plant which to me smells more like bacon mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next year I shall plant it among the tomatoes for an explosion of savoury scent. What must surely be the last rose of 2014 is in fat pink bud beneath the wall.

Because round here we all shop at Wilkinsons the same horticultural novelties from that store tend to appear in all the local gardens. This autumn many of us have had a go at growing black sunflowers. Not actually black at all, these beauties are multicoloured in deep violet and bronze, copper and gold with leaves that look as though covered in dark verdigris. They glow in the sunlight and have a unexpected and delicious fragrance, reminiscent of cinnamon, dust, nutmeg and gingerbread. Here’s yet another flower that is all too often written off as scentless – along with the under-rated perfumed pleasures of petunias, daffodils, scarlet runners, iris and snowdrops.

The fallen apples don’t lie long enough to moulder and only a few neighbours have the pleasure of fermenting waspy pears and plums. I missed the wasps this year: there were hardly any despite all that heat. The gathered apples are safely indoors, laid on newspaper on trays and filling the dining room with a rich fruity earthy odour that is also curiously oily. In that terrible winter of sugar riots and power cuts (1971, I think) I slept in a house that came alive after dark. The husband, Crippen-like, shovelled coal in the shallow cellar so that the hall filled with bitter coal dust. The wife boiled up chutney: so much chutney! Night after night the sweet and sour vinegary currant and sultana sugar smells wafted hotly beneath my bedroom door, making my mouth drool involuntarily and setting my teeth slightly on edge.

Soon the great boilings of the orange marmalade season will be here; the pickling of onions has begun. A crisp sweet onion scented with pepper corns and a few cloves is an irresistible delicacy. I met a lady at the bus stop in a state of great indignation: one of our best-known supermarkets had told her there was “no call” for white vinegar these days. My old childhood friend Mrs Sarson used to tell my mother that if you peel onions on your knees, holding the bowl of a spoon in your mouth then your eyes will not water. Mrs Sarson was a great pickler and her husband went to his reward eating an onion. She said, ‘He sat there with the jar on his knee looking up at the sky. I says to him, do you think you’re going up there? And then he did..’

There are worse ways to go.

Caron Cocktail

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I don’t know about you, but the recent hot weather has left me craving a scent that’s exuberantly floral. Something cool and white and petally to spray liberally of an evening, after a tepid bath or a cold shower & before the first sundowner. A perfume to calm the fever of heat and complement one’s loosest linen slops, bleached out and soft by constant launderings. This is really the only time of year when it’s permissible to spray fragrance on your easy-wash clothes, knowing they’ll be back in the Bendix and up on the line again in a couple of hours.

Tiare, gardenia and magnolia are all perfect on a langourous summer evening but I’ve been really knocked for six – and not for the first time – by Caron’s 1933 stunner FLEURS DE ROCAILLE. Isn’t it interesting how perfume crushes go in cycles? I’ve been in and out of this one for the past thirty years at least. Maybe not one of the cult Carons, FLEURS is one of the easier to wear. In its day it was as influential and significant as Tabac Blond or Narcisse Noir, letting in light, sunshine and air to a perfume public stifled and oppressed by world recession and Depression. FLEURS DE ROCAILLE was the olfactory equivalent of Jean Harlow’s blindingly monochrome cut-on-the-bias satin; Crawford’s dazzlingly crisp ruffles and the ubiquitous Syrie Maugham cream decor of everyone’s new drawing room. And it’s not just stylish, its witty & fun – in the style of Beatrice Lillie’s surrealist telephone connection via two lilies.

A dazzling whoosh of aldehydes makes the initial hit smell like a foam of iced champagne cascading from a celebratory Nebuchadnezzar. Roses, violets, ylang ylang, lilac and muguet de bois pop pop pop in the pale gold bubbles like wedding confetti while underneath lies a damp green darkness of oakmoss and woods. Maybe the heady signature musk helps to brings out the alcoholic accord, too: Caron had been expert at creating the illusion since their gorgeous 1923 bath essence Royal Bain de Champagne. And here’s a thing: a couple of years ago I blew £1.00 on a bottle of Musk and had been fooling around with it when a visitor called and complained of the smell of flat stale champagne in the apartment. What can I say?

