Cake or Pastry?


“If the people have no bread then let them eat cake”. How that apocryphal royal recommendation dominated my childhood. My grandmother thought that Marie Antoinette had come out with it completely straight-faced, dumb blonde style: a Rococo Marilyn Monroe trying to be helpful. The diminutive droll, Charlie Drake (big on ’60’s tv), took it up as his catchphrase, even making a little song of it, as perhaps my older readers may remember. How mad was that? We know the Queen never actually said it, yet – strange but true – Marie Antoinette’s nutty advice now has a new resonance: if you look at the supermarket shelves you’ll see that cake is often the cheaper these days. Slabs of Battenberg, railway fruit loaf, angel cake and boxes of garish fondants come in at well under the price of a large sliced loaf.

Now why? Cake has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. It once used to be rather common, a dish to treat servants and the lower middle classes, eschewed by ladies and served stale to children when some of the richness was thought to have burned off (as calories are said to fall out of broken biscuits). Regency slang for “daft”, it later became the Mitford nickname for the late Queen Mother, apparently on account of that great lady’s enthusiasm for wedding cake. Rasputin’s assassins tried to poison him with tiny cream cakes, playing on greed like that of a mad dog. Today cake is the order of the day: cook books, tv shows, coffee shops all breast the recession with the cult of cooking – and more importantly, eating – Cake.

Cake is comforting and it satisfies with fats and sucrose; I have a sweet tooth myself but the modern store-boughten gateau is often quite overpoweringly inedibly sweet. Is this an act of infantilised defiance in an austerity society where health and health-foods are constantly preached? Baking is  a miniature act of creation and much emphasis is placed on the “look”; often there seems more emphasis on the filling, icing, colour and decoration than on the cake itself.  All the goods in the shop-window, as it were. One might theoretically get just as much of a kick (and more nutrition) from bread-making, but this is a less showy art. One cook I spoke to thinks we’re seeing a deeply guilty pleasure dressed up and disguised as an art form: animal greed masked by deft decoration. A sociologist might regard the phenonemon as ritualised obsessive self-loathing; compulsive baking, prettifying and eating of something which does the body no good and which can only lead to the most despised and dreaded affliction of the neurotic Western world: weight gain. Hence the obsession with “soggy bottoms” I guess.

It’s hardly coincidental that gourmand perfumes are booming again: ice creams, fruits, citrus coupes and above all patisserie. This is a trend in scent that goes right back to that black cherry and almond mood at the back of L’Heure Bleue a century ago, and the Guerlains’ love of vanilla. Sometimes the foodie note appears almost accidentally, not evident to every nose: I’m thinking for instance of the smell of lemon drizzle cake in Songes, Goutal’s cornucopia of tropical flowers. Or the ginger biscuits at the heart of Love in Black, the powdered icing sugar of Teint de Neige, the candied pineapple in Une Crime Exotique. Cakey perfumes which appear comforting and innocent are by definition deeply sexy in intention: the wearer is proposing herself as a dainty dish to devour, despoiled and wolfed down with the fragile raspberry meringue of Brulure de Rose or the dripping melted butter (so sticky and tactile) of Jeux de Peau. And gourmand scents are increasingly accessible to men; the feral tiger’s tea in Fougere Bengale, the sacrasol and Flemish pastries of the latest Malle, Dries Van Noten, and the smoky toffee bonfire of Aomassai. All reminiscent of that ultimate compliment paid to a bonny baby,”I could eat him!”

Talk about having your cake and eating it…No danger of piling on the pounds with these, just the teasing of the senses and the flirting with naughty urges promoted by that close relationship between memory, nose and tongue.  Some gourmand fanciers even claim that these fragrances satisfy forbidden appetites; others find they stimulate the desire for sugar melting on the lips, and not only vicariously on the skin. Maybe the scents are more fully satisfying than the cakes: they certainly last longer and leave nothing on the hips. All in the mind: and this where we came in – a fantasy world of cakie-baking, as at Marie Antoinette’s toy hamlet at Trianon. Playing at shepherdess and poultrymaid in couture gauze; patting out cheeses and butter in a Sevres china dairy. All the beguiling accoutrements and a great appearance of productive activity but finally just a delicious illusion.”

