At the turn of the year… Pt 1

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I bought a delicious Mizensir candle to brighten the home this Christmas. Foret de Roses smells like the bower of the Sleeping Beauty – garlands of heavy velvety crimson roses blossoming in a dark wood, rambling across an earthy mossy forest floor and throwing green tendrils against a turret wall. A bit of seasonal magic. It’s been my refuge against the warm winds constantly banging and buffeting around the East Midlands, smelling not of the soft refreshing rain which seldom came, but of damp and moisture, like half-dried laundry. Then the freeze set in and the roses had a second flowering, blooming like wine-red snow crystals.

My other reliable comfort is, as you know, is a good read. I found the cult thriller “Gone Girl” at Oxfam just before Christmas so, having been told at the library that there was a 3 month waiting list, I snapped it up with relish. Now I’m only glad I didn’t pay full retail: here’s a book with a bad smell to it and not only in its unsparing lists of chewing gum, stale beer, carry-out polystyrene coffee, cheese fritos and endless bodily secretions and effluvia. Maybe the authorial intention is satirical but – to use an old fashioned phrase – I found the whole tone of the novel objectionable and it’s not a volume I shall keep on my shelves: it can return to the nothingness from which it came. As in the past with tarot cards, a ouija board and terrible fake movie star biographies I feel happier with it out of the house. So what next? I’ve got the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary from the library – flatulence, halitosis, herbal tea, stewed apple and Bavarian ozone. A wonderful friend has sent me Defoe’s ”Roxana”; and my brother needs help with a talk for the bi-centenary of Waterloo.

Colourful details, he asks for. I tell him about Napoleon’s prodigious use of Farina cologne, exhausting a couple of bottles a day, a true perfume alcoholic. He and his Marshals had it packaged in slender flasks which they slid down inside their glassily polished boots so that they could carry scent with them – “Globe Trotter”-style – to the ends of occupied Europe. The Emperor was rubbed down, washed and massaged in cologne, as were Louis XIV and James 1 before him: monarchs who, cat-like, avoided water while still intent on keeping themselves nice. Though, as we know, Napoleon notoriously preferred his inamoratae on the grubby unbathed side, despite – or because of – his two empresses running up huge perfumery bills chez Lubin and Rance.

The other, more gruesome, thing I always remember about Waterloo is the business of the teeth. Thousands of dead young soldiers lay unburied on the battlefield for weeks while enterprising ghouls pillaged their corpses for sound healthy teenage teeth which kept international dentists supplied with denture material for the next 40 years.

Christmas – like scent – is all about memories. This year we saw the last of Billie Whitelaw – who once played Josephine to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in a 70’s tv series I recall being shot on tiny box sets almost entirely in shades of mauve and green. Mandy Rice Davies’s obituaries were illustrated with cut-out- and-keep photos of an unbelievably poised teenager (18 then was today’s 40) striding into court in the summer of ’63 as fresh and fragrant as her petalled hat. And we said goodbye to dressy tennis champion Dorothy Cheney aged 98 who leaves us on a most apposite note:

“The girls today don’t look like girls when they’re on the court… For me there’s never too much perfume or lace!”

A very happy and healthy New Year to You All!

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Vanilla

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When I was young, no one had much time for vanilla. To most of us it meant no more than a boring flavour of anaemic ice cream, the one that was always available once the strawberry and chocolate had run out or proved too expensive. People came out of confectionery shops with their faces on the floor: “They only had vanilla…”. My grandmother had a horror of food colourings or flavourings (poisonous) so we never experimented with vanillin, and vanilla pods were unheard of in our neck of the woods. My father’s interest in puddings was as a test for alcoholism. To see someone refuse dessert was a sure sign that person had a drinking problem, as certain as a vampire recoiling from garlic. “They can’t stand the sweetness!”