And there’s the hint of another scent in FLEURS DE ROCAILLE, too: a lovely Swedish girl once put her finger on it – “pigs!” she said. “Nice clean pigs!”: the sort of animals, all bathed and scrubbed, that Marie Antoinette might have herded on blue ribbons at the Trianon. It is this audacious whiff of the animalic that gives FLEURS its unique and unforgettable fascination: delicate fairytale flowers in a well-manured, very urban, rockery.

ATT15710Meanwhile I’ve had the rare chance to smell the flower that inspired Frederic Malle’s EAU DE MAGNOLIA: a huge grandifloria bloom the size of a Sevres soup bowl has opened in a neighbour’s garden and overhangs the pavement like Goblin Market fruit. I keep going to have another inhalation: very strange and fascinating, like green lemons rubbed on a metal grater but with an additional curious backnote which is as disconcerting as those pigs but less attractive. It’s as though the citrus is cupped in old dry plastic, a cracked basin from the back of the cupboard – or one of those plastic water beakers we gnawed at school. Truth is stranger than fiction: Editions de Parfums have retained and developed the lovely hesperidics – but wisely left the plastic accord for Mother Nature’s personal use.

Breathe Deeply: 100 Scents you need to smell…


Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Everyone loves a list.

Here is my own riposte to all those endless ‘must do’s’ – 100 things to see/read/eat before you die – always so popular in the Bank Holiday Newspapers.

Yet so many of those recommended experiences are curiously passive, depressingly automatic: they involve buying a ticket, taking out a subscription, visiting some sort of restaurant, theatre or other place of entertainment. “You pays your money & you takes your choice”. A bit lifeless, maybe? 

Smells are different. They are trickier to seek out; they take you by surprise at unexpected moments; they rocket you across time and space; they resist control or manipulation. With smell you must take your pleasures where you find them.

Most of the following scents are delicious; some are startling. A few are revolting but arresting. Only one I have not yet smelled…

Even as I write, reports are coming in from Australia that the Duchess of Cambridge ‘recoiled’ at the smell of a koala: the eucalyptus oil comes out through the koala’s pores, you see, intensified by its own natural odour. Smells never fail to amaze: if you let them.

Tell us what you think of this list.

Here we go:

Box… & phlox: pink & white phlox was introduced into Europe by the Empress Josephine – a hot white peppery scent; the smell of childhood.

Phox: directgardening.com

Phox: directgardening.com

A new bar of soap

A traditional eau de cologne

Orange peel & marmalade

Clean sheets – laid up in lavender or simply air dried.

Fresh cut spring grass

Cowslips

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Pigs

The silk lining of a vintage fur coat

Apple blossom

New books: hardback &  limp edition smell quite different.

New Books: radionorthland.org

New Books: radionorthland.org

Chanel No 5 – it changes all the time like so many classics. Our wonderful Sarah McCartney,  recently smelled the 1929 version: curiously like Lux soapflakes.

Jasmine – in a pot, in the garden or on the streets of Damascus. 

The hills of home – that indefinable smell of your native air. I can smell Leicester coming a mile off.

Lilac

Ether

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Fried onions

Russian airports – once redolent of over-ripe apples, cigarettes & petrol. Have they changed ?

Toast

A glasshouse of ripening tomatoes

Sweet peas – which is lovelier? The colour or the perfume?

White sugar – a nasty smell. Used to make me feel quite sick as a child.

Tom cats

Tomcat - Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Tomcat – Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Hyacinths – though to some they smell of tom cats.

Scarlet geraniums – more properly called pelargoniums but you know the plant I mean.

Christmas and Easter – something indefinable in the air. Unmistakable, impossible to pin-point.

Privet hedges

Shalimar by Guerlain- at least in its glory days. See Chanel No 5, above.

Suede gloves

Vinegar

The sea

Icy iron – an iron railing with a hard January frost on it.

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Horseradish – the hotter the better.

Honeysuckle

Lily of the valley

A convent chapel – inner cleanliness.

Prison – I have yet to smell this and trust I never shall; but the awful miasma is something that everyone who has been banged up infallibly mentions.

New shoes

Ripe pineapples – warm fragrant golden sweetness. 

Bluebells & wild garlic

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons


Backstage – of any theatre.

Syringa on a June evening.

Olive oil

Snuffed candles – in the second they are extinguished; hot wax & burned wick.

Rosemary, lavender, thyme – the glory of the herb patch.