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“I like tired people”

As is well known, Marilyn Monroe wore Chanel No 5 to bed: what do you wear in yours? Garbo wore men’s pyjamas and retired at 6: the maid’s last job before leaving at 4pm was to disconnect the telephone.

Perfume goes wonderfully well with beds, langour, torpor, snoozing and sleep. One thinks of fairytale princesses and ancient heroes, King Arthur and Sleeping Beauty,The Seven Sleepers and Snow White, lulled into death-like sleep by magic drugs and perfumes “poppy and mandragora and all the drowsy syrups of the world”. (What a brilliant perfume name was Opium..). And in the kingdom of Morpheus, dreams drift in the Valley of Sleep: those that enter via the Gates of Horn will come true; those passing through the Gates of Ivory are pure fantasy.  Do you dream about smell and scent? In colour or black and white?

There is nothing nicer than a soak in a long hot bath and a hair wash, followed by clean night clothes in a crisp white linen bed: and then a spray of scent as you prop yourself up against the Siberian goosedown pillows with a new book. Perfume is wonderful in bed, it relaxes and feels magnificently sybaritic. A sparkling hesperidic cologne feels perfect in warm weather, clean and clear and soothing – something like Acqua di Genova which is soft besides citric, petally with orange blossom and a touch of sandalwood. And it has that faint suggestion of a fine silky talcum powder which I love. Maybe it is that association which also makes sweet powdery perfumes great at bedtime: atavistic memories of babyhood, warmth and total wraparound security. Then in colder weather, something more exotic…a rich floral or oriental. Or a golden crystallised gourmand: one of Pierre Guillaume’s beauties, maybe, Aomassai or Tonkamande. All the “luxe et volupte” of sugared almonds and praline but no crumbs in the bed.
And a wonderful sensation of slaked desire.

In my store days, we used to spend hectic Saturday afternoons fantasising about this routine. One woman used to have a special weekend dressing-gown laid out on the hot pipes against her return: a scalding bath, layers of Bronnley’s White Iris or Fern; then scrambled eggs with mayonnaise on a tray. I remember coming down the tube escalators one filthy wet December evening behind two exhausted girls. One was chanting her comfort-mantra. “When I get home I’m going to off every bit of makeup, cover myself in Fracas body cream and put on those pink cashmere pyjamas…”

Bed can be a great place to try out samples of that scent you are thinking of buying. You are washed and clean and in your right mind; at ease with life and ready to analyse a new perfume. Remember to wait a while for your skin to regain its normal temperature and for the natural oils to start flowing again before you apply. This ensures that you won’t get that slight brief burny sensation on the skin from the alchohol, and also allows your skin to reflect the perfume more exactly. The only danger that I have found with the years is that sleeping in a new scent can desensitise the nose to it by the following morning. I am then in the position (which we all know and dread) of having a favourite new scent and unable to smell it: the brain is so relaxed by the agreeable odour that the nose switches off. But, that’s only my personal reaction: I can still sleep very happily in old favourites and find them on the pillow when the alarm goes off.

The professors of the new Sleep Hygiene might possibly object on the grounds of perfume being stimulating (and so to be put on the Bedroom Index, along with alchohol, computers, tv and reading in bed) but for most of us perfume at night is a tranquillising experience, one to be encouraged and relished.

And what do you wear while you are getting up next day? Now while that may sound too precious or over-refined a question, this really is the time for those scintillating light colognes and eaux de toilettes – “dressing colognes”, we used to call them. Bright, delicate impressions of scent that wake up your senses, refresh the body and prepare you for a day’s work before you graduate to something heavier after lunch. Frederic Malle‘s Angeliques Sous La Pluie, Cologne Bigarade, Guerlain’s Eau Imperiale, and Creed‘s Bois de Cedrat just film the skin and hair with notes of citrus, fresh air, morning gardens and herbs – leaving a discreet trail as of expensive soap and crystal water. Spray them while you wash and dress; spritz them on newly washed hair. For myself, I always reach for a fragrance before I even boil the kettle for the first cup of tea: it lifts the spirits for the coming fray. And then I start planning what to wear tonight…