So we missed out on a lot of erudition and amusement: vanilla is a fascinating substance, chock-full of romance. Of course it has a justified reputation as an aphrodisiac, and as we’re all grown ups I’ll remind you of one of the reasons why. It’s the fruit of a species of orchid, bearing green and white flowers: the two words “vanilla” and “orchid” derive from the Latin and Greek words respectively for the female and male genitalia. This is on account of the intrinsically suggestive shapes of the plant, and something to remember when you’re lighting Mizensir‘s delicious Orchidee Chocolat candle. The ancient Mexicans prized vanilla, whisking it with chocolate and chili (though not sugar) to a cold foaming drink served to royalty and the gods to stimulate their appetites. Imported to Europe, it was sold at vast price to inflame rakes and courtesans, something in the style of modern Viagra. Modern scientists established that it contains a molecule very similar to that found in human milk: no wonder then that vanilla is a comfort food par excellence, stimulating thoughts of the nursery, the kitchen, animal warmth and nurturing protective snug love.

What excites me, too, is the reflection that vanilla is one of the oldest plants on the planet, a link between us and the dinosaurs. We are smelling a blossom at which a Stegosaurus might have snuffed in the Cretaceous period 30 million years ago. What a mind-expanding thought is that! Dinosaurs lived in a terrain very different to ours: flowers were only just beginning to evolve during the Cretaceous. Frederic Malle’s Jurassic Flower is a delicious anachronism. No grass; few deciduous trees, but rather palms, ferns, horsetails and the like. Dragonflies the size of swallows buzzing about. And then, this extraordinary evolution of dinosaurs into birds: when I look at my budgie – especially into his little blue eyes – I can see how an erect biped like a Tyrannosaurus might well have gone down this route, given enough time. However I find it very hard to imagine the horned Triceratops or the tortoise-like Anklyosaurus mutating to become airborne. But through all these vast changes, the eventual arrival of Man and the birth of civilisation, the vanilla orchid has remained constant, our living link with Eden. Pretty heady stuff.

Vanilla’s reign in modern perfumery is but a moment in time, dating from 1925 when Guerlain made vanillin such an exaggerated and successful feature of Shalimar. Now it warms, softens and expands florals, sweetens gourmands and takes the spotlight as a solo performer. Often confused with tonka (another plant derivative) vanilla is darker, smokier, far less sweet. It’s easy to study in the raw: buy a packet of pods and inhale. And then you can infuse them in anything, from coffee to custards. Keep one in the sugar jar, the tea tin or the biccie barrel. They last for ages and having been steeped in cream or other liquids can be washed, dried and used again.

E. Coudray do a brace of contrasting vanilla perfumes. Vanille et Coco is almost maddeningly gooey-sweet, incorporating coconut, amber and sticky fruits; but it has a gorgeous golden greed and voluptuousness which in a certain mood can hit the spot exactly. Its stately sister Ambre et Vanille is more restrained, though hot with iris, heliotrope and marigold, spices and woods. Villoresi’s Teint de Neige has its own cult following: a gauzy gossamer cloud of jasmine, white roses and sifted powdery vanilla icing sugar. The quintessence of soft and romantic femininity, an Edwardian glass dressing table cascading with lace, glace ribbon and goffered muslin. Pierre Guillaume is the niche king of sophisticated gourmanderie, so vanilla fanciers should inspect his Parfumerie General and Huitieme Art with method and enthusiasm. Don’t miss Creed‘s luxurious Sublime Vanille; and we end with the grand finale of Mona di Orio’s resplendent Vanille, a French galleon sailing out of Guadeloupe or Martinique, laden with bitter oranges and a whole plantation of vanilla pods perfuming the trade winds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Eau d’Italie at the Scent Salon

On Thursday night, we played host to Marina Sersale and Sebastian Alveraz Murena of Eau d’Italie. We were treated to a history of the Le Sirenuse hotel, which Marina’s father, Paolo, founded in 1951. Paolo was the Marchesi of Positano – he ran the town with the local Priest, and they enjoyed eating, drinking and playing cards together. Then we were taken on a tour of the fragrances, and also Italy itself – which has inspired all of the scents in the collection.