Cocoa butter

Fear –  a sour, foxy reek.

Jonquils in a sunny beeswax-polished hallway.

Camomile – though not camomile tea.

Bacon, coffee; cigarettes at the moment of lighting: all notoriously smelling better than they taste.

Coffee and cigarettes

Coffee and cigarettes

A gardenia + a magnolia flower – often talked about; seldom experienced for real.

An iris bed in bloom: the flowers DO have a scent, an unforgettable smell.

Daffodils

Laburnum 

Stargazer lilies

Hot tar

Indian basil

Creosote

Narcisse Noir de Caron

Guelder rose –  that gorgeous vibernum shrub reminiscent of expensive vanilla & peach ice cream.

Broad bean flowers

Methylated spirits

Tuberose

Vanilla pods

Gorse – coconut frosted with sea salt in May sunshine.

Incense

Lemons –  like the sweet peas, the colour and scent are mutually enhancing.

Clove pinks

Fresh oysters on ice

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Celery 

Nail polish remover

Hot custard

Marlene’s hands, 1972 – covered in Youth Dew

Linseed oil

Violets

Bonfires – in small doses

A well-soaked sherry trifle

Rain

Marigolds

New potatoes boiling with mint

“Iles Flottantes” – that exquisite delicacy first tasted at a French service station. 

Steaming hen mash

Kaolin & morphia

A rose

Sealing wax 

Newly washed hair

Hot mince pies

The bitterness of poppies

Scalding hot tea

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Linden blossom

The inside of handbags

Myrtle – always a cutting in a royal bride’s bouquet.

Raspberries

Anything from LES SENTEURS….

Les Senteurs - Seymour Pl

Les Senteurs – Seymour Place

Spring Lamb

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One of my more sympathetic correspondents – a regular reader – texted me this morning to say that she was motoring into the Cotswolds take lunch at The Lamb at Burford. What a lovely April day out! And how many memories this brought back, though I’ve not put a foot through the door since 1959. My father had an old friend who farmed locally and consequently we occasionally drove down for a meeting at The Lamb. For a great treat we once stayed the night. The farmer was a Parson Woodforde figure: he weighed in excess of 30 stone and when he dined chez lui he would have his housekeeper roast two joints of fragrant home-raised lamb. One for his guests and one for himself. Whenever I smell rosemary for remembrance – “Pray you love, remember!” – I think of these feasts.

It was in the dark saloon bar (or possibly the Residents’ Lounge) of The Lamb that I first met Miss Twine, a rich and elderly heiress who wore an item of clothing quite new to me: a small & squashy black velvet hat with a spotted net veil above a very wide and lavishly carmined mouth. I was about two, I suppose, and was presented to Miss Twine to be inspected and admired as she sipped her Bristol Cream. The veil rather foxed me and had to be explained away: not a deformity but a fashion accessory. I remember the warm scent of abundant face powder on her huge soft face, the syrupy luscious sherry and fumes of something which I imagine was a Caron, Coty or Weil masterpiece sprayed generously over the furs and other upholstery of her person.

The final visit to The Lamb was marred by a faux pas on the part of my younger brother. I don’t know what had happened to the roast lamb that day but we lunched at the hotel. The farmer joined us; both my parents were there too, and my grandmother, fragrant in her signature Blue Grass which sat so well with her Players cigarettes. We forget how children notice everything: nearly 60 years later I remember a certain froideur in the atmosphere. My grandmother was an advocate of healthy eating: maybe the obesity upset her. I don’t know.

But possibly it was this slight tension which caused the subsequent disaster. We ordered shepherd’s pie, made in those days with mutton. I can smell that, too: rather dry and grey, like minced up india rubbers. There seemed to be no gravy. We sat on great carved wooden chairs, rather low; I somehow managed to reach the table, but my brother had to be perched on cushions. We never got to the pudding: I can’t remember who noticed first but we suddenly became aware of a great spreading pool beneath my brother’s chair. The cushions were sodden. All I recall after that was my grandmother’s whispered “I think we should leave – now…” And so we did, me enthralled by the drama.

And oddly enough I’ve never tasted a shepherd’s pie since: it’s always been cottage pie, the beef variant. Smells nicer, tastes better. Besides where do you get mutton these days? But ah! The stinging fragrance of capers and creamy onion sauce. Another story, entirely.