The family decided they should do something special to celebrate the 50th anniversary the hotel in Positano. The idea of a fragrance was brought up, and so they decided to create the scent of Le Sirenuse. They gave themselves a few rules in the development of the scent: to make it original, and they didn’t want it to be full of lemon and citrus as it is a cliché of Italian fragrance. Working with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, they created Eau d’Italie taking inspiration from the ideas of sun on the skin, warmed terracota, the shrub that grows on the cliffs, incense from the church, and the salty sea breeze.

The next scent they created with Bertrand, thanks to the success of the first fragrance, was Paestum Rose. Inspired by an ancient Necropolis in Paestum, the birthplace of Italian perfumery, they took Turkish rose, spiked the opening with pepper and coriander, and gave it a dark and woody feeling, from woods and resins.

Sienne L’Hiver & Bois D’Ombrie were described as two takes on the same theme. Both of them to evoke the end of the year in Italy: Sienne L’Hiver (Winter in Sienna) is subtly earthy, a smoky and dark fragrance, given coolness from it’s violet leaf note and a surprising depth from black olives! Bertrand Duchaufour reportedly considers this fragrance his masterpiece.

Bois D’Ombrie is an autumnal scent, inspired by the exapnsive woods and forests of Umbria: it has a powdery facet from iris, warmth from leather, and green woody notes such as vetiver and patchouli.

Magnolia Romana was inspired by the magnolia trees that grow around Rome’s Villa Borghese. Marina and Sebastian said, and quite rightly, that very few fragrances really do smell of the magnolia in full bloom. The magnolia in Rome blooms in June, and the scent around the Villa Borghese is said to be truly incredible.

Baume du Doge was created for Venice: the gateway to the tradesmen of the East. The Doge of Venice was an elected official that held office for life, and Baume du Doge translates as balm of the Doge. As the gateway to the East, Venice was the centre of the spice and aromatic trade in Italy and most of Europe, and thus it contains spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom and saffron, as well as incense, myrrh and benzoin.

Au Lac was inspired by a love affair around Lake Maggiore, between the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni and Princess Vittoria Colonna, many of their meetings taking place in the beautiful garden on the island. Centred around Osmanthus, they wanted the scent to be bright and fresh, like the waters of the lake – it opens with water lily and bitter orange, drying to a beautiful jasmine and musky-ambery warmth. This was the first time they worked with a different perfumer, Alberto Morillas. The departure from Bertrand Duchaufour was due to a desire to use some captive molecules from Firmenich that leave a beautiful sillage, without making a perfume too strong to wear. They collaborated without knowing who the perfumer was until the end result, so they wouldn’t be influenced by previous creations of the same perfumer.

Jardin du Poete was again created by Bertrand Duchaufour. Marina and Sebastian finally desired to create a fragrance with the typically Italian notes: citrus. But a frustration to many people that wear citrus fragrances is their shortlived nature, which is a technical problem caused by citrus notes: they are small molecules which evaporate quickly. Inspired by Sicily, when it was a Greek colony: Syracuse, full of aromatic plants and citrus trees. Bitter orange is extended with angelica, pepper, vetiver and musk.

Finally, Sebastian and Marina introduced their new fragrance! Un Bateau Pour Capri celebrates the 60th Anniversary of Le Sirenuse. In it’s hayday of the 50s and 60s, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor taking a Riva speedboat to Capri, looking incredibly glamorous and of course, smelling divine! The notes include peony, freesia, peach, jasmine sambac, rosa centifolia, heliotrop, solar woods, cedarwood and musk. It is a softly fruity and powdery floral, with a hint of a sea breeze, and the feeling of the sun beating down on you. It will be the first Eau de Parfum from Eau d’Italie, and was created by perfumer Jacques Cavallier.

We’d like to thank Sebastian and Marina very much for their company – and are very much looking forward to next time we see them! Ciao!

Images supplied by Eau d’Italie